'Hierarchy of racism' fears threaten Starmer's hopes of Labour unity

This article is more than 6 months old

After the antisemitism rows of the Corbyn era, BAME Labour staff raise fears that black voters could be pushed away

Shadow cabinet at Labour conference
Starmer, then shadow Brexit secretary, with Dawn Butler, Ian Lavery, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell at the Labour conference in Brighton in September 2019. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Starmer, then shadow Brexit secretary, with Dawn Butler, Ian Lavery, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell at the Labour conference in Brighton in September 2019. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Last modified on Thu 20 Aug 2020 10.55 EDT

When Keir Starmer approved apologies and six-figure damages last month for former Labour officials who had accused the party of antisemitism, he probably hoped to draw a line under a damaging issue that had dogged the party under its former leader Jeremy Corbyn.

But rather than solving Labour’s problems, the settlements – regarded by some on the party’s left as principally about repudiating Corbyn’s leadership – could transform one racism row into another.

On the eve of the settlement, the Guardian has learned, Labour’s BAME staff network wrote to Starmer to warn he risked undermining an inquiry into yet another issue that has divided the party.

This involved an 860-page leaked report on the party’s legal and governance unit, which claimed to show instances of factionalism and hostility to Corbyn’s leadership, racism and sexism. It has since been claimed that private WhatsApp messages revealed in the report were selectively edited to give a false impression.

In meetings with the leader, the Guardian has been told, members of the BAME staff network warned that the apologies to seven ex-staffers who appeared on BBC Panorama could further a perception of a “hierarchy of racism” in the party, with antisemitism seen as the most serious form of prejudice, while Islamophobia and anti-black racism were considered less important.

The Guardian has spoken to BAME Labour MPs, officials and members who questioned the wisdom of the move when there are two outstanding inquiries into Labour’s handling of internal racism complaints, including the leaked report.

Amid other concerns over the party’s response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, they expressed fears that black voters could be pushed away.

Diane Abbott, Labour’s longest-standing black MP, alleged in the leaked report to be the target of racist abuse, warned Labour risked destroying the trust of black voters.

“I knew the party bureaucracy was anti-Jeremy,” she said, “and they were not my best friends, but I was really shocked when the report revealed just how racist and abusive they were about me and other black MPs on the left, going so far as to work with journalists who were trying to doorstep me and harass me. I found that really shocking and upsetting.”

One of Labour’s newest black MPs, Claudia Webbe, echoed Abbott’s concerns. She said: “I don’t know the details of the lawsuits against the party, but I am deeply concerned that the party would apologise … while the independent inquiry into [the report’s] contents is ongoing.

“At a time when black members are saying they don’t feel safe and welcome in our party, this move by the leadership could undermine the very inquiry that they promised would restore the trust and confidence of BAME communities.”

Before the general election, polling found that Labour under Corbyn led the Conservatives by 25 points among BAME groups, with more than half of BAME voters saying they could imagine Corbyn in Downing Street.

“As much as Corbyn didn’t win, he’s very popular among some sections of black voters and leftwing voters,” said Maurice McLeod, a Labour councillor from south-west London, citing Corbyn’s antiracism work and policies concentrated on deprived communities. “He’s kind of like what some people used to say about [Bill] Clinton: he’s as close as you can come to a black candidate.”

Unlike Clinton, though, Corbyn could not convince the rest of the nation. He lost to Boris Johnson, a man who had called black people “piccaninnies” and Muslim women “letterboxes”, and resigned. Starmer won the subsequent leadership race with a vow to rebuild Labour’s electoral coalition and reunite a party split by years of factional conflict. It was a mission that meant somehow reconciling the interests of BAME voters in Britain’s urban centres with white voters in the former “red wall”, whose concerns about immigration, support for Brexit and dislike of Corbyn had pushed them to the Tories.

The Streatham MP, Bell Ribeiro-Addy (centre), and Diane Abbott (right) with Lord Dubs in Parliament Square in January 2020 promoting the March Against Racism.
The Streatham MP, Bell Ribeiro-Addy (centre), and Diane Abbott (right) with Lord Dubs in Parliament Square in January 2020 promoting the March Against Racism. Photograph: Guy Smallman/Getty Images

Starmer’s first major setback came within days of him becoming party leader in April, with the leaked report alleging a “hyper-factional” environment. Produced under Corbyn’s leadership and intended for submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, it is seen by some on the right of the party as an attempt to deflect the blame over the handling of antisemitism complaints.

But it was the allegations of racism and sexism in conversations between officials that antagonised black voters. The black writer Yomi Adegoke described how the alleged messages between senior officials regarding Abbott and fellow black MP Dawn Butler “left a singularly bitter aftertaste”.

