It may not have been the best week for the country, but it has been a good one for Keir Starmer and his Labour party. Party conference, we are told, was by all accounts a triumphant affair, where even the hecklers of yesteryear were gone. Labour is leading in the polls, and if Starmer retains this advantage over the next two years, he is on his way to a coronation, vindicated in playing the long game.
But there is another side to this story of a party hitting its stride. You may have heard a lot about Islamophobia in the Tory party. But not so much, I would wager, about Islamophobia in the Labour party or racism toward Black MPs and staff. Or misogyny. Which is odd, because it has been reported by members of the party, MPs and an actual inquiry in the shape of July’s Forde report. That reality is in sharp contrast to the image of the party that leadership projects – one of zero tolerance of prejudice and fast, decisive action to enforce discipline, most recently suspending the whip from the MP Rupa Huq for comments about Kwasi Kwarteng.
The testimonies in the report are not light on detail, nor are they from junior staff. And they are all consistent in the patterns they report: receiving racist abuse, taking it to relevant parties higher up, then being summarily ignored. Ali Milani, who was a parliamentary candidate in Uxbridge and South Ruislip and has written a book about his experience, tells harrowing stories of being called a “terrorist” by Labour members in the local selection campaign, and receiving chilling hand-delivered death threats to his home. “I recall sending complaints about such behaviour and activity to the legal and governance unit (GLU),” he says, only “to be met with silence for over 13 months.”
Despite his experience, Milani was still shocked when the Forde report came out, with its detail of “underlying racism and sexism” in WhatsApp exchanges between the party’s “most senior staff”, and party members explicitly “spelling out their experiences of discrimination – racism, Islamophobia, sexism – in constituency parties and in party processes”.
What happened? Broadly, nothing. Diane Abbott, whom the report said was the subject of exchanges that expressed “visceral disgust, drawing (consciously or otherwise) on racist tropes, which bear little resemblance to the criticisms of white male MPs elsewhere in the messages”, received not even an apology from party leadership for what she describes as “sustained racist abuse”. The report foreshadowed its own reception in the party, which it said failed to treat complaints “with the urgency and sensitivity they deserved”.
This is an experience familiar to Apsana Begum, the MP for Poplar and Limehouse in east London. Begum tells me that she has spent the first year and a half of her tenure after being elected in 2019 battling claims of housing fraud triggered by her ex-husband’s brother-in law and a Conservative councillor. During the case, Begum claimed that she was in the dock because she was a survivor of domestic abuse, including coercive control and financial abuse – allegations her ex-husband denied. Nevertheless she cleared her name in crown court.
But that wasn’t the end, she says, because allegedly her ex-husband, a former Tower Hamlets councillor, and his friends within the Labour party waged a relentless campaign for her “not to remain in her seat”, allegations that are denied. She alleges that she was so harassed and intimidated at the local party level that she was signed off sick. During her leave, members of the local party, who she claims were goaded, voted to start a trigger ballot, meaning that she is to fight a reselection battle.
She tells me how in her view the leadership “failed to intervene in the trigger ballot process”. Complaints have been made to the party’s headquarters about disruption and intimidation and harassment towards women, but the process is ongoing. Begum says she has written to Labour’s general secretary, David Evans, saying she is “seeking advice and considering taking legal action”.
Begum – the UK’s first hijab-wearing MP – attributes her treatment to a combination of racism and misogyny, but also senior Labour lack of interest at best, and active bias at worst, in the case of an MP from the left of the party. Pivoting away from this flank of Labour means that younger brown and Black members tend to be sidelined, as demonstrated in the dismantling earlier this year of the party’s community organising unit, one of the most diverse teams that existed in the Labour party.
But it feels like there is something else going on. There is a strange amnesty that is extended to the Labour party, or this Labour party, when it comes to allegations of prejudice towards people of colour and Muslims in general by the wider press – and even more so if they happen to be on the left of the spectrum. And there is a general lack of interest in following up on any allegations of wrongdoing in a party that everyone who matters has agreed, it seems, is on the right track, having “cleaned up” the mess that Jeremy Corbyn left behind. There has even been silence in response to the claims in Al Jazeera’s Labour files, which alleged that claims of racism were weaponised, exaggerated, even fabricated, as part of the effort to purge its Corbynites. I asked for a response, none has been forthcoming.
Still, if you listen, there is a message: if we need to erase leftwing politics from the agenda, and along with it the hopes and aspirations of its people of colour, then so be it. The Labour party may be en route to power, but we owe it to those it has left behind to be honest about the cost.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist
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