The Labour party is under new management, Keir Starmer said in his online conference speech last week. But for many, it’s not working. Despite a warm reception in some quarters, in others the speech was regarded as a disappointment. His efforts to win back the red wall, pivot towards patriotism and generally move to the right on culture have left black and minority-ethnic party members angry, and some Labour MPs feeling despondent.
His comments on the Black Lives Matter movement earlier in the summer were the turning point. After staging a photo in which he took the knee, in respect for BLM, Starmer then went on to say that some of its demands were “nonsense” and that the “moment” was about showing solidarity with what was an American problem.
On the same day Salome Wagaine, a young black writer from Tottenham, north London, cancelled her party membership. When I spoke to her about her reasons for leaving, she displayed a controlled but righteous anger, revealing the kind of frustration that comes from being taken for granted.
“The Labour party has always had a bit of a problem,” she told me. “They want the seats that BAME people are in but are a bit embarrassed to have us as a core voting block.” To her, Starmer’s insensitive comments showed that the old party was back – the one that didn’t want to look like it was the party of brown and black people, but depended on their votes. The one that made the right noises about racial equality and social justice, but didn’t want to put these values at the heart of a political agenda. The one that is into the gimmicky staging of photos taking the knee in support of black lives, but then makes no effort to understand or learn about the structural issues facing black Britons today.
He was “unwilling to go all out in terms of critiquing the police”, she said. “But who’s getting imprisoned? At what rate?” Kneeling and having photos taken with parents of racial violence victims, then not turning up to one of the largest racial justice movements in recent history looks bad. It looks exploitative.
In Manchester, others I spoke to who left for the same reasons as Salome all had a broadly similar profile: young, urban and mostly from black and minority-ethnic backgrounds. The phrase “the last straw” came up often when discussing Starmer’s tough-guy act against Black Lives Matter. The impression among some Labour voters who care about racial justice is of a man who, in his eagerness to put distance between himself and Jeremy Corbyn, has decided that anything that looks remotely sympathetic to identity issues is toxic. “Under new management” is essentially “what Corbyn wouldn’t do”. If that means the party must sacrifice its ethnic minorities in safe Labour seats in London, then that is low-cost collateral damage because, realistically, what other party are these young people going to vote for?
Whether this is conscious betrayal or an unintended consequence of the new leader’s approach depends on who you speak to. What fans of Starmer see as wily tightrope navigation – one that Starmer performs without playing into Boris Johnson’s hands by engaging in culture-war issues or high-stakes, politically charged topics such as immigration – can also be seen as extreme risk aversion. One person’s fine balance is another’s lack of conviction. Starmer’s approach has become a Rorschach test: to some it’s strong competent leadership, to others bland prevarication. Many of Starmer’s comments on controversial issues are either an exercise in extreme hedging or an opportunity to signal that the party is now very much into patriotism and law and order.
To those within the party, it looks as if Starmer’s fear of a media gaffe or a misstep has led him to surround himself with a team in his own image. Most of those in powerful positions in the leader’s office and on the frontbench, from the general secretary of the Labour party to the most senior advisers in his leadership campaign, are white. Some are surprised that he has barricaded himself so. One BAME female MP told me: “We have had lots of white men as leaders of the Labour party, but with Keir I expected different because of his past record in international affairs and the diverse constituency he represents.” Another ethnic minority MP is more alarmed, having registered the fact that the party is haemorrhaging people of colour in particular and young people in general.
Overall, there is a strong sense among minority voters and MPs that Labour is not just under new management, but is interested only in courting the custom of those voters it has lost to the Conservatives in red-wall areas by offering them Toryism-lite. This not only has implications for its voters of colour, but also says something about what is happening to the spirit of the party.
In assuming that identity politics and activism on social justice are unpopular with voters it wishes to win over, it has accepted the premise of the right, which has successfully smeared these issues as “woke”. And in attacking the Tories primarily on competence and practical failures in governance, Labour sheds moral passion. A dispirited BAME MP describes the new party to me as “cold and Vulcan”. Labour’s unfolding renovation may or may not win back the red wall, but what is certain is that it is losing core voters in the process – and with them, its soul.
• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist and the author of We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent