Blacking up: nope, it's still not funny

Tory MP asks why it is offensive to black up in one-man mission against political correctness

At the weekend, it emerged that Philip Davies, the Tory MP for Shipley, has been haranguing the Equality and Human Rights Commission on a self-proclaimed fight against political correctness.

Since April last year, he has sent 19 letters, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The question that really caught the imagination of the press was this: "Is it offensive to black up or not, particularly if you are impersonating a black person?" In a postscript to this letter, he adds: "Why it is so offensive to black up your face, as I have never understood this."

Wow. Where to begin?

The (obviously very good-humoured) commission had yet to reply in writing to this query, but in the meantime, a spokesman said: "There are many writings produced by scholars about blacking up, arguing that minstrel shows lampoon black people in derogatory ways, and many people clearly find blacking up to portray minstrels or black people offensive."

It's true, Davies's question displays a certain ignorance: impersonating a black person is offensive because it is so fraught with history. Blacking up is mockery, and it's dehumanising, with its symbolism of a grinning, infantilised rascal dancing around for the amusement of others.

This is not the first time blacking up and the Tories have met. There was controversy in 2007 when a Tory councillor dressed up as "Nelson Mandela" -- yes, complete with skin colour -- for a fancy-dress party. The councillor defended the decision as a piece of "harmless fun". Hmm.

There was outcry this year over a fashion shoot in French Vogue that featured a white model blacked up. "It's horrible, there's nothing else to describe it. The image says we'd rather turn a European model white than hire a black model," Nana A Tamakloe, who manages models, said at the time.

Davies's query relates to a practice that is pretty much non-existent anyway: it's a deliberately provocative and pointless piece of questioning. It is another mockery, but luckily he seems to have made himself the butt of the joke.

According to the Guardian, he also asked:

  • Whether the Metropolitan Black Police Association breaches discrimination law by restricting its membership to black people. He compared this to the BNP's whites-only policy, which the far-right party has now agreed to change.
  • Whether the women-only Orange Prize for fiction discriminates against men.
  • Whether it was racist for a policeman to refer to a BMW as "black man's wheels".
  • Whether it was lawful for an advert for a job working with victims of domestic violence to specify that applicants had to be female and/or black or from an ethnic minority.
  • Whether a "Miss White Britain" competition or a "White Power List" would be racist, after Phillips justified the existence of Miss Black Britain prizes and the Black Power List. "Is there any difference legally or morally than publishing a white list [sic]? Do you think this entrenches division?"
  • Whether anti-discrimination laws ought to be extended "to cover bald people (and perhaps fat people and short people)".

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.