Around Britain, Labour Party

Abuse of women and ethnic minorities in public life

Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington, asks how Labour can be trusted to tackle racism when our own house is not in order.

Ever since the first imposition of austerity in 2010 there has been a deliberate attempt by successive Tory-led governments to whip up racism. There should be no doubt that this government will double down on those policies as they preside over and deepen the worst fall in living standards in modern history.

Therefore, it is important to be proportionate in relation to issues such as the abuse of women and Black and Asian people in public life. We are not being deported to Rwanda or put on a deportation flight to Jamaica, not yet anyway. And we are not being shot dead in the street while unarmed.

The same strictures apply to the findings of the Forde Report, even if many of us feel that the Report pulled its punches. The abuse of women and minorities in public life in Britain is not the most serious issue facing us, nor the most lethal either.

But it does matter, for two reasons. First, there is a spectrum of behaviour that runs from tolerating abuse, to turning a blind eye, to shrugging your shoulders when British citizens are deported, up to physically carrying out racist or misogynistic attacks. The tiny minority of people who commit such vile acts can feel enabled by all other categories of racism and sexism, or by those who tolerate it.

Secondly, there is a specific issue regarding the Labour Party. This is not so much about our electoral prospects and the fact that many people feel disenchanted by the party leadership’s refusal to clean its own house on these issues. More fundamental is the question of Labour values; what the Labour Party stands for.

Apart from a minority of outright careerists, most people join the Labour Party because they are progressive. They are anti-Tory, pro-worker and rely on public services. They believe in fairness.

Of course, racism and misogyny are the opposite of fairness. Most Labour members abhor them for good reason. Taken together, it may also be the case that women and ethnic minorities form the bulk of the membership. It is certainly where we draw most of our support.

It is a striking fact that the gender gap in our vote was 8% in 2019, with many more women voting Labour than men. Standing up for women and for ethnic minorities is the right thing to do. They are our people.

That is why the content of the Forde Report matters, and why the leadership’s response to it is so reprehensible. I was one of 250 co-signatories of an open letter to Keir Starmer, calling on the leader to apologise for the racism directed at black MPs from party HQ staff, which was exposed in the report. That apology and any serious action to combat the actual abuse highlighted in the Report has not been forthcoming.

Forde himself found that paid, full-time officials used “expressions of visceral disgust, drawing (consciously or otherwise) on racist tropes, and they bear little resemblance to the criticisms of white male MPs elsewhere in the messages”.

The people responsible have not been disciplined or fired, as they would be in most private sector organisations. Many of them continue to work for the Party, paid for by members’ subs and affiliates’ support.

There is an argument which claims that most people are preoccupied with making ends meet and have barely heard of the Report. The former is certainly true and the second possibly so.  But these points are true of many issues. Yet we do not bury them.

As this government flails, and attacks everything from the right to strike, to the judiciary, to the Good Friday Agreement and all types of citizens’ rights, Labour must do two things. The first is to offer a clear, progressive alternative. The second is to build trust that we will implement that alternative and stand up for ordinary people.

Pretending that the Forde Report never happened can only undermine that.

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