Keir Starmer wants to show that Labour is ready for power. The days of irresponsible policies and crank MPs are over. They are the adults in the room after successive waves of Tory crises. Only a few hours before his speech at the Labour Party conference on Tuesday this pristine image was dented.
At a conference fringe event Rupa Huq, the MP for Ealing Central and Acton, said of the Chancellor of Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, that “he superficially is a black man”. She added, by way of absurd evidence: “He went to Eton, he went to a very expensive prep school… if you hear him on the Today programme, you wouldn’t know he’s black.” Huq had the whip suspended for these comments.
Huq’s viewpoint is offensive, but what is immediately striking is just how bizarre it is. Why should being privately educated and well spoken disqualify someone from being black? Are the only authentically black people the ones who grew up in council estates and sound like rappers? Huq is hostile to Kwarteng’s politics. This is fair enough; disputation is fundamental to politics. But embedded in her mind, apparently, is a view of black people that ought to be unthinkable for someone who represents a party that prides itself on progressive values on race.
More than a decade ago, in a Newsnight debate on the 2011 London riots, the Tudor historian David Starkey made this comment about the Tottenham MP David Lammy: “Listen to David Lammy, an archetypal successful black man. If you turn the screen off so that you are listening to him on radio you would think he was white.” This was part of a wider tirade about the influence of black culture on British society: white people in cities up and down the country now sound black. But thankfully, you’ve got people like Lammy on the other side of this, showing that black people can escape their blackness.
Huq seems to think the same. Her comments suggest that to be black is to occupy the lowest rungs of society, and only the Labour Party can save black people. Rich black Tories like Kwarteng betray their identity. They lose their black card because they undermine Huq’s picture of race. Black people can be rich or poor, left-wing or right-wing. They can sound like Kwasi Kwarteng or Dizzee Rascal.
I find it astonishing I even have to write that there is more than one way to be a black person. But the Labour Party is full of surprises. In his speech Starmer, echoing Tony Blair, described Labour as “the party of the centre ground”. “Once again,” he said, “we are the political wing of the British people.” Against the current Tory government, and according to the recent polls, this may be so. But there are still, as the Huq example demonstrates, attitudes about race within the party that run contrary to the centre ground. Starmer still has a lot of work to do.