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No Space for Us? Race and the Labour Leadership

by Zaynah M / August 25, 2020

Image: via Keir Starmer’s Twitter

Bad New Times | Essays  }
The Labour leadership contest and Starmer’s early leadership represent a return to normality for Labour – a normality in which the votes of Black and Brown people are taken for granted. 3416 words / 14 min read

The Labour leadership races came to their agonising and inevitable conclusions, like a car crash in slow motion, with Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner becoming leader and deputy leader respectively. Jeremy Corbyn’s time as Labour leader came to an end, and with him, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott have departed from the front benches. The Corbyn-led Labour Party was unique in its offering to BAME people, especially Muslim people of colour, who had previously been shut out of mainstream politics; or rather, actively antagonised by it. Many of us have grown up in the shadows of disastrous foreign policy, which had knock-on effects on a domestic level. The Iraq war and events surrounding it, including national counter-terrorism efforts and the introduction and expansion of PREVENT, brought with them a demonisation of Muslims and an institutionalisation of Islamophobia as a means of building public supportive for increasingly repressive measures. With Corbyn’s election as leader, we saw not the usual spectacle of both mainstream parties ignoring or actively contributing to racism and Islamophobia, but those who have actually fought for us, and might do so again, at the forefront of the political mainstream. This iteration of The Labour Party was not at all actually radical, with rhetoric on increasing police funding being painted as an unmitigated positive; leaving a bad taste in one’s mouth when Black and other people of colour are oppressed and brutalised by police on a daily basis. It says a lot that, even with deeply problematic policy, this was still such a change for the party itself. Which is why I fear, as do others, that the end of the Corbyn era will mean the end of any explicit support for racial justice—the end of our short-lived respite from total hostility. These fears—that the party wishes to go back to ‘business as usual’ on race issues—were somewhat affirmed by how the leadership and deputy leadership contests played out.

In a party whose membership—like all British political parties—is overwhelmingly white, it is perhaps to be expected that race would not be a central issue of discussion for potential leaders, who are pitching to members rather than the electorate as a whole. However, the Labour Party has long been the home of the majority of BAME voters, despite its issues and its racisms. Polling in the fortnight leading up to the 2019 election showed Labour leading by a staggering 25 points amongst BAME voters. One could argue that this was simply because the Labour Party offered the better alternative—conservative ideology is inherently more hostile to people of colour. It should follow, then, that BAME members would get a fair hearing, and have their questions on the racial justice policies of prospective leaders taken seriously and answered thoughtfully.

Unfortunately, throughout the leadership hustings and rallies, this type of engagement was painfully absent, save for a few instances. In the London leadership hustings, for example, a question was asked about how Labour could do more to champion the minority communities within the membership. Answers from all three candidates—Starmer, Lisa Nandy, and Rebecca Long-Bailey—were predictably empty. With the exception of Long-Bailey’s brief reference to racialised Stop and Search practices, all three danced around the question without offering serious material proposals on how minority communities could be ‘championed’. Outside of this, for the majority of the contest serious conversations around racial justice largely did not happen. This was difficult to sit with. A new Labour leader would inherit and rely upon the support of the majority of the country’s BAME voters, apparently without offering anything to those voters in the form of discussions on race, racial justice, and the institutional structures that allow and function on concepts of oppression.

Starmer’s own institutional history as Director of Public Prosecutions was a particularly uncomfortable elephant in the room. I asked him in person about his reported role in the 2009 decision not to prosecute anyone involved in the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. Starmer responded by denying that he had anything to do with the decision—and while that was true originally in 2006, the Menezes family did not stop campaigning until 2009, after Starmer approved and re-affirmed the original decision not to prosecute. Cressida Dick, the commander of the operation in which Menezes was killed, later became Metropolitan Police Chief—despite pleas from the Menezes family—in an example of how racism and police brutality are not only institutionalised and integral to police forces, but are often actively rewarded. Starmer’s apparent inaction on police brutality towards a person of colour who was perceived to be Muslim leaves a lot to be desired. It also raises concerns about the stances he might take as leader on policy around criminal justice, counter-terrorism, and other policy areas that differentially affect Black and other people of colour. Others have noted his part in bringing the killers of Stephen Lawrence to justice, but simply doing his job at the time hardly makes him a bastion of anti-racist reform. Likewise, Starmer’s commitment to implementing the recommendations of the Lammy Review regarding racism within the criminal justice system is welcome; but his leaving anti-racist policy work entirely to BAME MPs (in this case, David Lammy) without offering any original thought or effort of his own, is disappointing—particularly given his experience at the heights of the criminal justice system.