Abbott was allegedly described as “truly repulsive” and “a very angry woman”, while Butler’s claims to have experienced racism within the parliamentary party were said to have been dismissed. (Butler raised the alarm about institutional racism this week after being stopped by police for a third time while out in a car in London with a friend.)

Adegoke wrote: “Society still fails to fully acknowledge the scourges of sexism and racism, but we are miles from reckoning with misogynoir – a combination of both that doubly penalises black women in distinct ways.”

Labour staffers have since claimed the conversations were edited to give a false impression that racist and misogynistic exchanges had taken place.

Behind the scenes, Starmer also faced a backlash from Labour’s BAME staff network, numbering about 40 workers. They held a series of meetings with him in which they shared their experiences of racism within the party and demanded action. They presented the leadership with a list of demands, including a diversity audit.

One member of the network, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “There’s this thing about Keir where it seems he can’t really connect on a personal level … I think that is quite dangerous, because he’s got an office that is packed with white men under 35.” Starmer reportedly informed the Labour BAME staff network that of 27 staff in his office, nearly a third are BAME, with some roles still to be filled.

Starmer ordered an urgent review into the leaked report, appointing a black barrister, Martin Forde QC, to lead the panel. He asked people to “refrain from drawing conclusions”. But reports began to emerge of black voters beginning to turn away from the party.

In May, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis prompted worldwide BLM protests over endemic racism. The systematic marginalisation and oppression of black people was suddenly top of the political agenda.

Martin Forde QC
Martin Forde QC, who has been appointed to lead the panel investigating the leaked report on the party’s legal and governance unit. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

As crowds of protesters took to the streets, Starmer’s response was initially ambiguous, vacillating between attempts to show solidarity with antiracists and doubling down on a law and order agenda.

Protesters who tore down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol were “completely wrong”, Starmer said, angering some members even as he conceded it should not have been there in the first place. He condemned the Labour MP Barry Gardiner for defying social distancing to join protests. Then, perhaps sensing he had underestimated the mood, he circulated a picture of himself and his deputy, Angela Rayner, kneeling in solidarity with “all those opposing anti-black racism”.

Starmer appeared on BBC Breakfast, where he dismissed calls to defund the police, a key BLM demand, as “nonsense” and described the movement as a “moment” – though Starmer’s team insist he was striving to underline its seriousness, not dismiss it.

Black Labour MPs, including Florence Eshalomi and Bell Ribeiro-Addy, publicly contradicted their leader. BAME members, too, were angry. Bess Oates, a Labour activist from Harrow, said Starmer’s comments made many in her network consider their future in the party.

“Using the word ‘moment’ rather than ‘movement’ suggests that: ‘OK, these protests happened, but that’s the end of the conversation now we need to move on,’” she said.

“And in regards to this completely dismissing the whole defund the police part of it … I think was kind of ignoring what the problem is. It’s not just a few bad cops, it’s the idea that the police as an institution are racist and how it ties into the capitalist system. So to just dismiss that point completely as rubbish really shows that he doesn’t understand the issue at all.”

Facing a backlash, Starmer and his team called a virtual press conference exclusively for black reporters, in which Starmer appealed to black voters not to leave the party and expressed regret over his choice of words. Days later, he said he was signing up for a course in unconscious bias.

Clive Lewis, one of three black male Labour MPs, said BLM had transformed the political landscape in ways the new leadership was ill prepared for.

“If it was soft lighting before, it is now a really harsh light that is on politicians,” Lewis said. “That means that what was acceptable before may no longer be acceptable now. There is a higher standard that’s being expected [by] black voters, black members; and if you can’t step up to that, if you struggle in that new reality, then you are going to be found wanting.”

The impact on black voters is hard to quantify: the party does not collect ethnicity data from members. Labour’s national executive committee says membership is rising, as is the proportion of BAME voters, but it gives no detail or breakdown.

David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, said he had seen no evidence of Starmer struggling to gain support from BAME voters – and backed his ability to make improvements within the party.

In a statement released through Labour HQ, Lammy said: “I do agree there is much more the Labour party has to do to promote and support BAME staff. However, this has been an issue for successive Labour leaders. Keir’s track record of recruiting and promoting BAME leaders in the Crown Prosecution Service, when he was director of public prosecutions, suggests he understands the steps that are necessary to do this.”

• This article was amended on 13 August 2020 because Clive Lewis is one of three black male Labour MPs, not one of two as an earlier version described him. The picture caption of the second image was amended – those pictured were promoting the March Against Racism, set to take place on 21 March 2020, and not attending it.