Keir Starmer, your party has a whole new race problem

The Madina Masjid in Mount Pleasant, Batley. Image: Asian Sunday

JVL Introduction

In a model of calculated understatement, Aditya Chakrabortty writes that “Labour is never as good on racism as it thinks.”

During the Batley & Spen campaign Anneliese Dodds and Angela Rayner were quick to condemn a Labour official who tarred all Muslims with an antisemitic brush.

But after Leadbetter scraped her victory they were at it again – happy to slander Muslim voters in return for winning prejudiced white working class voters back from the Tories.

As Chakrabortty puts it, Labour’s new “red wall” strategy seems to amount this: “prejudice from some white voters amounts to ‘legitimate concerns’ to be pandered to; prejudice from some Asian Muslim voters is used to tar an entire community.”

The party chose the same moment to lift Trevor Philips’ suspension over Islamophobia without any apparent investigation or apology.

Chakrabortty can see no sign that Starmer’s team is even trying to counter the current Tory project. Instead, it seems to be choosing a path towards both political and moral disaster…


This article was originally published by the Guardian on Wed 7 Jul 2021. Read the original here.

Keir Starmer, your party has a whole new race problem

In a pivot towards its lost ‘red wall’, Labour is letting Islamophobia go unchecked. As a tactic, it can only fail

Three weeks ago, Keir Starmer seemed to be heading for another byelection humiliation and a senior Labour official told the Mail on Sunday why. “We’re haemorrhaging votes among Muslim voters, and the reason for that is what Keir has been doing on antisemitism,” the unnamed strategist said. “There’s been a backlash among certain sections of the community.” The Muslims of Batley and Spen were apparently so giddy with hatred of Jews that they couldn’t even vote straight.

Outrage ensued. The party censured the statement and hastily announced an investigation into its source. Then came the sequel.

Last Friday, within hours of Kim Leadbeater scraping home in the West Yorkshire constituency, yet another of Labour’s reserve army of anonymously toxic officials boasted to the Times: “Basically built a new electoral coalition in six weeks. Lost the conservative Muslim vote over gay rights and Palestine, and won back a lot of 2019 Tory voters.” So this is apparently Labour’s new “red wall” playbook: prejudice from some white voters amounts to “legitimate concerns” to be pandered to; prejudice from some Asian Muslim voters is used to tar an entire community. Fans of Nigel Farage must be wooed back into the red corner, while supporters of his old mucker George Galloway are to be castigated for disloyalty.

Once may be a gaffe; twice is becoming a habit. The comments to the Times reappeared in the Guardian and all over social media, except this time the party made no apology. To the best of my knowledge, it was only when I raised the remarks with Labour that it officially condemned them. Just a few years after Jeremy Corbyn so disastrously dealt with Jewish complaints about antisemitism, his successor is fast developing a new race problem.

Even as Starmer bemoaned the campaign’s “toxic atmosphere”, his staffers were telling the press that Muslims were united in their bigotry. This is to ignore, say, last month’s open letter from local Muslim women berating “a loud minority” of men, who “have plagued our area as ‘community leaders’”.

Labour representatives blew these dogwhistles in a byelection where no fewer than three far-right parties were competing ­– with Jayda Fransen, only recently out of jail for hate crimes against Muslims, standing as an independent candidate. Labour claimed to be campaigning in the name of Jo Cox, Leadbeater’s sister, who was shot and stabbed to death in the same constituency during the Brexit referendum by a far-right terrorist intoning “Britain First”. Among the last things the MP had been working on was a report into violence against Muslims, yet five years later senior employees of her party were in the business of blaming Muslims.

Meanwhile, back at party HQ, managers found time to readmit Trevor Phillips as a member after his suspension over Islamophobia last year. Phillips has claimed that British Muslims are “becoming a nation within a nation” and declared that placing a Christian girl with Muslim foster parents is “akin to child abuse”. Even while party officials are still investigating his behaviour, it appears their bosses were privately agreeing that the newly appointed Sky presenter should be welcomed back into the fold. The move has caused huge upset both within Labour and beyond. One shadow cabinet member I spoke to this week was beside themselves with anger: “It’s a mess. This party is really changing in ways I just don’t agree with.”

“A really dangerous signal,” is how Miqdaad Versi of the Muslim Council of Britain describes Phillips’ reinstatement. “If he was reinstated without due process or without apologising for the views he had expressed – even when many of these views are often heard among the far right ­– it signals that Labour accepts these views are OK.”

