Labour Party

Labour’s Racial Politics

Right wing control of the party machine is allowing racism and islamophobia to flourish, argues Richard Price, Leyton and Wanstead CLP.

Labour under Keir Starmer may be 25-30% ahead in the polls but it faces a jarring mismatch between its public claims of having tackled racism and the boiling discontent of many of its minority ethnic members.

The scene was set in 2020 with the appointment of an all-white diversity panel and the least diverse Leader’s Office in a decade.

The claim made in Starmer’s conference speech that antisemitism has been ripped out “by its roots” sits alongside the astonishing statistic that Jewish members are as much as 35 times more likely than non-Jewish members to face investigation, suspension and expulsion. Chief among Starmer’s targets have been some 60 members of Jewish Voice for Labour, persecuted for their critical attitude towards the state of Israel and their support for Palestinians. The idea that Jewish socialists are disproportionately responsible for racism directed against Jews is both abhorrent and ridiculous. And the leadership seems entirely comfortable fanning the flames of hatred directed against Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, suspended before she could take her seat at the NEC.

In 2020, five letters from prominent British Palestinians to Keir Starmer asking him to address the “hostile environment” they found themselves in went unanswered.

Al Jazeera’s The Labour Files showed how entirely groundless smears of antisemitism and violence were used by party staff against left activists and it exposed the ‘hierarchy of racism’ established under Starmer. Halima Khan, a former investigations officer in Labour’s governance unit, spoke about how reports of Islamophobia “would often sit in the complaints inbox” while she was asked to work late to deal with antisemitism complaints.

Diane Abbott responded to the Forde Report by signing an open letter calling on Starmer to apologise for the racism directed at black MPs from party HQ staff. She has said that “the Labour party isn’t a safe space for black women” and accused the party of “colluding” with the appalling discriminatory language directed against her in HQ WhatsApp groups. Needless to say, no explicit apology has been made.

Liverpool has seen the purge of prominent black activists, including Anna Rothery. In Enfield in 2018, Nesil Caliskan succeeded in getting every black sitting councillor de-selected. Eminently qualified black candidates, like Maurice Mcleod in Camberwell and Peckham, are routinely blocked from longlists.

There has been no let-up in the offensive against women MPs who are black or Asian and on the left like Apsana Begum and Zarah Sultana. Diane Abbott, Dawn Butler and Kate Osamor have been ignored, and the leadership tried to block Faiza Shaheen’s selection in Chingford & Woodford Green.

But in other circumstances, the party machine is happy to work through opportunist and right wing ‘community leaders’. The same people who have harassed and persecuted Apsana Begum are said to be friends and associates of former Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs.

While left candidates have been obsessively blocked, look at some of those who have made the cut. At the height of the government meltdown in October, Labour managed to lose a council by-election in Leicester to the Tories on a 32.7% swing after it emerged that the Labour candidate was a Modi-BJP supporter. This is an area where Keith Vaz has considerable influence.Chetan Harpale, a Labour by-election candidate in Brent in January 2020, was found to have sent a string of islamophobic tweets. Two Labour MPs, Charlotte Nichols and Toby Perkins, both of whom were front benchers at the time, issued leaflets fomenting anti-gypsy/traveller/Roma prejudice.

Waltham Forest saw the most explicit institutional racism and islamophobia in its council selections, with four BAME councillors failed at interview, three of them Muslims, and 13 out of 15 Muslim new applicants also failed. This prompted a complaint from the Council of Mosques representing the borough’s 65,000 Muslims, yet the borough’s LCF officers have thus far failed to provide diversity data.

Al Jazeera’s The Labour Files graphically evidenced the collaboration between elements within the Corbyn-hating Campaign Against Antisemitism and the far right – something that activists had long suspected. One-time ally Margaret Hodge has said: “I’m fed up of CAA using antisemitism as a front to attack Labour. Time to call them out for what and who they really are. More concerned with undermining Labour than rooting out antisemitism.”

Labour cannot afford to ignore the lessons of the Iraq war, when it lost around a half of its Muslim support. Nearly two thirds of the non-white electorate voted Labour in 2019, and it takes them for granted at its peril.

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