I could write a book about the racism I’ve experienced running for office in the last 18 months

This week I faced a new low, and from a less likely place

Faiza Shaheen
Sunday 20 October 2019 17:39
BBC Newsnight's Kirsty Wark mistakes Faiza Shaheen as Ash Sarkar

“Why are you getting involved in politics?”

This is one of the most common questions I get asked on the doorstep, usually followed by a disparaging comment about politicians. Given the long list of misdemeanours – from the expenses scandal to Boris Johnson’s lying Brexit bus – you can see why. But it’s not the guilty-by-association part of the job that is most demanding about becoming a politician; it’s the way my identity has been weaponised.

Racism is not new to my life. My dad, who was from Fiji, moved to Chingford in the 1960s and his experiences of racism were much discussed in our household. Anticipating that we would be called “P***” and various other racial slurs in the playground (he was right) he would make us practise our punching, advising us to hit fellow children who called us names. My brother, sister and I were more inclined to my mother’s softer approaches, but over the years I’ve certainly had to stand up against racism and have seen how prejudices play out in different arenas. But it’s only now, since entering politics, that racism is really starting to throw heavy punches in my life.

In the 18 months since I launched my campaign to stand for the Labour Party in my home seat of Chingford and Woodford Green, I could already write a book about the different ways in which racism has reared its ugly head. The multiple emails I’ve received telling me to “shut my mouth” when I go on television – one with a gif of a black woman speaking. There’s the local Tory councillor who we found out was a rabid Islamophobe, with a Twitter account littered with religious hatred and racism, who only got suspended for a month from the Conservative Party and whose Facebook friends now hound me online. Then of course are the emails from a local resident asking me if the Muslim men in Walthamstow are controlling me – this one comes with an extra slice of misogyny too.

This week I faced a new low, and from a less likely place. The Liberal Democrat candidate for the constituency, Geoffrey Seeff, got in touch for the first time, with an email that stated he had written an open letter that will be published in the local press alongside my response. The contents of his letter were alarming. He highlighted the apparent misdemeanours of a small Islamic organisation, the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), which he assumed I knew about. Apparently, the organisation had “been quoted saying some very unpleasant things” and supports the Iranian government. I was confused – what has this obscure organisation, one I’ve never heard of, got to do with me?

The letter then goes on to ask what I think about Jeremy Corbyn apparently saying something nice about the organisation 10 years ago. I am to write a response outlining my views on the organisation and Corbyn’s views on it because it is an issue “exercising the minds” of a number of the voters in the constituency? Come off it.

Interestingly, Seeff hasn’t emailed Iain Duncan Smith to ask about what he makes of Boris Johnson congratulating the known antisemite and Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban on winning his election. He states in the open letter that “there’s many matters on which you and I would disagree on” – so why not start with investment in public services? After all, it would make sense as that is the main thing that comes up on the doorstep and I opposed the cuts his party supported.

Many reading this will note the several Jewish women in the Labour Party that have complained about antisemitism and bullying. Every party needs to clean up its act. The Tories clearly have a widespread problem with Islamophobia, which they are failing to address head on, and Labour have in the past failed to deal adequately with allegations of antisemitism, which has tainted the party with the actions of a tiny minority that should have been dealt with firmly a long time ago.

Rather than kick the issue into the long grass, Jo Swinson's party should investigate racism and Islamophobia in their ranks, including the case of the husband and office manager of Angela “funny tinge” Smith, who outrageously accused Dawn Butler of making up stories about experiencing racism in parliament.

We need to see almost twice the number of Bame MPs to reflect society, and the gap at local government level is even worse. I write this knowing that I could be putting off potential MPs: I’m the only new woman of colour to be selected in a marginal seat for the Labour Party in England. I see this as the outcome of poor processes, but it may also be due to cases like Diane Abbott, who received half of all abuse aimed at female politicians in the lead-up to the 2017 general election, which has put off people of colour from entering politics.

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So how can we change things? Too often, it feels like parties only crank into action when forced to, rather like the European football authority Uefa that spent years handing out paltry fines for racism until black players stood up and threatened to walk off the field. We need to show racism the red card wherever it lurks, and that includes in public life.

We also need to have a programme of more support for people targeted by racism – high-profile cases like Diane Abbott and Luciana Berger are a reminder of just how bad the situation is. Personally, it’s tiring to receive so much hate based on who I am rather than what I stand for. My identity isn’t a liability, but that’s how it appears to be perceived by my opponents. We all need to stand together against this behaviour, and some of us need the solidarity more than others.

Dr Faiza Shaheen is the Labour Party’s parliamentary candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green

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