The Labour Party prides itself as a steadfast party of anti-racism. But despite political victories such as the Equality Act and the election of black MPs like Diane Abbott and Bernie Grant, tackling racism has not always been a fundamental principle of how our party organises. In some ways, Labour has exacerbated problems: the Islamophobia that was legitimised under New Labour, the demonisation of refugees and asylum seekers, the anti-immigrant rhetoric ratcheted up under Tony Blair, and the recent crisis over antisemitism are examples.
As it enters a new chapter under Keir Starmer, we must look reflectively on our party’s anti-racist credentials. Starmer has shown his willingness to start this journey with antisemitism. But to truly move forward we need broad, honest reflection, and much of that must come from what New Labour did in power.
As a 6-year-old, I remember the elation my parents felt when Labour won in 1997. We all thought that things were going to get better, and there was certainly a marked improvement in the lives of many. But New Labour in power came with a growing undertone of blame, and a nasty culture of demonisation was fostered against single mothers, young people, black people, and the Muslim community.
Under the guise of the ‘War on Terror’, communities were hit hard by increased police powers, draconian laws, and initiatives which criminalised innocent young Muslims. This was all accompanied by a vicious press operation by Rupert Murdoch’s pro-New Labour media fostering serious racial tensions and helped the BNP to flourish. And although my family always voted Labour, there was an enduring sense of disappointment that we were being sold out for political gain.
During the 2019 general election, much was made of Boris Johnson and his remarks about Muslim women. But it is incredibly frustrating to remember how in my youth, Labour politicians often used the same language. Tony Blair argued fervently that women who wear the veil made people feel uncomfortable. Jack Straw remarked that he would ask women to remove the veil in his surgeries, and Hazel Blears would say with a straight face how Muslims of an ‘Islamic appearance’ should expect to be racially profiled.
Labour’s Prevent strategy is another example. At its heart, Prevent was little more than the creation of a surveillance network to spy on working-class Muslim communities. There have been really extreme examples — like the cases of 8-year-olds being questioned by Prevent for misspelling the word ‘terrace’ in drawings, or other young children wearing t-shirts that police mistakenly thought were promoting ISIS.
Britain’s leading education unions have long called for Prevent’s abolition, and the Communities and Local Government Select Committee said in 2010 that it ‘stigmatised’ Muslims and damaged relations between communities and the government. Growing up, there was a constant feeling that you had to outwardly show that you were not like one of those terrorists — and the apology had to come from you. That was New Labour’s doing.
We also saw the introduction of draconian policies that attacked civil liberties. The 2006 Terrorism Act, which sought to increase the detention of people from fourteen days to ninety, was likened to apartheid in South Africa by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Although the bill was defeated by a rebel Labour motion which increased the detention period to twenty-eight days, this was a defining feature of Labour in government for me and many people who come from similar backgrounds. I remember seeing this growing up, knowing that the racial profiling of my community meant we were going to be the victims of a policy that attacked our liberties.
Islamophobia also found its way into campaign literature. In the Birmingham Hodge Hill by-election in 2004, in which Tom Watson was the campaign organiser for candidate Liam Byrne, Labour issued a leaflet with the slogan ‘Labour is on your side, the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum seekers.’ Phil Woolas’s campaign in the 2010 general election in Oldham East and Saddleworth — an area which saw massive race riots in 2001 — involved stoking up anti-Muslim hatred and gaining the ‘angry white vote’ for Labour. While many criticised Zac Goldsmith’s more recent campaign against Sadiq Khan in the 2016 mayoral elections, BAME Labour members have been met with a wall of silence when questioning the abysmal record of Labour right-wingers.
In this whipping up of hatred, asylum seekers and refugees were fair game. In 2002, David Blunkett introduced a bill to ban asylum seeking children from attending state schools and argued that they should be tagged. Blunkett also pushed right-wing media myths that ‘health tourism’ was a major problem with the NHS, and created a situation where millions of people now wholeheartedly believe that migrant communities are a burden on the NHS — rather than the corporate bloodsucking of the health system that was enabled by New Labour’s PFI schemes.
While we talk about the benefits of immigration in an economic sense now, it wasn’t always the case under New Labour. Woolas claimed that it was too easy for immigrants to come into this country. Byrne retrospectively changed the immigration rules to deport skilled migrants who did not meet new conditions that didn’t apply when people first moved to Britain. It could even be argued that this was a precursor to the Windrush scandal. And although many liberals believe that the state discrimination against people born elsewhere began under the Tories or after Brexit, Ruth Kelly made this policy perfectly clear when she instructed local councils to stop translating helpful documents into other languages.
This scratching of the surface may be awkward reading for some in our party. But it is a necessary beginning of a conversation that needs to take place about Labour’s relationship to minority communities. The Blair and Brown years were deeply unpleasant — and, at times, dangerous — for Muslims, and we need to understand the role that it played in enabling anti-Muslim racism. Many Labour activists cheered on Gordon Brown calling Gillian Duffy a ‘bigot’ for her anti-immigrant views in 2010. But did anyone stop to ask why someone who, in the same conversation, said she took pride in the fact that her father was a socialist, got those views from?
It is welcome that Keir Starmer has committed to taking the issue of antisemitism seriously, and has stated his intention to tackle racism in the party. But warm words aren’t action. Islamophobia and anti-black racism have long passed the dinner table test, and this is applicable to many Labour members too. To combat this, we need education and action. This includes building on the Race and Faith Manifesto from last year’s general election, and making sure we develop a BAME Labour that takes organising seriously.
If we are to face the challenges presented by both a confident Tory government and a pandemic which will create the conditions for the far-right to grow, we need to abandon triangulation and sit up straight with our principles. Labour needs to look back and take responsibility for helping fuel and embed racist narratives across the country. Our communities are not a heartland whose votes you can bank on while throwing us to the wolves. We deserve to be more than the Labour Party’s political football.