Labour must show they understand racial nuances


The controversy surrounding Labour MP Emma Dent Coad appears to have split opinion along party lines.

Her defenders, including the Corbyn loyalists Skwawkbox, claim the MP’s old blog was merely quoting a constituent who told her that black Conservative Shaun Bailey was a “token ghetto boy” and “ghetto man”.

Her detractors, not least black Tory MPs Kemi Badenoch and James Cleverly, accuse the Kensington MP of racially-charged language.

Dent Coad herself, who wrote the blog seven years ago when she was a councillor, issued a non-apology apology. This will surely fail to kill off the story.

There are three points being used in Dent Coad’s defence, and three for the ‘prosecution’.

Dent Coad’s supporters say she is being deliberately misrepresented and  didn’t actually call Bailey a token ghetto boy, but was simply quoting someone else. They say that the words were previously used by Bailey himself. They add that this row is a tactic to divert attention from a report on poverty that the MP was releasing. And the claim that Bailey is a “token” is basically true, as David Cameron boosted the number of black and Asian Tory MPs, and fast-tracked their promotions, as window dressing to detoxify the party brand.

Those outraged by the blog argue that using terms like “token ghetto boy” are racially-loaded and offensive. They accuse Labour of double-standards, saying that Labour would be making hay if such comments had been written by a Tory. And they allege the underlining tone is that Labour regards black communities as their own, and any black person joining the Tories is labelled as a ‘coconut’, ‘Uncle Tom’ or is ‘acting white’.

There are problems with arguments on both sides. The claim that Dent Coad was misrepresented is based on technicalities. She used the terms people are now taking offence to. Putting them in inverted commas, attributing them to an anonymous resident, does not let the MP off the hook. Indeed, it is clear Dent Coad agreed with such sentiments, which is why she was quoting them. There is no evidence Bailey called himself “ghetto” or used the word in a disparaging way about north Kensington.

The claim that Bailey is being used as a token black person is not just an insult to him personally, but crucially it racialises the story. The use of the word “boy” injects further racial undertones, even if the MP was unaware of such nuances when she wrote the piece. And the allegation that Bailey is fake, that he’s adopting airs and graces out of step with gritty north Kensington, but still can’t “fit in”, touches another racial nerve. The picture Dent Coad paints is of a black man junking his identity and culture in order to suck up to posh white set that will never accept him.

BME politicians have long faced claims that they only succeeded because of their race, or to meet some mythical quota. Such ideas are themselves racially-loaded, and seek to devalue the intellect and achievements of those black and Asian activists, and harm their careers. Race equality campaigners have long fought against such stereotyping of BME members in politics. For Dent Coad’s supporters to blame her words on the person being attacked in her blog is cowardly.

Dent Coad’s blog is problematic on issues of race for all the reasons mentioned. Yet her defenders refuse to acknowledge there is any racial offence caused. Even the MPs’ own non-apology suggests those who are offended have simply taken her words “the wrong way.”

Those who are up in arms about the blog haven’t got it all right, however. While it is undeniably true that Labour would be taking a difference stance if a Tory MP had written that blog, the reality is that every party would seek to win political points off another whoever the offender was. Political ‘race rows’ have long become footballs used for a quick game before the players walk away and never give a seconds thought to the wider issues of BME under-representation in politics.

Badenoch and Cleverly say that the underlining issue here is Labour’s belief that it ‘owns’ the black vote. There is something in this, but it is not universal through the party. Indeed Black Labour members, including the likes of Diane Abbott, have long campaigned to pull the party away from such complacency. They point to polling, before the 2017 election, showing a steady trickle of support falling away with each successive election. That trend looks to have been, at least temporarily, reversed this year. This does not mean Labour can count on all BME votes, or indeed insult those who support or join the Tories as being traitors to their communities or race.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn and his Momentum supporters has, in some ways, brought a new focus and determination to fighting racism and discrimination. Leftwing activists, now running Labour, have a long and worthy record of anti-racism campaigns during their decades on the fringes.

One of the consequences of Labour moving Left is a further polarisation and tribalising of politics. This has had a knock-on effect in terms of identity. Policies that hurt the poor are also seen as an attack on BME communities. This narrative limits people of colour to the class struggle, to one strand of thinking, workers against the ruling elite. And it isolates aspirational BME people, leaving them no choice but to seek alternatives to Labour.

Another by-product of this is an increasing tendency in Labour to deny that the party might have any problem. It is as if their Socialist values automatically exempt them from any blame. Only Tories are racist. And anyone who suggests otherwise is a racist Tory seeking to divert attention away from their attacks on the poor. We witnessed a similar head-in-sand reaction to the anti-Semitic stories. Labour can’t possibly have a problem with anti-Semitism, many party supporters argued, because they had a proud record fighting anti-Semites going back to the Battle of Brick Lane.

The Dent Coad row had another similarity with the anti-Semitism rows. It causes Labourites to reach far too readily for conspiracy theories about why they are being attacked, and go on the offensive against their accusers. The theory goes it’s all a ploy by nasty Rightwingers, such as Guido Fawkes and rich tax-avoiding media barons, to smear Labour when it’s the Tories who are the real racists. Such finger-pointing looks both childish and paranoid. And it has been much more common since the Corbyn revolution took hold.

Labour need to stop the angry outright denials and begin introspection on the issues. There are racial problems with Dent Coad’s language. Her ‘apology’ is woefully inadequate. It should not be a matter of pride to admit either of these things.

Labour supporters blaming Bailey does not help the party, or make the controversy go away. Owning up to the fact that the MP’s blog was racially insensitive does not mean accepting wholesale criticism from black Conservatives that Labour has a ‘racism problem’. Labour must be more grown up than that.

The Kensington MP is a new backbencher. A big party that aspires to government should be able to deal with such situations. More than that, Labour – and indeed all parties – need to seriously look at their internal culture to eradicate lazy assumptions about ethnic groups.

With a more nuanced and constructive response Dent Coad’s blog need not be an issue that splits opinion along partisan lines. If it had been handled better it could have been an opportunity to not only show BME communities that Labour understands racial nuances, but also send a message to the entire party that certain attitudes and assumptions are not acceptable in modern Britain.

Lester Holloway