Keir Starmer’s dismissal of defunding the police has lost him black support. The problem is, I don’t know if he cares?

Few would expect Starmer to emerge as a police abolitionist. But his choice to roundly dismiss the concept of defunding the police as pure fantasy is telling

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Wednesday 01 July 2020 17:14 BST
Related video: Keir Starmer says it’s 'nonsense' to call to ‘defund the police’ over black lives 'moment'
Related video: Keir Starmer says it’s 'nonsense' to call to ‘defund the police’ over black lives 'moment'

It’s astounding – no matter how often it happens – how regularly and spectacularly MPs contradict themselves.

No free school meals for kids; more free school meals for kids. We’re coming out of lockdown; Leicester is going into lockdown. And in the case of Keir Starmer this week: Black Lives, er, Matter? Actually, we might want to look into the that...

Regardless of how successful this posturing tends to be, particularly at election time, it doesn’t make it any less obscene – especially when you belong to a group whose issues are considered largely irrelevant to the game of political point-scoring in the UK.

We’re used to public figures and politicians masquerading as champions of whatever laudable issue of the day, only to essentially throw their morals overboard so as to win over the parts of the electorate who really count, without ever having to provide the support that even this most valued faction (the so-called centre to right-leaning, white “left-behinds” anywhere north of London) actually need.

Take Starmer’s decision to take a knee on 9 June in apparent solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter moment”, as he calls it. Like the embarrassing affair of numerous US police officers walking or kneeling in solidarity with protesters, only to apologise for doing so hours later, it was a decision made when Starmer had no doubt that the world was watching.

Though it still is, widespread interest in eradicating (or being seen to help to call out) racism, as it was always going to, has waned, and few on the left have been quicker to take advantage of that than the Labour party leader himself.

In fact, it’s one of several political tests he’s had to pass since taking the helm. The problem is, the criteria for emerging as the pragmatic alternative to Johnson’s boundless buffoonery, as well as the ghost of “Corbynism”, relies quite heavily on appeasing factions of the electorate that he will have likely alienated by kneeling.

Twenty days after his apparent display of solidarity with black people, the issue has re-emerged in the form of these words: “Nobody should be saying anything about defunding the police.

“I was director of public prosecutions for five years. I’ve worked with police forces across England and Wales bringing thousands of people to court, so my support for the police is very strong.

“It’s a shame it’s getting tangled up with these organisational issues, with the organisation Black Lives Matter, but I wouldn’t have any truck with what the organisation is saying about defunding the police – that’s just nonsense.”

Few would expect Starmer to emerge as a police abolitionist. But his choice to roundly dismiss the concept of defunding the police as pure fantasy – rather than a) something with a history of academia around it or b) the concept involving issues around police being involved in situations that might be better left to counsellors or healthcare professionals – is telling.

Starmer went on to say: There’s a broader issue here. The Black Lives Matter movement – or moment, if you like – internationally is about reflecting something completely different. It’s reflecting on what happened dreadfully in America just a few weeks ago and showing or acknowledging that as a moment across the world.”

This move to downplay the historical significance of this movement in the UK specifically, as if oblivious to the extent of racism – or at least complaints about it – here, was just as revealing. Echoing widespread attempts to reframe recent UK protests solely as reactions to the murder of George Floyd, when we have for years been screaming about many equivalents right here on British soil.

It was almost as if the police who mocked the murders of sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry in Wembley by taking photos of their bodies and sending them to members of the public, weren’t worthy of outrage.

Or that accusations against the same police force, who were accused of dragging their feet on responding to the incident by the girls’ mother, Mina Smallman, were insignificant (The Independent Office for Police Conduct is investigating the response of the police ).

It was as if the fact that a 13-year-old boy and his black father, wrongfully detained by police while on a charity bike ride not far from where Mark Duggan was shot and killed wasn’t part of a wider issue here. That thousands hadn’t just marched across the country for black trans lives, and the lives of children like Shurki Abdi.

More specifically, it was as if the exposure of anti-black racism in Labour, which has reportedly led to an exodus of black Labour supporters, seemingly much to the disinterest of the party itself, didn’t matter at all.

Perhaps it’s because, to him, this doesn't matter as much as many thought it did. Even if that’s not what he truly believes, he’s done such a convincing job of dismissing black people that even Nigel Farage has praised him for it. In fact, James Cleverly, Conservative MP, often wheeled out himself to explain away accusations of racism in his own party, has even pulled Starmer up on his flip-flopping.

Just as Starmer has had to prove himself anything but a Corbynite to earn the kind of respect he values, mainly from the parts of the party – and beyond – who see these matters as fleeting, fringe issues, he has had to simultaneously present himself as both interested and disinterested in issues that would lead to betterment for everyone who’s struggling in this country. Support should mean support – Starmer does not need to believe in defunding the police, but he should not dismiss the things attached to it completely.

We could have turned this into a teaching moment about the importance of repurposing funding for mental health provision, for reassessing responses to persistent social inequalities, which time and again have been mishandled by police.

We could have used this time to scrutinise the government’s plans to expand prisons and its inevitable role in disproportionately locking up black people, women, and non-black people of colour.

Starmer’s choice not to do any of that isn’t just telling, it’s further proof his hunger to bend to the will of whoever he believes will keep him in power. I’m sure that’s precisely the point. This is politics, after all.

I just hope he realises when he needs us that we’re all cognisant of game-playing.

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