Racist, Islamophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic tropes and ideas are becoming increasing prevalent and accepted in British society. We speak of racism too often in abstract terms, and not rooted in the day to day functioning of entrenched oppressive structures and power relations. It is no secret that BAME engagement at every level within the Party is abysmal, with BAME Labour itself consistently struggling to capture the imagination of ethnic minority communities across this country, let alone enthuse them to become powerful political agents. This leadership contest, whilst between two white men, nonetheless poses vital questions about how to genuinely challenge the rising tide of hatred in this country.
Jeremy Corbyn is a lifelong anti-racism campaigner; supporting the historic activism of Black Sections as they laid the ground for the election of the first 4 Black MPs in 1987. This was all whilst Kinnock and many in the PLP spoke of how ethnic minority MPs would damage Labour’s standing in white working class communities. This short-sighted sentiment is one that depressingly mirrors much of the Labour Party’s attitudes to BAME issues today. Miliband pandered to the right on immigration at the last general election in the hope of recapturing voters in Labour heartlands only to drowned out by a chorus of Tory and UKIP promises to “close our borders”.
We need a leader who understands that Labour is not exclusively for the white working class, but for all those united under the economic and social subjugation imposed by the 1%. We must seek to dispel the idea that in order to attain electoral success we must allow the debate to take place on reactionary grounds. Accordingly, Corbyn has remained unwavering in his resolve to protecting vulnerable immigrants, reframing the political debate around immigration so that it truly reflects our socialist values. For example, Corbyn has been at pains to hold up the example of the recent Fawley oil refinery strike, where domestic workers won parity pay for their Italian and Bulgarian migrant co-workers. We must show that the solution to the problems of white workers lie in socialist policies, not pointing the finger at migrants or meekly conceding that in some parts of Britain there are “too many migrants”.
It’s not just in our policies that the unsatisfactory nature of Smith’s approach is shown. Notably, aspects of the party culture and the way the debate has been conducted demonstrate the privileged position the party affords to the concerns of white members, the views of white politicians, and the power of a largely white status quo. For example the ridiculous assertion that abuse and hatred is a new phenomenon birthed under Corbyn’s leaderships. Longstanding, complex and deep rooted racism, sexism and anti-Semitism have been exploited as a means for cheap political gain by many Smith supporters. This superficial attitude towards to entrenched racism is something I have known all too well as BAME officer for Labour Students. As a black woman I have been excluded, dismissed, degraded and often attacked for refusing to acquiesce to racist expectations that I be silent on issues affecting BAME communities. Many who rightly clamoured over one another to express deep dismay over incidences that lead to the Chakrabarti report fail to identify their hypocrisy and privilege in being able to pick and choose when racism matters, as they do when justifying Smith’s support for the state sanctioned racism of Prevent. Is it any wonder why the Labour Party is struggling to engage BAME activists, when the visibility of ethnic minorities only matter in leaflets, and are treated as suspect when vocal in defining their own oppression? In order to earn the right to be the home of ethnic minority voters, we must encourage politicians such as Corbyn, who seek to dismantle surveillance structures that aim to demonise Muslim communities.
One critique of Corbyn aimed directly at migrant and BAME communities surrounds his performance during the EU referendum. As a staunch remainer and an EU migrant, I was upset about the referendum result – but not surprised. Many communities across Britain are facing great economic hardship and rightly demand change to the socio-economic order. Therefore the leave result can be seen as emblematic of the anger and distrust towards the political establishment many Britons- including ethnic minority communities- felt. “Stronger in” failed to engage this demographic of voters to whom a leave vote represented a supposed departure from poverty. It was the responsibility of Alan Johnson to present a unique Labour message, one that highlighted the impact of Tory cuts and austerity measures in crippling the working class. Instead we lead with dubious absolutes; such as that the EU categorically guarantees workers’ rights/human rights/women’s rights. Or, indeed, that Brexit would lead to Prime Minister Boris. We, as a labour movement, too quickly forgot that our rights were won by struggle and not handed down by benevolent legal institutions.
We must therefore stop peddling the myth that Corbyn and Corbyn alone lost us the referendum, especially as most Labour voters voted to remain. In fact, his call for reform to EU structures was more in tune with the electorate and contrasts dramatically with Smith’s out of touch and opportunistic call for a second EU referendum. This wildly unpopular stances forces us to consider what is meant by Smith’s claims to “electability”. Is a person electable because craven capitulations force their good intentions into the service of a political mainstream that serves to actively disengage, disenfranchise and disillusion the electorate? Does this not typify the degradation of British politics over many decades? How can our priority be anything other than to dismantle this rotten consensus? With Jeremy Corbyn we have started down that road: let’s not turn back.
Huda is Co-Chair of SOAS LAbour and BAME Officer for Labour Students. You can follow her on @hudacabdulaziz