In an event held at a Kensington masjid, Long-Bailey made a commitment to scrap PREVENT, and while it was a welcome addition to the discourse that reaffirmed her position against this racist tool of the state, it was accompanied by little other outreach throughout her campaign. Lisa Nandy’s rhetoric on immigration sometimes felt like a dogwhistle play on legitimate concerns”—the idea that voters’ qualms about immigration have been ignored, and need to be listened to—though Nandy never really offered any solid definition of what such “listening” might mean. Throughout the contest, candidates seemed keen to caveat any positive mention of immigrants. When politicians argue that the Government’s new system of immigration is bad because it might reduce the numbers of immigrants who work in health and social care, rather than because it diminishes people’s humanity, it becomes clear that, to many, a migrant’s sole worth is their labour.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric can also never avoid racist realities—that being a British national does not matter if your skin isn’t white.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric is the same no matter how much you try to dress it up or tone it down. Anti-immigrant rhetoric can also never avoid racist realities—that being a British national does not matter if your skin isn’t white. Anti-immigrant rhetoric will abuse you in the name of nationalism no matter whether you arrived here yesterday or your parents were born here. You will always be ‘other’. This is especially poignant given the current reality. Those immigrants and people of colour, who are only valuable because of where they work, now make up a large proportion of frontline staff at the highest risk of contracting Covid-19, regularly coming into contact with infected patients with inadequate personal protective equipment. Every week when people are out on their doorsteps clapping for “NHS heroes”, BAME people are dying at an alarmingly disproportionate rate with little thought given by those same clapping masses as to why, let alone any sense of injustice or outrage. Our bodies are valuable insofar as they are disposable.

Now, Starmer has launched an inquiry into the disproportionate levels of BAME deaths, headed by Doreen Lawrence. This is a welcome intervention, but it is also overdue. For a long time, Labour’s new leader seemed to be doing little more beyond clapping, demanding medals for NHS workers, and asking about “exit strategies”, rather than fighting for the lives of a significant part of his party’s base. Inquiries take time to set up; but acts of solidarity and vocal anger on our behalf coming from the top of the party do not. Despite all the gushing over his being ‘forensic’ by an emergent base seemingly made up of a pseudo-liberal pundit class, the feeling cannot be shaken that, for a time, the distressing number of deaths amongst BAME people were a small enough a detail for Starmer to overlook completely. For all the talk about winning back ‘heartlands’ and ‘communities’ that are ‘traditionally Labour’, the concerns of BAME members were largely ignored—despite the fact that the cities with larger BAME populations are themselves Labour ‘heartlands’: strongholds with majorities in the thousands because of the votes of people of colour. Given Public Health England have already released a report telling us what we already know – that BAME people are dying disproportionately, one has to question what the substance of the Labour Inquiry will be. The factors behind these deaths – institutional racism being the root, expressed in disproportionate poverty, less access to PPE than white counterparts despite being more likely, or even pressured, to be in direct contact with those with Coronavirus – have been explored and explained in numerous ways. What matters is how these facts are responded to, in policy demands and action, not for them to be rehashed repeatedly; skirting by on a ‘solidarity’ that is little more than paying lip service about problems that must be tackled in useful ways, but of which material solutions are never offered.

The few moments of productive discussion within the leadership contests came mostly from the one to which little attention was paid: the deputy leadership contest. There is some small hope that Angela Rayner’s BAME manifesto, which included the reform of currently zombie-state BAME Labour, will come to fruition now that she has won. Despite Rayner’s personal issues on race, such as comparing her being mistaken for Jess Phillips to the microaggressions to which her black women colleagues are frequently subjected, she has at least signalled her understanding that the state of BAME Labour is an important issue that needs to be addressed.

Rayner’s fellow deputy leadership candidate Dawn Butler did not shy away from discussions of racism within the Labour Party. She shared her experiences of being mistaken for a cleaner in Parliament, of being escorted out of the MPs’ tearoom by police, of having racist abuse dismissed as “banter” when she complained. It is clear that Butler has an intrinsic understanding of racisms on overt and subtle, personal and institutional levels. This, however, did not end up serving her. It may even have hindered her campaign.

Speaking about race and racism is always a potentially dangerous task in spaces dominated by whiteness. The number of people, especially white, non-Jewish people, brazenly declaring that Butler did not actually understand or wasn’t serious about racism because she chose not to sign a series of pledges from the Board of Deputies of British Jews was a grotesque display of political whiteness combined with a shallow public understanding of anti-racist politics. Whatever you think of Butler’s decision, to suggest that she, as a Black woman existing within racist structures, somehow did not have the capacity to understand institutional racism is symptomatic of the entitlement on which political whiteness is founded. Those who will only ever observe these structures from the outside, still insist that they know better.

Labour has long seemed reluctant to defend and support Black women in the party, especially if those women are of the left. After Diane Abbott dared to make a mistake during the 2017 election, likely due to the health issues which caused her to temporarily step back as Shadow Home Secretary shortly after, there were few who spoke up to defend her from the abuse that poured in on top of the regular abuse she had faced for years. The first black woman in parliament, who had put herself on the line for her party, had no one to defend her. The way in which the Labour Party has treated Abbott deserves an entire article of its own. In a similar vein, Kate Osamor was afforded little dignity when dealing with her own personal issues, even after she had already resigned from the shadow cabinet. The way Dawn Butler has been treated during her deputy leadership campaign is unsurprising, then, but it is still disappointing. Butler, out of all candidates for both leadership and deputy, had the most experience within Parliamentary and Government institutions. A Government minister under Gordon Brown, a shadow minister under Corbyn, and a member of the party’s ‘soft left’ who was loyal to—and incredibly skilled at building bridges with—the ‘hard left’, it is fair to say that she was probably overqualified for deputy leader and should, in fact, have been running for leader. She is certainly a better orator than Starmer, a more plausible ‘unity’ candidate, and comes without the baggage of Starmer’s days at CPS, stories of which are starting to trickle out into the media.

What actually happened, however, was that this extraordinarily capable and over-qualified woman was not given the support of the soft left party machine. That support was instead offered to Angela Rayner, a move which meant Butler had to push the hardest of any candidate just to get on the ballot—a feat she achieved through grassroots campaigning and CLP nominations alone, and without union backing (despite her having worked for GMB, they chose to nominate Rayner). She had to launch a crowdfunding campaign just to be able to afford to access members’ email addresses (the Labour Party charges candidates £5000 for this), and though she’d hoped to raise £15,000, ultimately raised just £5.568. Compare this to the thousands of pounds that flooded into Rayner’s campaign fund. How could she compete with that? And why was she placed at such a disadvantage.

Butler’s mistake was probably that she dared to be a black woman who discussed racism, and was sympathetic to the ‘hard left’ despite not sharing all our politics. The fact that Butler ended up coming last in the deputy leadership race suggests that much of the Labour Party wishes to be able to return to the bad old days of at best ignoring race politics, and at worst, deliberately using racism as an electoral tool. This suspicion has been reinforced by Starmer’s shadow cabinet appointments: despite the current PLP being the most diverse ever, there is a total absence of BAME MPs within the Shadow Foreign Office brief, with a Shadow Minister for the Middle East who not only voted for the Iraq war but consistently opposed any inquiry or investigation into it. Likewise, the complete lack of black ministers in the Shadow Home Office raises questions, particularly in light of the Windrush and Grenfell outrages. The work of former shadow ministers such as Bell Ribeiro-Addy seems to have been tossed aside along with any commitment to anti-imperialism. Like the bodies of minority workers after they have served their purpose of risking themselves for the white masses, these ideas are no longer useful, and therefore disposable.

