From racism to Gaza, Starmer's Labour fails its Black voters

From racism to Gaza, Starmer's Labour fails its Black voters
7 min read
24 Oct, 2023
This Black History Month, the Labour Party continues to treat Black voters as an afterthought, from the treatment of MP Diane Abbott to pushing out young progressive BAME candidates, writes Richard Sudan.
Historically a loyal segment of Labour's voter base, Black voters are increasingly disillusioned with the party, which has failed to take meaningful steps to tackle systemic racism. [Getty]

On the 1st of October, to celebrate the start of Black History Month in the UK, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer took to social media writing:

“Black history is British history. Our diversity is one of our greatest strengths.” He went on to add, “My Labour government will introduce a Race Equality Act to tackle structural racial inequalities.”

At surface level, Starmer’s tweet may appear as nothing out of the ordinary.

But if you’ve been paying attention over the last few years, Starmer’s obligatory lukewarm nod to Black History Month, while dangling the mysterious Race Equality Act in front of the Black community, is at best tone deaf and at worst deeply cynical. Here’s why.

Despite hyping it up since 2020, and with a possible general election looming in spring, we still have little to no idea exactly what the proposed Race Equality Act will look like and therefore what, if anything, will make the manifesto. 

"Tackling systemic racism demands more than opaque soundbites and repeating the promise of a so-called race equality to the Black community"

Despite Labour being pressed on the finer details of the potential legislation, the party has remained evasive.

For a loyal voter base such as the UK’s Black community, which has traditionally always voted Labour, this is, to say the least, unacceptable. Black communities should not be an afterthought to a party which has always depended on them.

In 2023, Black communities still suffer at the sharper end of racial disparities evidenced in policing, housing, healthcare, education and so on.

Labour’s Shadow Women and Equalities minister Annaliese Dodds just days ago at a conference pledged to “finish the job” of tackling systemic racism. That’s an interesting choice of words given that most Black people think it’s a job that was never really started.

Tackling systemic racism demands more than opaque soundbites and repeating the promise of a so-called race equality to the Black community.

It requires a clear plan, which, importantly, can be demonstrated to Black voters. So far, this hasn’t happened, nor does it look like it will happen anytime soon.

Labour’s lack of a meaningful, substantive plan on tackling racism is alarmingly consistent with the party’s peculiar treatment of the UK’s first Black female MP, the trailblazer Diane Abbott.

Six months ago, Diane Abbott wrote a letter in which she said that, while Irish, Jewish and Traveller people "undoubtedly experience prejudice", they have not faced racism all their lives.

She was wrong to do so. But while she was rightly held to account, as any member of parliament should be, it’s also true that although badly expressed, Abbott’s point was not to diminish the experiences of other groups, but to highlight the uniqueness of anti-Black racism.

No community has experienced racism in the same way Black people have, globally. It’s a history, which has created specific conditions requiring specific attention and, importantly, a plan.

The point here is that Abbott, a lifelong anti-racism campaigner, held her hands up and took responsibility for her ill-judged words.

Given Abbott’s track record, and, if internal party processes really worked and were designed to be impartial and fair, Abbott’s apology should have been the end of the matter, and her suspension lifted.  

But, five months later, the so-called investigation into Abbott continues. It looks designed to continue for perpetuity, long enough to essentially block Abbott from standing as MP for Hackney at the next election, which could be as early as spring.

Abbott remains exiled from a party which claims to care about the Black community and inclusivity – all while its leadership see fit to tweet about Black History Month.

The treatment of Abbott is abhorrent. And the optics are terrible. The country’s first Black female MP, who has endured racism like no other politician, is being treated with total contempt by Labour.

What makes the horrendous treatment of Abbot even worse is the fact that several other Labour figures have made terrible racist comments – including anti-Black and anti-Semitic slurs – but have been either swiftly readmitted to the party, or forgiven entirely with no punishment.

Interestingly, in each case, those quickly forgiven are white men, who are certainly not on the left of the party and whom some might describe as strong Starmer allies.

"Many of us feel, put simply, that [Diane] Abbott does not have the right complexion for protection"

Darren Rodwell, who made blatant anti-Black comments while on stage at a Black history month event last year was quickly forgiven and remains the Labour parliamentary candidate in Barking.

Labour MP Neil Coyle was suspended in March this year after making racist comments to a British-Chinese journalist in 2022, but was quickly reinstated as an MP in May.

Labour MP Steve Reed accused a Jewish businessman of being a ‘puppet master’ in 2020, repeating a dangerous anti-Semitic trope. But he was forgiven after nothing more than a simple apology.

Barry Sheerman made a ‘silver shekels’ jibe back in 2020 in reference to two Jewish businessmen. Sheerman apologised and kept the seat he has held since 1979.

While Abbott’s comments are regrettable, they do not compare to the above examples. She did not throw direct insults. In this context, the attack against her seems politically motivated. Similarly, the ‘investigation’ is yet to conclude 6 months on. 

Many of us feel, put simply, that Abbott does not have the right complexion for protection.

Of course, the treatment of Abbott is consistent with what many now view as a purge by Labour to get rid of those on the left of the party, including Black and progressive candidates.

To add salt to the wound, the past two weeks have seen 23 Labour councillors resign over Starmers blanket endorsement of Israel as it continues to indiscriminately bomb Gaza, killing more than 4,600 Palestinians including 2,000 children so far. 

Shaista Aziz and Amar Latif left Oxford council because Starmer is seen to be supporting “the collective punishment” of the people of Gaza while on Wednesday two more Labour councillors quit the Nottinghamshire council.

Amna Abdullatif, Manchester City’s first Arab woman councillor also quit her role in outrage while Young Labour’s BAME officer Lubaba Khalid, a Black Palestinian woman, also resigned from the party over Starmer’s stance on Israel.

The party is not just out of step with its Black voter base but its Muslim base as well.

Black voters, who have the power to decide election outcomes in key marginal seats, are wise to Labour’s antics.

A recent poll conducted by The Voice newspaper suggested that 80% of Black voters could switch from Labour if Abbott is kicked out.

They are also aware that there has been no proper response to the landmark Forde report, which exposed a culture of racism within the party.

If Labour keeps taking Black voters for granted, and if they underestimate solidarity felt towards Diane Abbott, it could cost them at the ballot box.

It’s no secret that large sections of the party, including sections on the left as well as centre, have always viewed Black self-determination as a hindrance to class struggle or as an obstacle to the direction of the party.

"If Labour keeps taking Black voters for granted, and if they underestimate solidarity felt towards Diane Abbott, it could cost them at the ballot box"

Labour’s gamble might be that they’ll secure enough Black votes to push Starmer over the finish line without having to deliver for Black communities. They could be right. But the wrong bet could also backfire.

There is still time for Labour to lose this election, despite polling suggesting it’s in the bag.  Black voters who contributed mightily to making the party what it is today are watching closely.  We want the Tories gone, yes.

But the stakes are too high for people to hand over their votes for nothing in return.

Richard Sudan is a journalist and writer specialising in anti-racism and has reported on various human rights issues from around the world. His writing has been published by The Guardian, Independent, The Voice and many others.

Follow him on Twitter: @richardsudan

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.