Last week I finally got round to watching the Oscar-winning film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The film tells the story of a grieving mother who tires of the failure of the hopeless local police force to find the person who raped and killed her teenage daughter. This prompts her to rent three large billboards in the area emblazoned with “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “STILL NO ARRESTS?”, and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” The local police Chief Willoughby, who happens to be dying from cancer, is a popular community figure, so her billboards upset a lot of people but she presses on regardless.
The film received much acclaim but also criticism for being complacent about the prejudice it illustrates by seemingly redeeming the racist white cop by the end of the film – which brings us to the hate that has consumed both the main British political parties this summer.
Boris Johnson is a man who has built his career on poking fun at other people. Many find his utterances mildly amusing, save for those groups who are the targets of his ridicule. So it is of no surprise that, writing in The Daily Telegraph last week, he should argue both against bans on face-covering veils but at the same time say “it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letterboxes” in relation to Muslim women wearing the burqa. It is inconceivable that in using these words he did not know he would cause huge offence – that was the whole point of it, as is so often the case with Johnson.
He has form on prejudice. In 2002 while he was the Conservative MP for Henley he described black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”. He apologised for this in 2008 when running for London mayor. No disciplinary action whatsoever was taken by the Tory party.
During the 2016 EU referendum campaign Johnson suggested the then US president Barack Obama’s attitude to Britain might be based on his race, pointing to his “part-Kenyan” heritage and “ancestral dislike of the British empire”. Again, there was no reprimand by his party.
Of course, he co-led Vote Leave – a campaign that suggested if we stay in the EU then millions of Turkish people will come to the UK, putting Brits at risk because of what it claimed were higher levels of criminality among Turkish people. Not only was no action taken in this case, but he was joined in the endeavour by Michael Gove, Penny Mordaunt and others.
Examples of Johnson’s alleged sexism are well documented. For example, when answering questions at the launch of the World Islamic Economic Forum alongside the Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, he suggested women go to university simply to find men to marry. The list goes on.
Johnson’s comments are particularly dangerous because they normalise prejudice, but on each occasion throughout the years he seemingly finds redemption in the Tory party. How else does one explain that, in spite of all of this, he is now odds on favourite to succeed Theresa May as prime minister?
The attitudes of many Tory members account for the party’s habit of turning a blind eye to hate. The prime minister herself even defended aiding and abetting the racist and Islamophobic Tory London mayoral campaign against Sadiq Khan in 2016 when I took her to task for her role in it in the House of Commons that year. This year the party readmitted a Conservative councillor in Pendle who had shared a racist joke comparing Asian people to dogs so that it could take control of a Lancashire council.
Earlier this year, CCHQ also looked the other way when Tories distributed leaflets in Havering where they warned voting Labour would turn Romford into boroughs like Hackney, Newham, Camden and Barking, “rather than a traditional part of Essex” – what could they possibly mean? Former Tory minister Nick Boles at least had the guts to publicly say the leaflet was a disgrace and that “the individuals responsible should apologise, and withdraw it, or face disciplinary action”.
Sowing the seeds of fear and division and “othering” minority groups in the pursuit of power is morally wrong – and it has also never done anything to improve the lot of the people of this country. In my view, Johnson’s interest in doing so is purely to do with his career and nothing to do with Britain.
Meanwhile, Labour continues to allow institutional antisemitism in the party to flourish, compromising its ability, as the official opposition, to hold the Tories to account for their disgraceful record on hate. The summer recess started with the party commencing disciplinary proceedings not against those guilty of antisemitism but against my parliamentary colleagues Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin, who have complained about it and whose families lost loved ones in the Holocaust.
A particularly poisonous claim in this antisemitism row that has gained a lot of traction is that those who complain about institutional antisemitism in the party never wanted Jeremy Corbyn to take up the leadership of the party, and are motivated by animus towards him and not concern about the issue. In fact, it is precisely because of the leader’s past utterances and actions on these matters, and his sharing of platforms with those that promote extreme views, that the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs did not believe he was fit to lead the party in the first instance. The very serious questions regarding the leader’s presence at a wreath-laying ceremony in Tunisia in 2014 are just the latest example of this.
This most recent episode in this crisis follows revelations in March that Corbyn supported a graffiti artist who produced a highly offensive and obviously antisemitic mural, the speeches of my colleagues Luciana Berger and Ruth Smeeth in April setting out in detail the antisemitic abuse they have received including from supporters of the leader, and revelations this month that the shadow chancellor and the leader called for Holocaust Memorial Day to be renamed to remove the word Holocaust in 2011 (arguing instead that it should be called “Genocide Memorial Day”).
In short, the Jewish community has clearly been subject to differential treatment by our party these past couple of years that is discriminatory. The Macpherson Report defined institutional racism as “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin”. It said this “can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people”. Based on its actions (or failure to act), it is beyond doubt that Labour, as an institution, meets these criteria insofar as the Jewish community is concerned – something which should shame every member of our party.
Part of the reason I joined Labour was because I believed it to be anti-racist, which is why this latest development sickens me and I have not hesitated publicly to say so. The fact that arguably the same can be said of the Tories with regard to the Muslim community makes this no less appalling.
In spite of the silence of most of the Parliamentary Labour Party – driven by a fear of deselection if they speak out – there is no doubt that most Labour MPs are as horrified as I am by the antisemitism which has been exposed in the party in recent months. Many feel that they are being pushed to breaking point. In this context, it is extraordinary that Labour’s shadow cabinet has not held an emergency meeting to get a grip and bring an end to this crisis – they are the party’s leadership, after all, so it is not unreasonable to expect some concrete collective action.
The perpetrators of antisemitism on the left point to the actions of the Israeli government as justification for their actions when there is no justification for racism. The truth is that just as it is the case that the far right sows the seeds of division and seeks to “other” people, the same happens on the far left too.
The enemies identified by the far left tend to be America (regardless of who is the sitting president), markets, capitalism and the so-called business-owning class. Their world view often merges criticisms of the policies of Israel, the actions of the US or capitalism with a commentary on and hatred of Jewish people. Not only is this wrong on so many levels, but this hatred is now eating up the British Labour Party and will do so until it properly addresses it.
So what are we left with? Two parties that do not have the authority to lead the country – that is where hatred takes you. Whatever your party, to all those who reject this “them and us” approach that increasingly characterises UK politics, we have to build in every community a different kind of politics that can unite the nation, whatever your circumstances or background. We certainly cannot go on like this. This country deserves so much more from its current leaders.