Labour is never as good on racism as it thinks. It is the party that brought you the “Controls on immigration” mug, and whose one-time home secretary David Blunkett warned of the danger of schools being “swamped” by the children of asylum seekers, and said that in crucial aspects the neo-fascist Pim Fortuyn was right.

The party says and does such crass things not primarily out of bigotry, but a desire to be smart. “We can afford to dump on that community,” floats the thought bubble, “because their voters have nowhere else to go, while we look more mainstream.” Yet this tactic never works, because it convinces no one. No voter in any of our 650 constituencies believes that a north London human-rights lawyer such as Starmer genuinely desires a union flag fluttering behind him every time he speaks. All it achieves is to make those values ­– whether they be soft racism or plastic patriotism ­– appear more mainstream.

After the banking crash of 2008, David Cameron and George Osborne pretended that the fault lay with Labour’s “pile of debt” – its spending on Sure Start centres and the like. It was politically cynical and economically illiterate, yet Ed Miliband’s team felt they had to go along with it, and never made a convincing case for the transformation that state investment can bring. The result has been over a decade of destruction of our public services, flatlining wages and the sour, angry, zero-sum politics we have today.

This time feels even more dangerous, the stakes far higher. Boris Johnson has a large majority and, if current polling holds, could be in power throughout a crucial decade in which a post-Brexit Britain is reconfigured. His government can appoint a Tory donor to chair the BBC, can disenfranchise young people and ethnic minorities, and can redraw electoral boundaries.

It can also set the parameters of the political conversation. And Johnson, the Tory who swallowed Farage’s vote, wants English nationalism at the heart of this hegemonic project. His will be the government that sends gunboats against the French, whose ministers claim the UK got the vaccine first (it didn’t) because it’s the best country in the world, and whose backbenchers will insist the BBC should splash flags across its corporate reports.

The traffic is never just one way, of course. As the late, great political theorist Stuart Hall observed after Margaret Thatcher, “Ideology is always contradictory.” For Thatcher that meant propounding free markets and a strong state. For Johnson it can combine populist nationalism with a cabinet that boasts Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel, Sajid Javid and Kwasi Kwarteng and a policy team at whose head sits Munira Mirza. But as Hall would have reminded us, such seemingly double-headed politics are harder to argue against.

I see no sign so far that Starmer’s team is even trying to counter the current Tory project. It commissions strategy documents that advise making “use of the [union] flag, [army] veterans [and] dressing smartly” and focusing on projecting cultural values rather than serious economic alternatives. Rather than trying to unify different groups within a common cause, it tries to play them off against each other. And it almost always fails.

The risks to the Labour party of being so empty have been much discussed. But it is high time we also considered the risks to the rest of us of having an opposition that won’t oppose those who aim to destructively remake British society; of having the main progressive political party in this country pandering to the worst kind of regressive politics. The failures we see notched up daily by Starmer’s team aren’t just political: they are moral.

  • Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist

Comments (15)

  • harry law says:

    Labour party claims about investigating the LP official denigrating Muslim voters for Starmers actions on anti Semitism I suspect will go no further than my complaint against Tony Blair and many other legitimate complaints, they will be ignored. Here are some of the lies inherent in their rules… “We hope you won’t have cause for complaint, but if you do we aim to deal with the concern in a prompt, transparent and fair manner” Below is my complaint which has gone unanswered for over two years [still waiting] would the Board of Deputies have to wait so long?
    To Labour party complaints department.
    Dear Sir/Madam,
    I made a complaint online to you on 6th June 2019 about Mr Tony Blair calling Mr Jeremy Corbyn “an Anti-Semite” I did receive an acknowledgement which said the complaint would be sent to the relevant department, could I add these observations to my complaint.
    During an interview at Bar Ilan university in Israel on 4th June 2019 Mr Tony Blair made a factually false allegation of anti-Semitism against Jeremy Corbyn. When answering a question… “if he believed Corbyn himself was Anti-Semitic, Mr Blair said yes” Mr Blair did not refer to any specific allegation of anti-Semitism against Mr Corbyn.
    A gratuitous and false accusation such as this without providing evidence is a grave breach of an ordinary person’s rights and does bring the Labour party into disrepute in breach of its own rules, it could also ostracize that person from society for life, in the case of Mr Corbyn a life time believer in anti-racism he could be forced out of his leadership and the country deprived of a Labour government, so the stakes are extremely high.
    Could Blair’s false allegation have any effect on Labour Party members or the average voter? Of course it could, because Mr Blair has a very high profile and having served as leader and Prime Minister of the Labour party for 13 years and Envoy to the Middle East quartet for many years, his views have enormous credibility, plus he is a lawyer, so he should know his words have consequences.
    Would the average voter believe Mr Blair? Yes, because of his high profile and credibility over many years people are inclined to say, why would Mr Blair tell lies? What could he possibly gain? Obviously nothing, so people would tend to believe him. Could you expedite this matter as soon as possible. Thank you.
    Harry Law.