The fact that Butler came last in the deputy leadership race suggests that much of the Labour Party wishes to to return to the bad old days of at best ignoring race politics, and at worst, using racism as an electoral tool.

This is not just an unfortunate by-product of a party established within white supremacist structures, but a mechanism that is overt in the entire operation of the Labour Party. The recently leaked report which uncovered a significant vein of anti-black racism and Islamophobia amongst Party staff was met with little response. The racialised abuse that black MPs regularly receive from anonymous Twitter accounts is mirrored in the contempt that was displayed by Party officials. While the Conservative party broke off relations with Douglas Murray for his comments on Islam and Muslims, James McBride, then an official with Labour’s Policy Unit, reportedly found his arguments following the 2017 Westminster attack “difficult to disagree with”. All that one can really think after revelations like this—the content of which will not have come as a complete surprise to many of us—is that it is finally confirmed that those who posture as “anti-racist” hate us just as much as those who wear their prejudices openly. We are easy votes: all that is needed is to appear less racist than the other party does for as long as it is expedient—and then we can be easily thrown to the wolves when the white vote is needed.

Starmer has launched an investigation into the report, but it seems to be more geared towards the fact that the report was leaked at all, rather than its contents. Of course, the victims of abuse named in the report should have right to privacy, and the report never should have been released without those names redacted—but the idea that whistle-blowers are more of a problem than racists in positions of influence within the party is jarring, and does little to give any reassurance that those whose racism the report exposes will actually face any consequences. This is another example of Labour trying to ignore uncomfortable truths, and hand-wringing over the smaller details rather than addressing the one big thing that, to phrase things in terms the Party might understand, could end up with you permanently alienating large swathes of your voting base.

Typically, we find this dynamic at its most obvious in the standards to which Black women MPs are being held. Both Diane Abbott and Bell Ribeiro-Addy spoke at a recent event on Zoom held by the group ‘Don’t Leave, Organise’, at which previously expelled members were in the ‘audience’. This has been wilfully misinterpreted as both women having shared a platform with these expelled members, despite these calls being open for anyone to sign up and dial in to, there being 600 people on the same call, and both Abbott and Ribeiro-Addy being unaware that expelled members would be part of the audience. Calls for their expulsion were swift, on the erroneous basis that unwittingly being in the same room as unsavoury people somehow amounts to actively promoting them—despite many Labour MPs over the years having shared platforms with racists, or even actively disseminated racist ideas. It is hard not to see the emergent pattern here: BAME MPs—and people of colour more generally—are only deemed worthy of defence when they are not left wing. Added to this, there is a clear attempt to push black women out of political spaces, using minor infringements that they may not even be aware of as excuses, surveilling every interaction they might have in hopes of catching them out.

That brief moment where we could be respected in our identities, our expertise, and our unique experiences and challenges is now presented as at best a blip, and at worst a stain on what the Party actually stands for.

Black and Brown people have long been expected to turn up to the ballot box and vote for a party that will not allow us a seat at the table, let alone support us in struggles for liberation. The emergence and mobilisation of left-wing women of colour has too often been met with abuse, threats and condescension, regardless of their experience. That brief moment where we could be respected in our identities, our expertise, and our unique experiences and challenges is now presented as at best a blip, and at worst a stain on what the Party actually stands for. Instead, we again return to an existence as the quiet supporters on the side-lines, coming out to campaign and door knock when, and only when, we are asked to do so. Speaking when we are spoken to, valued for our labour rather than our humanity. Disposable. Anti-racist work will return to being the responsibility of ‘brown faces in high places’, a performance which will replace any meaningful attempt to dismantle racisms on an institutional level. As a result of this feeling, activists of colour have felt the need, more than ever, to self-organise, with groups like Socialists of Colour emerging to fight for our liberation. Anecdotally, I will say this; I have never seen so much enthusiasm for a politician amongst disengaged, particularly young, people of colour as I did with Corbyn. So many who felt that politics would never serve them hoped that, for once, someone might be on their side. It feels now like this enthusiasm could be lost forever; Starmer has certainly not done anything to encourage or deserve it, and I’m not sure he even cares. However, Labour cannot win without us. We should demand justice in return for our votes, rather than remaining loyal and receiving nothing in return.