The newly launched political party The Independent Group cites challenging antisemitism as one of its founding beliefs, however as @KojoRTE argues, such aims are futile unless we look at racism with a structural lens.
The Independent Group seven became eight and were joined by three Tories at the time of publishing. Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen are the most recent MPs to join the not-yet political party. The new political grouping is owned by a private company and thus its funders are not legally required to be made public. It has three founding beliefs for its inception:
- The institutional anti-semitism in the Labour Party
- The Labour leadership’s failure to back a people’s vote/oppose Brexit
- They cannot support a Corbyn Premiership as it would pose a threat to national security
In her resignation letter, Joan Ryan, MP for Enfield North underlines anti-Jewish racism, while her opponents refer to a recent controversy where a film shows that she wrongly claimed a Labour Party member was being anti-semitic. Out of the eight MPs, Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna are the highest profile members. Berger has undoubtedly experienced an overwhelming number of antisemitic slurs and attacks. This experience strengthens her claim that the Labour Party has failed her and is institutionally anti-semitic.
When Len McCluskey can easily dismiss a Jewish MP’s lived experience of racism as “contrived”, that suggests there are real failings in the Labour movement on antisemitism. Chuka Umunna asserted on Sky News in September 2018 that the Labour Party is now institutionally racist over its failure to tackle antisemitism.
Let’s be real: Institutional racism is when an organisation’s policies and actions result in racist and discriminatory outcomes. While organisational heads are influential, the prevalence of institutional racist policies, practices and outcomes can remain true irrespective of who leads it or individual office holders.
“Every political party that has been in national government enforcing immigration controls is institutionally racist. Labour along with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have been institutionally racist for decades if not from the start”
The term was defined by Macpherson and applied to the Metropolitan Police after an inquiry in the possibly corrupted police investigations into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Macpherson found that the Met as an institution failed to take racist murders and attacks seriously. Irrespective of the intentions of the successive Commissioners, its collective efforts disproportionately disadvantaged or failed racialised people.
With this definition, we can apply this logic to every political party that has been in national government enforcing immigration controls as institutionally racist. Labour along with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have been institutionally racist for decades if not from the start. Immigration controls by purpose and design are a form of xenophobic (read: racist) discrimination. They are enforced by a violent state apparatus including but not limited to; detention centres, dawn raids, forced deportations, indefinite detention often in breach of legal rights procedures and so on.
The first modern British immigration act, the Aliens Act of 1905 is a notable example. It was designed to restrict working class Eastern European Jews from coming to Britain. It had popular support from the British Trade Union Congress and many leading British trade unionists. The Clarion, a prominent socialist publication at the time said Jewish immigrants in Britain were: “a poison injected into the national veins.” The 1905 Act and supporting Labour movements and institutions were institutionally anti-semitic.
When Chuka Umunna claims that Labour is only now institutionally racist and the recent three years goes against Labour’s anti-racist history, he moves on shakier ground. From the immigration bills from 1968 to 2008, Labour anti-racism record is simply not good. But what is Umunna’s own record on fighting institutional racism and the racist status quo?
In January 2014, David Cameron under pressure from UKIP and Tory Eurosceptics, was preparing new time-limited restrictions on EU migrants access to UK benefits. Umunna on BBC Question time went further and called on the EU to ban Freedom of Movement entirely for “low skilled” job seeking migrants. Interestingly mirroring his socialist predecessors of 1905.
Later in 2014, UKIP made a historic achievement of becoming the first party outside Labour and Conservatives for a hundred years to top a UK-wide poll by winning the largest share of the EU Parliamentary elections. Following that result, a week later Umunna as shadow Business Secretary, joined with then Culture Secretary Sajid Javid to argue in support of addressing voters “legitimate concerns” on immigration.
The initial group of seven former Labour MPs at the launch of The Independent Group
While the pro-Blairite group Progress that week had urged Ed Miliband not to toughen its immigration stance, Chuka went on at length to describe the anti-immigration sentiment as “not racist”. He went on to sock puppet ethnic minority constituents who had allegedly frequently raised anti-migrant questions with him. Chuka also publicly aligned himself with EDL-sympathising Blue Labour tendency during that month. Blue Labour later morphed into Miliband’s failed electoral brand: One Nation Labour.
After the electoral defeat of 2015, Umunna made a speech at a Labour Conference fringe meeting where he stated as a mixed-race MP it was his duty to condemn Eastern European immigrants in his constituency for coming to the UK but failing to learn English unlike his wealthy businessman father who had the good fortune of being born in Nigeria, a former British colony before migrating to England.
“For this charade to stop, we need to look at racism with a structural lens”
Then again at Labour Conference 2016, Umunna repeated the same “good” vs “bad” immigrant trope by alleging that Streatham Somali shops were not serving “non-Somalis”. Umunna also echoed David Cameron’s landmark anti-multiculturalism Munich speech, by stating a needed “muscular” approach to immigration.
Chuka Umunna, the People’s Vote champion has no strong principles in opposing institutional racism. Therefore he is not particularly different to most politicians. Liberals can disavow interpersonal prejudice while campaign for more institutional racialised violence. This is the state of mainstream anti-racist discourse: be against antisemitic slurs but defend Israel’s Prime Minister’s policies and practices that enable antisemitism. Claim to be pro-migration but wish to restrict movement of poor working class immigrants. For this charade to stop, we need to look at racism with a structural lens.
Interpersonal abuse is debilitating and needs strong opposition but if we ignore the structural forces of racism as liberals do, we miss where racism comes from. Umunna may have no real antipathy towards Somalis, but he will use it to gain power. This is what racism is for. This is why media moguls invest in fuelling anti-migrant culture, power is gained by focusing anger and frustration away from the rich and towards a manageable and manufactured “problem”.
Racism doesn’t come from uneducated bigots, it comes from ruling elites to create popular cleavages against “outsiders”. It is a divide and rule, a tactic to gain loyalty by promising to make the other suffer more than your group. Structural racism in its various forms is a key ideology and power structure that created the modern global world. To be misinformed about it helps maintain its usefulness.
By focusing on interpersonal racism to the exclusion of structural racism, organisations can claim anti-racist positions while increasing state racialised violence. A principled anti-racism movement needs to be consistent on opposing it, whether it is from the Tories, Labour or The Independent Group.