Diane Abbott, Paul Flynn and Labour's queasy tolerance of the intolerable

Some in the party complacently assume historic anti-racist credentials are a permanent inoculation a

It's a little alarming to think that, in the space of a matter of weeks, two seasoned Labour politicians have stood accused of racism.

Backbencher Paul Flynn MP had always seemed like a fairly sensible lefty, until he one day decided to question the suitability of our ambassador to Israel on the grounds of his Jewishness. And, on Wednesday night, Diane Abbott came close to losing her Shadow ministerial post over a tweet which read "White people love playing divide and rule. We should not play their game". A comment which, as many observed, would surely have been a career-ending move for any politician had the word "black" been switched for "white" .

However, in the resulting Twitter-storms over both, we saw some examples of the opposite: the extraordinary logical contortions that people can be prepared to go through to defend an unacceptable view. It was notable, though, that these defenders, on issues which are not essentially-party political, seemed to come exclusively from the left of the Labour Party and the liberal-left media. In contrast, in the country at large, the condemnation, especially of Abbott, was widespread.

We need not go over again why her comment was unacceptable. But most worrying of all was the mindset that it gave us a window into: a thinking which separates "us" (black people) and "them" (white people). Most modern Britons, it may surprise Abbott to know, don't think like that. Now, Labour has obviously learned from Flynn, and this time things were handled considerably better: the apology was swift and Ed Miliband called Abbott immediately, in the middle of a Sky news interview, to give her a dressing-down.

With Flynn, part of the negative story was the shockingly long time - a whole week - that it took to get an apology, and the fact that the leadership seemed rather hands-off (the disciplining was left to the Chief Whip).

We might reasonably conclude that this better handling comes as a result of the outcry from the Jewish community about Flynn; the relative seniority of Abbott; and the fact that Miliband, in this latest case, does not have to deal with the issue of sensitivity to his own Jewish origins.

And yet, we are left unsatisfied: Diane Abbott is still in post when a Shadow minister making generalisations about "black people" clearly would not be. And it is also arguable that even then, had she been in another political party, her colleagues might not have been so understanding. For example, the Tories take any hint of association with racism or fascism very seriously nowadays. Aidan "Nazi stag party" Burley was only at the most junior level of government, but Cameron made a point, not only of sacking him, but commissioning a further investigation. Neither had Burley, despite his offensive behaviour, made any comment which anyone deemed racist.

Yes, there is a common thread which joins Flynn and Abbott: both exemplify the casual tendency on the left of the Labour Party to tolerate the intolerable when it comes to race. And not just what is said: who says it is important. In this case, it seems that we are obliged to treat Diane Abbott differently, as a talented young blogger, Stephen K Bush, has pointed out; as if black people were somehow incapable of racism.

I don't know how many times I have been stopped and searched. But I do know that it is an experience that not one of my university friends has ever undergone and is ever likely to undergo, because they are white, and I am not. But fortunately, it turns out that this means I can say whatever the hell I like about white people apparently, without any fear of reprisal, because I 'can't' be racist, at least according to the vast edifice of Diane Abbott apologia that has been erected on the Internet today.

And, it is worth noting that whilst, in the left-Labour blogosphere, you can indeed find many who defended Abbott, you can also find many like Stephen who feel mounting frustration with that kind of apologia in the party we love.

I believe Diane Abbott is not a racist. And neither is Paul Flynn. But both expressed totally unacceptable views. And it was not as though something slipped out which was misinterpreted in either case; that is a shabby twisting of the facts. MPs live and die - rightly - by the words they speak, and in neither case was there a reasonable alternative reading of those words.

The conclusion to all this is a simple one: that the Abbott affair is not about colonialism, as she risibly claimed; just as the Flynn affair was not about the Palestinian question. They are about the tolerance of the left to attitudes on race that the centre and the centre-right would have no truck with. An extraordinary reversal, from the party that once fought apartheid, and a tragedy.

Rob Marchant is a political commentator and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.