  • steve mitchell says:

    What a disgrace. When the Right carefully planned its brutal assassination of Jeremy they obviously didn’t realise their false accusation of institutional antisemitism would rebound on Labour in this way. Now they have lost both Jewish and Muslim voters. Ending support for the Palestinians is seen as favouring the Israeli State over Muslims. No wonder the public don’t know what Labour stands for.

  • Linda says:

    A splendid article.

    Starmer almost seems to be playing his own version of political striptease – which Labour voters can I get rid of NEXT?

    Does anyone know please when the verdicts are to be announced in the legal cases against the Labour party?

  • Philip Ward says:

    This is a generally good article, but why does Aditya Chakrabortty have to join the list of left-ish Guardian journalists, like Owen Jones, Gary Younge and George Monbiot to lazily repeat the old trope about Corbyn and antisemitism, as if most of the complaints were real, rather than derived from criticism of Israel?

  • Jenny Mahimbo says:

    Years ago in 2015 I watched a film by Trevor Phillips on Channel 4 TV entitled “Things We Can’t Say About Race That Are True”. At the time I was working with young unaccompanied asylum seekers (UASC) and sexually exploited young people. I watched in horror as Phillips opined about many stereotypes being true and he reeled off a few of them – Jews are powerful; Indian women are likely to work as chemists; Romanians are likely to be pickpockets and blacks engage in violent crimes; and Muslim men are likely to sexually abuse children.

    It was a disgustingly racist piece of work. I didn’t know until recently that Phillips was even in the Labour Party. I supposed I assumed that someone with his views couldn’t possibly be a member.

    Here is an open letter that Ahmed Olayinka Sule wrote to Phillips about the film at the time:
    It says just about everything I would have wanted to say to Phillips myself.

    And now Phillips has been reinstated and in the other corner 8 Labour Party members wrongly suspended/expelled for daring to criticise the Israeli government have lost a court case to reinstate them. No doubt the Labour Party will go for maximum costs.

    I left the Labour Party because of the Iraq War, and rejoined because of Corbyn. I’ve gritted my teeth through the immigration mugs, the binning of the Forde enquiry and the report into Islamophobia inside the party, the many suspensions and expulsions, the bullying and threats aimed at me and others, including my CLP vice-chair. I was in the party during the last era of purges. I stayed in the party then, but the Iraq war was the final straw.

    As a CLP officer I’ve tried to convince members to stay in the party, that leaving achieves nothing. I say to them and myself – don’t let them bully you – stand up to them and remain in the party. Show solidarity with those wrongly victimised. I hear now that the trolls are about, already criticising Leadbeater for supporting the Palestinian cause, less than a week she was lauded for an important victory.

    And I’ve had to ask myself, with these two juxtaposed decisions this week – the reinstatement of a racist and the rejection of anti-racists – what is the point of the Labour Party now, and how can I fight racism within? By staying in the party am I legitimising it?

    I have a lot of thinking to do.

  • Les Hartop says:

    The most important thing I think we need to understand, is that Keir Starmer, and the Blairites around and behind him, are not posing with Union flags opportunistically. Like a lot of people, possibly most people, Aditya is being too hopeful and giving Starmer too much credit.

    If he thinks Starmer looks uncomfortable sitting in front of a Union flag, it’s just because he looks uncomfortable and starchy everywhere Lol

    Starmer and the right believe in patriotic flags, and will always support Tory British (and US) governments in any colonial war.

    It’s not just fear of the MSM.
    They don’t have the arguments to counter the establishment because they agree with the establishment.

    They do not believe in party policy… their instincts are not the same as ours. They believe in and quite literally represent within the Labour Party, the establishment, the army, the secret services and the partial judiciary.

    A couple of other subsidiary points on this article :-

    1 Perhaps Aditya repeated the slander about Jeremy Corbyn and antisemitism through laziness, or maybe because he didn’t want to undermine support for what he has to say here among people who had already swallowed that lie.
    Whatever the reason, neither of them are good.

