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Starmer Is Purging Women of Colour

Taj Ali

Labour’s disgraceful treatment of Diane Abbott and Faiza Shaheen sends a very clear message to Black and Asian voters — give us your votes and know your place, or face humiliation.

(Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

‘Honestly I’m so shocked right now, to be treated this badly,’ said a visibly shaken Faiza Shaheen, on the verge of tears last night. She was on Newsnight, describing how she’d been sent an email an hour earlier telling her she was being deselected as the Labour candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green. Shaheen, a British-Pakistani woman, the daughter of a car mechanic, is the latest casualty of Starmer’s purge. Her crime? Detailing her own experiences of Islamophobia within the party and liking a tweet of a Jon Stewart sketch from many years ago.

It comes just a day after Labour sources briefed the Times that Diane Abbott, Britain’s first Black woman MP, would be barred from standing as Labour’s candidate in Hackney. This isn’t the first time Abbott has been humiliated by the party. The former Shadow Home Secretary received half of all abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the run-up to the 2017 general election, according to research by Amnesty International. A Labour document, leaked in April 2020, revealed WhatsApp messages showing that when Abbott was found crying in the toilets in the wake of such abuse, senior Labour staffers were mocking and insulting her.

The few remaining Socialist Campaign Group MPs in the party have remained tight-lipped about the whole ordeal, fearful that they might be next. This is the culture of fear that Starmer’s bully boys have created within the party. Where speaking up on genocide in Gaza or expressing concerns about Labour’s lack of ambition on tackling child poverty is perceived to be a punishable offence. Dissent will be crushed. Racism will be tolerated. And pluralism is as ugly a word as socialism. Welcome to Keir’s Starmer’s changed Labour Party. 

If you’re a white male MP like Barry Sheerman, who happens to be an ally of the current leadership, you can joke about how there’s been a ‘run on silver shekels’ when two Jewish businessmen miss out on peerages, and get a slap on the wrist. If you’re a Black woman MP like Kate Osamor and you highlight genocide in Gaza, you will be suspended for months and ordered to repent for your sins.

Speaking in Monmouthshire today, Keir Starmer said he wanted ‘the highest quality candidates’ to stand. A white male MP like Neil Coyle, who is firmly on the party’s right, can racially abuse journalists and have a complaint of sexual harassment upheld against them and still be on the ballot paper at the next election, while a socialist Black woman like Diane Abbott, who has given 4 decades of service to the party, is deemed unfit to stand for office for ill-judged comments in a letter that she apologised for straightaway.

This is a party that welcomes right-wing Tory MPs like Natalie Elphicke a woman who used a debate about Boris Johnson’s misconduct to demonise refugees, launched an unhinged attack on Marcus Rashford’s campaigning on child poverty and was suspended from the Commons for trying to ‘improperly influence’ the penalty meted out to her sex offender husband.

This was never about standards. And it is about more than just factionalism. It is a continuation of a trend where outspoken Black and Asian members of the party are treated with utter disdain.

The Forde report, released in 2022 after a 2-year delay, accused the party of ‘operating a hierarchy of racism or discrimination’, with many forms of racism and discrimination being ignored. It noted that ‘the criticisms of Diane Abbott are not simply a harsh response to perceived poor performance—they are expressions of visceral disgust, drawing on racist tropes, and they bear little resemblance to the criticisms of white male MPs elsewhere in the messages.’ Over 1,100 submissions were made to the inquiry, detailing widespread anti-Black racism and Islamophobia within the party. One witness said: ‘I write this submission to you feeling degraded, overlooked and insulted on so many levels. I am a prime example of why so many say the party has a problem with race. It is why you can count on one hand the number of senior Black women in the party, and on multiple hands the number of Black people that have left.’

Just a few weeks before the Forde Report was published, Apsana Begum, the first hijab-wearing Muslim MP, and a survivor of domestic abuse, was signed off work by her GP following an alleged campaign of misogynistic abuse in her local party. The Labour leadership failed to intervene.

And a survey in 2020 by the Labour Muslim Network prior to the release of the Forde report found 1 in 3 Muslim members of the party had experienced Islamophobia, and more than half of those surveyed said they didn’t trust the Labour leadership to tackle it.

The Labour leadership like to claim that they have put all of this behind them, but just last year, Black Labour MPs wrote a letter to Keir Starmer, demanding urgent action from the Labour leadership to tackle anti-black racism. A section of the letter, shared with Channel 4 News, read, ‘Despite our Party’s claims to be anti-racist… We, our members and supporters are losing faith in the ability and commitment of this leadership to tackle the issues raised in the Forde report and we demand urgent action.’

Over four decades ago, an almighty struggle was waged to ensure greater Black representation in the party. The Labour Party Black Sections went up against numerous barriers, including Neil Kinnock’s controversial decision to block Martha Osamor from standing in Vauxhall. Minority communities were seen in a similar manner to the broader Left — a problem to be contained rather than a vital part of Labour’s supposed broad church.

From defending the rights of refugees to calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, it has often been Black and Asian MPs unapologetically championing the demands of the communities they represent who have been on the receiving end of deselection attempts and purges. For the Labour leadership, it is far easier to backtrack on their support for Kashmir or ditch any reference to systemic racism when critical Black and Asian voices are no longer in the room.

The Labour Right control the internal apparatus of the party and clamp down on any dissent but they cannot control the public mood outside Westminster. The return of mass politics, as demonstrated by the hundreds of thousands marching for a ceasefire in Gaza while frontbenchers were briefing against it will prove to be a serious thorn in the side of an incoming Labour Government. The last few days have demonstrated that even Starmer can’t control the right-wing clique that now runs the party. Its briefings, from racist dog whistles comparing Muslim voters to Hamas in the West Midlands to determining the fate of those Black and Muslim politicians they despise, illustrate not just a hideous rot at the top of the party but immaturity and arrogance in equal measure. And it will come back to haunt them.

Labour’s strategy of targeting swing voters in marginal seats at the expense of their traditional voters will almost certainly win a sizeable majority in the upcoming election. But history tells us that disregarding loyal supporters will have long-term consequences. Black and Asian voters disproportionately reside in Labour’s traditional working-class heartlands. Voters made their anger on Gaza clear in the Rochdale by-election and in recent local elections where the party lost support in places like Oldham, Bradford, Newcastle and Blackburn.

The rise of the Scottish National Party, UKIP, and the Brexit Party is a cautionary tale of what happens when loyal party supporters feel they are not being listened to. ‘Hold your nose and vote Labour to get the Tories out,’ we are told.

As the stench of Islamophobia and anti-Black racism in the party gets stronger, many are, indeed, holding their noses. Labour’s contempt for our communities stinks.