Simon Vessey dissects the Labour Party’s right wing and their cover up of institutional racism and bigotry in the party

There is a grim predictability in seeing yet another crisis being exploited by right wing politicians and journalists to attack left wingers for socialist and anti-imperialist stances. Even more frustrating is the anaemic response from those looked to for leadership on the left.

The Labour Party has targeted 11 current MPs and the former leader for signing a Stop the War statement on Feb 14th which also criticised NATO for their role in the ongoing war in Ukraine that escalated dramatically this week with Russia’s invasion. The effect of this is unprecedented. No other party in the UK, Europe or from NATO member countries has made criticism of the organisation incompatible with being an elected representative. None of these MPs have ever shied away from criticising Putin. Their stance has been echoed by a variety of “respectable” outlets including the FT, NYT, Guardian and Newstatesman. The 11 MPs withdrew their signatures rather than lose the whip. Corbyn is less likely than ever to be readmitted after this latest refusal to bow to his former party’s authoritarian line. Party members are at risk of being punished for having criticised NATO, supported StW and the MPs. Young Labour found this out the next morning.

A more immediate consequence of the rolling hate campaign marshalled by the Labour right and their media outriders are the threats faced by prominent left MPs who are targets for their race, religion and gender. Zarah Sultana spoke of receiving a death threat for being “Putin’s whore” this weekend. In her short time as MP she has repeatedly spoken out about the abuse she gets as a muslim woman – both in Parliament and in the media. Such was the impact of her words that they were included in the NYT’s Trojan Horse podcast as an example of the impact islamophobia has.

Anti-war and anti-imperialist stances are undoubtedly one of the “sacred cows of Corbynism” that leading right wing figure Wes Streeting reportedly said they would “slaughter” until they were “up to their knees in blood” as they moved the party rightwards. They stoke up rounds of hatred and are pointed in the lack of support they then offer to the MPs affected. It stands in stark contrast to the lamentations over right wing smears and threats aimed at Starmer over Jimmy Savile. Much was made of family concerns for the safety of Starmer and Lammy as a result and yet they continue to push the “pro-Putin” smears *after* Sultana spoke out about resulting death threats. The messages being sent are very clear. Not only about who is welcome in Labour but who is legitimate in British politics and who can have any expectation of safety if they choose to participate.

The response has been dismal. Not just, as we would expect, from complicit journalists and right wing MPs but from those leading figures in the movement who would call themselves Zarah’s comrades. The dearth of left leadership is exposed in these increasingly frequent moments. A handful of MPs showed public solidarity with Zarah and none who did had anything to say about what is driving the hate and threats. None have identified the opportunism that saw Starmer himself initiate this latest abuse, enforced top down in Labour with persistent lines of attack being drummed in every media appearance.

Hardly anyone was talking about Stop the War until his Guardian article accused them of giving “succour” to authoritarian leaders. Too much has been left to new MPs like Zarah and Apsana, themselves some of the primary targets of abuse. Just last year Apsana faced a vexatious court case and the threat of prison as a result of Labour right machinations to remove her from her seat. These examples are merely the tip of the iceberg. The widespread, institutional corruption and bigotry, authoritarianism and the celebration of white supremacy which Starmer’s leadership has unleashed needs to be unequivocally called out. Weak, Labourist responses like this one from John McDonnell simply will not do. Neither will empty calls for whip restorations or to unite to fight the Tories. We can clearly see what the right’s intentions are. This is performative and without a strategic goal. If you don’t explain what is actually happening, how are people supposed to know? How can an effective response ever be arrived at?

This follows a pattern of failure by those in leading positions within the left from the “Corbyn era” – those with democratic mandates, appointed to senior staffing roles or with media platforms from which they can take action or more readily make their voices heard. Attempts to side step rather than confront head on the problems in the party, be they ones initiated by the right or ones within the ranks of the left. There has been a recurring theme that “now is not the time” or “we must unite against the Tories” to justify capitulations and avoid confrontation and it has proven to be consistently ruinous. The left have been side-lined from the party more quickly than they made their presence felt and what began with a bang looks set to end with a whimper or worse.

Much worse for many of the groups at risk from this New Labour reboot with the far right already in government – people who are black, brown, Muslim, Jewish, LGBT+, disabled and from gyspy, roma and traveller communities. Especially those who dare to challenge the careerist and expedient tendencies of the Labour right.

To “stay and fight” is meant to be key to ensure the left is in a position to take advantage of another opportunity. How much reflection has there actually been on the failings of those in that position in 2015? All doubts about what was faced were surely removed between the coup, the release of the Chakrabarti report and abuses in the leadership election in 2016. Yet it was only once the left had relinquished control of the party leadership that a report they had commissioned into the governance and legal unit, released by a whistle-blower leak in early 2020, confirmed in gruesome detail the scale of the institutional corruption and bigotry that many had experienced. This was completely at odds with what then General Secretary Jennie Formby had said in 2018 in response to selective accusations from right wingers:

“The Labour Party, which I’ve been a proud member of for 40 yrs, is not institutionally racist. To suggest it is shows no understanding of either the work or the history of our party”. 

This habit of ignoring inconvenient truths persists today. There are many well established problems of representation and those extend onto the left. For example, there is only one more black man serving as a Labour MP today than when the first two were elected in 1987. In 2020 the Labour left were the only major faction not to have a black man on their slate for the National Executive Committee though there was room for 2 transphobes (no black man has ever been elected to it). This week two left slates were announced – for the NEC and YL elections. Once again there was no room for black men. The JCHR released a report on Remembrance Day in 2020 on Black people, racism and human rights. It catalogued the parade of prior reports and inquiries into the reality of anti-black racism and its consequences but noted that despite the plethora of evidence there was no progress due to a lack of political will. As with that JCHR report, this latest failing has passed largely ignored. 

A denialist approach only serves to shield the growing threat represented by this white supremacist party and to dismiss the obvious – Labour’s long history of abuses – of institutional racism and bigotry manifesting in representation, rhetoric, campaigning, policy and legislation both here and abroad. There is a seemingly never-ending list of examples of this from just the New Labour period though the party’s crimes stretch back far further. Likewise there were many ongoing problems through the Corbyn years with regards representation and policy that were being written about. It seems like when there was a choice to prioritise socialism, anti-racism or “Labour” the latter always won out. It was a dereliction of duty to hand control of the party back to people who they knew, beyond any reasonable doubt, were so corrupt and bigoted. To abandon the findings of their report, and the responsibility for responding to them, is to abandon all related causes and that sense of defeatism from leaders persists today. People will not follow those who do not lead.

Simon Vessey: exasperated socialist 

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