The Champion Problem

by Hayley Masi / August 22, 2017

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This episode serves as a timely reminder that having cemented the left of the Labour Party into the leadership, our work is far from over. 1375 words / 6 min read

At first glance of The Sun on the 10th of August, it seemed business as usual for Britain’s premier hate rag: flagrantly, overtly racist content, on this occasion in the form of an article couched in concern for white working class girls. Horrifying, but consistent with their usual output. However a closer look revealed the byline – Sarah Champion MP. Not only an MP, a Labour MP. Not only a Labour MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, appointed by Jeremy Corbyn.

The next day, when asked about the article in an interview, Corbyn’s response was disappointing – he backed Champion and her work as an MP, albeit in the vaguest of terms. Shortly after, Trevor Kavanagh cited Champion’s original piece in a column for the Sun, in which he called Muslims a “specific, rather than a cultural problem” and concluded with the chilling question; “what will we do about The Muslim Problem?”. Kavanagh’s piece was roundly condemned with Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, penning an open letter condemning the fascist overtones of the column signed by over 100 cross-party politicians, including – rather confusingly – Sarah Champion. Further distancing herself from the whole affair, Champion claimed that The Sun had stripped her words of nuance; a claim immediately rebutted by the paper, with its representatives stating that the only element of the final piece Champion had been unhappy with was the byline picture. A mere day later, Champion had announced her resignation, citing her “extremely poor” choice of words in the article.

Before we get into what to make of this, as members of the broader left and supporters of the Corbyn project, I’d like to take a closer look at elements of the article itself, because some of the language contained - and avoided - therein is even more troubling than the headline implies.

…we need to deal with them as such, not shy away from doing the right thing by fearing being called a racist

First, there is the uncritical parroting of the oft-repeated line that front-line workers were unable to act faster or more effectively to fight grooming gangs because of the fear of being labelled as racist. When we consider this assertion critically, it is fair to say that the well documented institutionalised racism of the U.K police force makes this unlikely to have been a genuine fear. Is this, after all, not the same institution that was found in 2015 to have stopped and searched black people up to 17.5 times more often than white people in some areas? The same institution that oversaw the death of the unarmed Rashan Charles just a few weeks ago? Whilst Labour’s full throated support for the police is a long standing issue, it is in situations such as these that it becomes of greatest concern, throwing the limitations of organising within the Party into sharp relief. Sarah Champion’s repetition of this dubious, racist excuse for the failure of the police to protect vulnerable girls is unacceptable from any leftist point of view, regardless.

Our children deserve better.

This is the closing line of Champion’s diatribe, but the phrase ‘our children’ is repeated elsewhere in the article. The dark connotations of this language scarcely need breaking down, and it is not hyperbolic to point out that this sentence is a hair’s breadth from being outright fascist rhetoric; it is heavily reminiscent of the infamous fourteen words. We need not even ask to whose children Sarah refers. There are serious questions to be asked when the words of a Labour front bencher are barely indistinguishable from those of a neo-Nazi – and though this may seem dramatic, note that Champion’s words were endorsed on Twitter by two of Britain’s most influential and hard-line right wing voices – the YouTube personality Paul Joseph Watson, and none other than EDL founder Tommy Robinson. Trevor Kavanagh’s subsequent use of the phrase “the Muslim Problem” mirrors Nazi terminology even more brazenly.

The piece is notable also for the analysis it does not contain – Champion, the first female MP for Rotherham, does not once mention class, or indeed misogyny. It is at the intersection of these axes of oppression where danger lies for many victims of grooming gangs. These were working class girls, seen as disposable by their abusers. More crucially, this view was, and is, shared by the institutions that were tasked with protecting them – the 2014 Jay Report into the Rotherham scandal noted that these girls had been described as “prostitutes”, engaging in “life choices”, and “beyond control”. It would of course be laughable to suggest that The Sun cares about women as a political group – even more so to suggest that it’s on the side of the working class, no matter its transparent protestations to the contrary. It would be laughable again to entertain the idea that Sarah Champion did not know of the Sun’s long history of misogyny, that she did not know about the paper’s well documented smear campaign against the working class, most famously the victims of the Hillsborough disaster. And even if we ignore that The Sun is a catastrophically flawed vessel through which to wax lyrical about protecting working class children (white or otherwise), the suggestion that it was race, and not social class, that lead to these girls being failed time and again, is to engage in the erasure of their stories. Ultimately, the whole issue showed that we could not have hoped for Sarah Champion to be a reliable advocate for women or equality if she is unable – or unwilling – to factor in any kind of class analysis to her work.

So, what does this mean for the Corbyn project? Even factoring in the suggestion that Corbyn and his team had not seen the article when he was first asked to comment on it, his initial response was undeniably hugely disappointing. Where in the past his steadfast refusal to pander to the worst instincts of the British media has been a huge draw for many of us, here we saw the kind of vague equivocating that switches so many people off from Westminster politics in general. This neutrality in the face of the creeping normalisation of fascist rhetoric is not good enough from any politician, and it is certainly not good enough from one in whom so much hope has been invested. Though this remains true, it is worth considering that - although the news cycle often makes a day feel like a week - Sarah Champion was gone from her post within six days of the publication of the article. This fact gives rise to hope that this is not a fatal error for the Corbyn project. Even so, this is likely to have been a moral red line for many people. Those who now believe that the Labour Party is beyond salvation are not being unreasonable to now choose to organise outside of the Party entirely; equally, Champion’s fairly swift departure - a likely result of grassroots pressure – may be reason to believe that we might salvage it yet.

Ultimately, this episode serves as a timely reminder that having cemented the left of the Labour Party into the leadership, our work is far from over. Though the residual election high makes complacency easy, we still have a great deal of work to do to reform this historically imperialist institution. It also behoves us, as the broader left, to maintain criticality when engaging with parliamentary politics – it would be all too easy otherwise to lose sight of our actual political goals. Pressure must be maintained constantly to continue to shift the window of discussion – and the Labour Party itself – radically leftwards. After all, why else are we doing this? We cannot build a movement that scores political points by throwing minorities under the bus, and this project is worth nothing if it cannot hence offer safety, and unwavering advocacy, to those vulnerable to xenophobia and racism.

Correction: an original version of this piece stated that Corbyn’s interview took place “days after” the Champion article was published, this has been amended to reflect that the interview in fact took place the day after the article was published