Labour leaks have cost the party dearly – but its dismissal of anti-black racism means it’s about to lose a lot more

It feels like black women on the left are between a rock and a hard place: abstain from politics or support a party that believes speaking out is evidence of factionalism

Paula Akpan
Thursday 16 April 2020 18:28 BST
Anti-Corbyn Labour officials worked to lose general election to oust leader, leaked dossier finds

Just a few nights ago, Twitter was set ablaze with the leaking of an internal report into the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit. The 860-page document, including emails and WhatsApp messages, was the result of an investigation into antisemitism within the party, however, it ended up revealing much more.

What has been brought to the fore is an intricate web of bureaucratic plotting and contemptuous commentary from some of the most senior officials in the Labour Party.

Alongside denigrating their colleagues and blocking Jeremy Corbyn’s investigations into antisemitism, this right-wing sect of Labour sought to undermine their elected leadership at every turn, going as far as seeking to scupper their party’s 2017 general election campaign. However, even amid all the deception, conspiracy and sabotage, what comes through loud and clear is the utter contempt with which Labour Party members view black women, specifically their own MPs.

In February 2017, senior staff discussed that Diane Abbott, Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP and former shadow home secretary, was crying in a toilet, having just received more abuse in the form of rape and death threats – a daily event for the politician. One of the senior staffers revealed Abbott was in a Leon restaurant on Victoria Street, to which another replied with “Shall we tell Michael Crick” – Crick being a Channel 4 reporter at the time. The response? “Already have” with a winking emoji.

The report states that “another senior staff member engaged in what could be considered a classic racist trope” by referring to Abbott as a “very angry woman” and the reason that he was listening to Question Time without the sound on. One colleague referred to her as “truly repulsive” while another said that she “literally makes me sick”. The report also notes that a staffer implied that Abbott had faked her illnesses towards the end of the 2017 election campaign.

Meanwhile, senior staff within the Labour Party made disparaging remarks about Dawn Butler’s promotion to the shadow cabinet as shadow secretary of state for women and equalities, with the report outlining that they were “apparently suggesting that her accusations of racism within the Labour Party were untrue”.

“DAWN BUTLER” exclaimed one member of staff, quickly followed by “good grief”, to which former head of internal governance replied: “Did she not accuse the LP and its staff of being racist this week? Nice.”

The malevolence is breathtaking. To tell the press where they can find your colleague as she cries in the face of receiving yet more misogynoiristic vitriol requires a complete refusal to acknowledge her humanity. Mocking Butler for having the audacity to speak out on racism within the party, only for exactly that to be laid bare for all to see, only lends itself to a noxious irony. The political sphere is harsh and hostile towards black women politicians, something that party staffers, of all people, are aware of – and clearly took great delight in.

This latest peek behind the scenes of party politics would be farcical if it wasn’t leaving black women who have supported Labour angry, frustrated and despondent. It leaves a particularly sour taste for those who voted Labour, not because they were caught up in illusions that a party could ever truly be for the people, but rather as a tactic to stem ardent austerity and privatisation under a Tory government.

“At the moment, I feel empty. I don’t know how I should feel or what I should do,” Francisca Rockey, who was a member of the Labour Party on a student membership since 2015, told me. In the last election, she campaigned with Labour North and encouraged York students to vote. “Who can I vote for now? Should I still be involving myself in politics? What does this mean for the Bame community? There are a lot of questions that I want answered, I hope I can get those from the public inquiry, should there be one.” In the meantime, she’s cancelled her membership after reading the full report: “I cannot support a party that has allowed relentless bullying, institutional racism to continue to manifest, gross misogynoir directed at a black woman, and sabotaged their former leader.”

For black feminist historian Jade Bentil, the treatment of black women politicians has left her disgusted but entirely unsurprised, strengthening her beliefs in disinvesting in electorialism. “The Labour Party and the system at large use black women as political shields in order to further their own agendas and to further consolidate power.” She adds: “This has only further confirmed my disillusionment and comment to not investing in electoral politics – it is fundamentally rooted within black women in Britain remaining as the “Other”.

Chanté Joseph, a journalist who has also canvassed and advocated for the Labour Party in recent years, is also unsurprised by what the report unearthed: “The party has a racism problem and they cannot hide it any longer.” However, she believes that she will reluctantly continue to support the party as “we lack any other strong opposition”.

New Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in profile

It feels like black women in this country, specifically those on the left who still believe that electoral politics can work, are being presented with a rock and a hard place: abstain from voting or vote for a party that has done demonstrable harm to black women – both its politicians and its supporters. The silence from those within the party, particularly black male politicians like Tottenham MP David Lammy, who are normally outspoken on issues of racial injustice, is loud.

New leader Keir Starmer’s urgent call for an independent inquiry into how the document was leaked, rather than the galling contents of said document, is just as telling as to where the party’s priorities lie. It was even reported that a small group of Labour staffers attempted to block the party’s Unite branch from writing letters of solidarity to Diane Abbott, Dawn Butler and Clive Lewis (the latter was named in the report by regional organiser as “the biggest c*** of the lot”).

As Bentil and Joseph both note, it’s more important than ever to focus on other ways to tackle the harm and oppression disproportionately experienced within our communities. “Mutual aid, community-based schemes, forms of kinship and accountability that exist beyond the state are what I want to focus on in the years to come”, notes Bentil.

The contents of this report are a reminder that every corner of our society is built on anti-blackness and the subjugation of black people, specifically black women and queer folk. It serves as yet another reminder that the theatre of politics will not save us. Investing in grassroots community-focused initiatives, on the other hand, will.

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