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UK elections 2024: Starmer has cast minorities aside to pander to bigotry

In a betrayal of progressive politics, Labour has run a racist campaign. At a time when Britons are desperate for principled leadership, it has been a disgraceful spectacle
Keir Starmer delivers a speech at the launch of the Labour election manifesto in Manchester last month (Oli Scarff/AFP)
Keir Starmer delivers a speech at the launch of the Labour election manifesto in Manchester last month (Oli Scarff/AFP)

At the height of this election campaign, UK Labour Party leader Keir Starmer promised he would “clean up” politics to “ensure the highest standards of integrity and honesty”.

An admirable ambition. But what a peculiar way of setting about it.

Starmer has fought one of the ugliest and most scurrilous election campaigns I can remember in 30 years of covering Westminster.

Tory Zac Goldsmith’s attempt to become London mayor eight years ago has gone down in history as one of the most Islamophobic election campaigns of all time.

Starmer’s campaign has been even nastier. In a betrayal of progressive politics the Labour leader has turned ruthlessly on minorities. 

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Last week, Labour weaponised the plight of Bangladesh migrants. “At the moment,” Starmer told the Sun newspaper's Election Showdown debate, “people coming from countries like Bangladesh are not being removed, because they’re not being processed.”

After a row blew up, he told ATN Bangla, a Bangladeshi TV station, that he meant no offence and that he only mentioned Bangladesh because good British/Bangladeshi relations happened to be “front of mind”.

Labour's record of racism

I don’t believe Starmer’s protestation that he referred to Bangladeshi migrants by chance.

On the same day as Starmer’s outburst, shadow cabinet minister Jonathan Ashworth used exactly the same phrase when he told the BBC that Labour would send migrants “from countries like Bangladesh or wherever” back to their countries of origin.

As an experienced political reporter, I know how political campaigns work. Party strategists prepare grids which set out, on a daily basis, where the party leaders will go and what subjects they plan to highlight.

It feels too much of a coincidence that Starmer used exactly the same language as Ashworth - on the day when our likely future prime minister was meeting the right-wing Sun. This felt pre-meditated to me. To invoke Oscar Wilde's famous line: "To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."

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All the more so because Starmer’s Labour already has a record of racism against Muslim and Black voters. 

Remember when a party "source" told the BBC they believed Labour was on course to lose the West Midlands mayoralty vote as a result of the “Middle East not West Midlands” and called Hamas the “real villains”?

Or the Labour Party briefing following the May council election that described Muslim councillors leaving Labour over Gaza as “shaking off the fleas”? Or the shocking treatment of Faiza Shaheen, removed from the candidates list at the last moment without warning or chance of appeal.  

The equivocation around Diane Abbott, Britain’s first Black female MP, at the start of the campaign, falls into the same pattern.

As does the grotesque treatment of Muslim Labour members, as exposed in Al Jazeera’s The Labour Files, including evidence of a secret dossier that was used to disenfranchise approximately 5,000 largely Muslim Labour members, who were accused of trying to “infiltrate” the party in the London borough of Newham.

Imagine comparable evidence surrounding Jewish members surfacing during the Corbyn era. The roof would have fallen in. Rightly so.

Labour has denied accusations of racism, but the accusations gained credibility when Martin Forde published his 2022 report into antisemitism and other forms of discrimination inside Labour. Forde identified a “hierarchy of racism”, including  “serious problems of discrimination”. 

The Labour Files, essential for any serious understanding of Starmer’s Labour Party, were completely ignored in the mainstream media. It is easy enough to guess why. The Murdoch media empire and its rivals share the same contempt for British Muslims that Al Jazeera exposed at the heart of the Labour Party. 

Facilitating Farage

The common bigotry uniting British mass media and the Starmer camp helps explain many features of the Labour campaign that otherwise make little or no sense coming from a so-called progressive political movement.

Starmer’s silence over the repellent anti-Muslim bigotry from Nigel Farage after he took over the leadership of Reform is one example. One would have expected a magisterial denunciation from a future prime minister. It was not forthcoming.

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One shocking case study concerns Clacton, the Essex constituency where Farage is standing for parliament. One would have expected Labour to have fought as hard as it could to stop Farage from winning.

In fact, the opposite is the case. According to a report in the Guardian, sources from the local campaign in Clacton said “it had been banned from printing leaflets, blocked from using campaigning software and had access to the campaign’s social media overridden, with posts deleted on X”.

The Guardian reported that the official Labour candidate, Jovan Owusu-Nepaul, had been ordered to down tools, leave Clacton, and campaign in the West Midlands.

The newspaper quoted one Labour activist, Tracey Lewis, who quit the constituency Labour Party in the wake of that deployment. “I’m a lifelong Labour supporter," she said, "… but if they can’t put a fight up against Nigel Farage, then who are they fighting for?”

Nigel Farage addresses Reform UK supporters in Clacton, 4 June 2024 (Ben Stansall/AFP)
Nigel Farage addresses Reform UK supporters in Clacton, 4 June 2024 (Ben Stansall/AFP)

Last night the Voice newspaper - which speaks for British-Caribbean people - commented that Labour "had a chance to rally around its candidate, a young Black man under the age of thirty – a rarity in politics. 

"Others, however, will likely interpret Labour’s dropping of Jovan Owusu-Nepaul as Starmer pandering to the very thing he should be fighting - racism - worried about strongly backing a confident anti-racist Black candidate, in the eyes of racists. We saw this with the handling of Diane Abbott."

To sum up: Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is running a racist election, while facilitating the election of far-right Farage as a Reform MP. Labour has thrown Muslim voters overboard in what looks to me like a deliberate strategy to pander to bigotry.

Starmer has chosen to fight a cynical and dirty battle, targeting some of the most vulnerable people in our country while appeasing the resurgent far-right

This is so desperately sad.

Starmer is poised to win the general election on 4 July. The Tory government, one of the worst in British history, richly deserves to be thrown out.

Millions of ordinary, decent people yearn for a more competent and principled government.

Yet Starmer has chosen to fight a cynical and dirty battle, targeting some of the most vulnerable people in our country while appeasing the resurgent far-right.

These tactics bring disgrace both on the Labour Party and on Starmer himself.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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