    2 The article seems to attack Dodds and Rayner. Though attacking Rayner is generally acceptable these days I’m not sure now whether they actually said anything bad, or whether the writing is just not clear.

  • Brian Riches says:

    Blair’s New Labour was rightly dubbed ToryLite. Now the situation has become worse.Starmer aims to make Labour a full scale mirror image of the most right-wing Tory govt. in living memory. He has no recognition of principles or the truth. Promises to him are merely tactics. In our undemocratic electoral system, he has disenfranchised all progressive voters.

  • Not sure why JVL is promoting this article. It is a typical exercise in Guardian handwringing. Leave aside the empty headed tribute to ‘Labour anti-Semitism’.

    Chakrabortty also excuses Labour racism as being primarily opportunist. ‘The party says and does such crass things not primarily out of bigotry, but a desire to be smart.’

    Perhaps the Kenyan Asian Immigration Act of 1968 or New Labour’s hostility to asylum seekers or its abstention on the 2014 Immigration Act were also just a case of acting smart? This is just superficial and trite.

    Labour racism stems from Labour’s support historically for the Empire and currently for its support for Western imperialism and the Atlantic Alliance.

    Labour has never been an anti-racist party nor indeed much of an anti-fascist one either. The only exception to this that I can remember is setting up the Steve Lawrence Inquiry and it is doubtful if it would have done that if the Daily Mail hadn’t paved the way.

    When Poale Zion affiliated in 1920 it was a deliberate choice to sponsor the most reactionary political segment of British Jewry. Ramsey MacDonald was effusive in his support of Zionist colonisation.

    The hostility to Muslims today is all of a piece with this.

    This is a really poor article and says more about the Guardian than it does about Labour

  • James Simpson says:

    As Philip Ward has replied, I also was rather disgusted to read the author’s lie implying that Jeremy Corbyn is antisemitic. That rather invalidates the entire article. I suggest a redraft or an apology to Mr Corbyn.

  • Voirrey Faragher says:

    I would be pleased to read this were it not for the comment: “Just a few years after Jeremy Corbyn so disastrously dealt with Jewish complaints about antisemitism, his successor is fast developing a new race problem. “ How could this view be sustained by a person with insight into racism?

  • Anne says:

    I’d write to the Grauniad about the ‘miswrite’ but it never publishes pro-Corbyn letters or opinion.

  • Brian Burden says:

    As I have observed before, amending Samuel Johnson, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the Starmer.”

  • rc says:

    “No voter in any of our 650 constituencies believes that a north London human-rights lawyer such as Starmer genuinely desires a union flag fluttering behind him every time he speaks. All it achieves is to make those values ­– whether they be soft racism or plastic patriotism ­– appear more mainstream.”
    I’m a voter in Dover and I certainly believe that KS genuinely desires human rights to follow the ‘murderous foul rag’ as SF, rightly, used to call John Bull’s waistcoat… Kitchener’s symbol…Plastic patriotism slides down the slope into soft racism and soft racism hardens up pretty quickly. Brit-pop turns almost instantly into Brit-crap. Jim Callaghan of Kenyan Asians fame somehow was turned into a guarantee of Labour’s ‘anti-racism’. (I remember trying to confront him in 1968 – I had to make do with St Shirley Williams who whined “what else can we do? it’s just our voters..” The next PM – Tory Ted Heath! – showed by his Ugandan Asians policy what else the LP leadership could have done. Electoralism ill disguises a morass of opportunism – and now as strategy director, Deborah (if that political party were a biscuit, what sort of biscuit would it be?) Mattinson is well placed to make focus-group fawning on tabloids the flagship of the LP. At least she does not hide behind the officials’ excuse that ‘they can’t answer back’. Two officials are certainly ‘answering British Muslims’ back.

  • Diamond Versi says:

    I totally dispute Aditya’s assertion that “Jeremy Corbyn so disastrously dealt with Jewish complaints about antisemitism.” I agree with Philip Ward’s comment in this regard. There was a Tory and media plot to discredit JC. They vilified him throughout the time of his leadership. Unfortunately, they succeeded because the public believed their lies.

  • Richard Kuper says:

    Daniel Finn was absolutely right when he tweeted: “This article is all spot-on as far as Starmer is concerned. But the reluctance of journalists to interrogate the standard, grossly misleading narrative about how Corbyn “disastrously dealt with Jewish claims about antisemitism” helped bring us to this point.”

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