UK Election 2024

Labour may not need Muslim or Black voters now — but one day it will

Demonising Diane Abbott and Faiza Shaheen while welcoming the likes of Luke Akehurst is a choice that will come back to bite Keir Starmer’s party

Labour’s treatment of Diane Abbott and Faiza Shaheen ‘points not only to a disregard for people of colour… but also a vindictive attitude towards the communities they represent’. Photos by Thabo Jaiyesimi/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images and Leon Neal/Getty Images

If you’re a Muslim or member of an ethnic minority on social media, and you dare call out the Labour party on any of its actions or policies, be prepared for an army of angry centrist dads to invade your mentions.

Like a horde of frustrated Alan Partridges, they’ll furiously tell you to stop getting democracy wrong. Sure, the biggest concern in their everyday lives is whether the shower at work is occupied after their cycle to the office, but still — you’re messing up by even mildly criticising Labour. In fact, what you’re doing is helping the Tories win. And if the Tories win, it’ll be even worse for Muslims, brown and Black people. So hold your nose and vote Labour — and don’t you dare prick the bubble of infallibility around their darling Keir Starmer.

We talk about governing parties becoming complacent and taking their bases for granted: Tony Blair, for instance, faced an uphill battle against voter apathy in 2005 after alienating so many over the invasion of Iraq. Over time, promises are broken, trust is eroded and messaging gets cloudier than South Devon water. As the Tories can attest, if you stop galvanising your weaknesses and allow fractures to grow, things can fall apart very quickly.

Such corrosive hubris usually sets in over many years of power. The Labour leadership, however, has succumbed to it before even crossing the threshold into No 10.

Starmer’s team hasn’t so much neglected a significant element of Labour’s natural support as actively sought to drive it away. As if it’s more trouble than it’s worth. And as much as it’s clearly a left and right thing, it feels like a pointedly Black and white thing too.

The abhorrent recent treatment of Diane Abbott and Faiza Shaheen points not only to a disregard for people of colour who should be celebrated as exemplars of Labour’s proud diversity, but also to a vindictive attitude towards the communities they represent. And Labour is hardly subtle about it. There are minimal, if any, attempts to assuage those upset by the decolourisation and political homogenisation of Labour’s general election candidate selections.

Abbott has been so badly bullied and humiliated that one might conclude it was planned. As well as shocking revelations about her treatment by Labour contained in a leaked internal report, she spent more than a year waiting to learn whether she would be allowed to stand in Hackney North again — even though an investigation into her conduct had been completed after just a few months.

The only snag was that she stubbornly refused to exit left for an easy life in the Lords, doing everything asked of her — apologising, going on diversity training and showing genuine contrition — and continuing to fight her corner. In the end, Starmer was forced to concede that she was “free” to stand, which was less a ringing endorsement and more a sad recognition that she wouldn’t go quietly.

Yet Labour has been more than happy to weaponise the more overt racism Abbott has encountered from other quarters — such as Tory donor Frank Hester, who said looking at Abbott made him “want to hate all Black women”. On the day it was discussed in prime minister’s questions, Abbott stood up 46 times to enter a debate about herself and was ignored. It turns out a Black woman’s pain is only worth acknowledging when it can be used to attack the Tories and ask for donations by email.

As for Shaheen, hers is a case study in how to purposely lose brown friends and alienate people of colour. We’re not talking about someone on the Marxist fringe of the party with a hammer and sickle in her Twitter handle. She has always dutifully represented her constituency and values within the limits of new New Labour sensibilities. Her only real crime was being a brown woman with deeply held views (which, granted, is the greatest crime of all to some in the party, who presumably bristle at the sight of a samosa) on topics such as Palestine and Islamophobia. Shaheen’s is perhaps the most blatant example of targeting someone whose face or politics don’t fit and then working backwards to find the most tenuous reasons to cut her off. 

Meanwhile, the likes of Natalie Elphicke are welcomed into Labour with open arms, presumably because staunchly right-wing views, the incessant demonisation of immigrants, and allegations that she lobbied ministers over her ex-husband’s sexual assault case are not deemed a potential threat to Labour’s campaign.

As for Luke Akehurst, Labour’s “quality” pick for North Durham is free to run the rule — as a non-Jewish person — over how committed and aligned left-wing Jews are to their own Jewish identity. And he has yet to face sanction for deeply offensive claims that remarks made by a Black Jewish person were the result of an “inner conflict” between her Jewish heritage and Caribbean heritage.

Then, of course, there is the issue of Gaza and how Labour’s pathetic lack of moral leadership and clarity on the issue has destroyed so much natural support and good will among various ethnic minorities — not least the Muslim community.

Research for Hyphen, published on 11 June, has found that more than four in 10 Muslims (44%) and one in 10 of the general population (12%) ranked the conflict as one of their five most important issues ahead of the general election. Of these, most said they would consider backing an independent candidate running on a pro-Palestine ticket. Hyphen’s poll — the first comprehensive survey of Muslim voters in the UK since the election was called — also suggests that Labour has lost nearly a quarter of its 2019 Muslim votes to other parties, albeit with former Tory voters making up some of the lost numbers. It’s not just Muslims who see Labour’s failure to condemn real-time genocide as a tipping point — but a sizeable number clearly see it as the final straw, even if most still back the party for now.

Perhaps Labour sees this as another case of “shaking off the fleas” from a demographic that they don’t want or need… yet. The vindictiveness that the Labour leadership shows towards anyone whose face or views don’t fit may be satisfying to those who see it as revenge for the Corbyn years, but it’s bad politics.

Everything points to a record-breaking Labour win come 5 July. In a very real sense the party doesn’t need the brown, Black or Muslim vote this time around — but one day it will. And all the good will and traditional ties they’ve burnt through in recent years and months will lead to a reckoning at the ballot box. That’s when we’ll see whether taking so much of its core support for granted was really worth it.

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