22 April 2021

Labour’s embrace of racialised politics is a betrayal of its own traditions

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There was a time when the Labour Party was the leading anti-discrimination force in mainstream British politics. Promoting the economic, social, and political integration of ethnic minorities, impactful race relations legislation was passed under Labour governments. The party established the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) under Tony Blair’s leadership and passed the 2010 Equality Act under Gordon Brown. The 2010 Act, designed to legally protect people from discrimination in the workplace and wider society, consolidated a set of protected characteristics which included ethnicity and religious belief. It was this steadfast commitment to anti-discrimination that made Labour my natural party. Being a British man of Bangladeshi and Indian Muslim heritage, I felt it was ‘my team’. Well, so I thought. 

As Labour’s internal structures were steadily ‘colonised’ by social-justice activists who are both tribalistic and reductionist in their worldview, the balance of emphasis within the party shifted from national cohesion to narrow identity politics. But what was especially sinister under the tragic leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, was the ascendancy of anti-capitalist tendencies within the party which sought to legitimise forms of anti-Semitism. As any sensible social democrat will tell you, aggressive forms of anti-capitalist sentiment can easily spill over into anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the financial system and various other institutions. This ultimately resulted in the EHRC finding the party responsible for three breaches of the 2010 Equality Act: political interference in anti-Semitism complaints, failure to provide adequate training to those handling anti-Semitism complaints, and harassment. Labour’s proud anti-discriminations traditions had been dragged through the mud under the destructive Corbyn experiment.

Corbyn may have gone, but the party’s indulgence of ugly racialised politics continues to be a serious problem. Sir Keir Starmer’s flagging leadership did not start off on the strongest footing, making some very questionable shadow cabinet choices – such as appointing David Lammy as Shadow Justice Secretary. Lammy has been responsible for peddling conspiracy theories over the Grenfell Tower fire, claiming that the official death toll was “far too low” and that the authorities may have deliberately under-reported the number as part of an alleged cover-up – a claim for which he had no evidence. He also attacked Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the retired Court of Appeal judge appointed to lead the Grenfell Inquiry, arguing that a “white, upper-middle-class man” should not have been appointed.

He’s far from alone in making provocative comments about race. Following the release of the report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which concluded that factors such as family dynamics and community culture have a greater impact on life chances than race alone, Labour MP Clive Lewis tweeted a picture of a Ku Klux Klan member with the caption ‘Move along. Nothing to see here #RaceReport’. You would struggle to find a finer example of the leftwing tendency to label anyone who takes a different view on these matters a bigot.

Then there was the comment in Parliament this week from Labour’s Dawn Butler. Addressing Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch (a regular target of activist opprobrium), the Brent Central MP referred to the Commission’s report in terms of “racial gatekeepers”. For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘racial gatekeeper’ refers to the idea that some non-white individuals adopt conservative policy positions in order to be “embraced” by their white peers. (Butler herself offered this explanation in a tweet after the debate). It should go without saying that suggesting non-white people only adopt conservative positions in pursuit of ‘white acceptance’ is deplorable and has no place in a multi-racial pluralistic democracy. Unfortunately Ms Butler has form when it comes to making inflammatory comments like this. Last year, for instance, she called for the Government to get its “knee off the neck of the Black, African Caribbean, Asian and minority ethnic community”.

Equally worrying was that in this week’s Commons debate Ms Butler cited work from Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu and Professor Kehinde Andrews – two of the most toxic contributors to the race-relations debate. Mos-Shogbamimu called Dr Tony Sewell – lead author of the Commission’s report – a “token black man”. Andrews once referred to Trevor Phillips, the former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, as the embodiment of the modern day Uncle Tom

While its MPs continue to make such needlessly divisive comments, Labour cannot seriously claim to be a mature political force of the British left. Too much of the party still feels like an activist organisation in thrall to a nasty, racialised politics that puts crude identitarianism above promoting harmony between different groups. That version of politics is no less than betrayal of the party’s long-held commitment to solidarity and anti-discrimination. No wonder many former Labour voters, including me, have turned their backs on a party they no longer recognise. 

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is an independent expert in social cohesion and institutional trust.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.