Labour's rebrand seeks to win back former labour voters in the so-called "red-wall” constituencies lost in 2019, but Labour may risk losing ethnic minority voters if it regurgitates right-wing nationalist rhetoric.
Patriotism. Family. Opportunity. The Labour Party’s attempt to woo socially conservative voters in former “red wall” constituencies is far from subtle. In his first conference speech as leader, Keir Starmer has sought to win over Tory voters by appealing to patriotism. There is, of course, no harm in talking about the politics of belonging and community, but too often rhetoric surrounding patriotism and British identity has been exclusionary and at the expense of ethnic minority communities in this country.
Labour should avoid adopting right-wing nationalist rhetoric in order to win over voters as has been done in the past. Instead, Labour should be defining a vision of community that champions diversity and recognises ethnic minority voters as an integral part of its traditional working-class heartlands.
In debates surrounding Labour connecting with its working-class heartlands, ethnic minority communities seem to be excluded from conceptions of the “traditional working class” with the term becoming increasingly synonymous with the “white working class”. Ethnic minority communities have suffered from deindustrialisation and have been disproportionately affected by austerity. Last year, a UN expert concluded in a report that the government’s austerity programme had entrenched racial inequality in the UK.
The epistemic separation between race and class is deeply problematic. Why do we rarely hear of the struggles of the “Black working class” or the “Asian working class”?
When Vauxhall closed its plant in my hometown of Luton in 2000, it was the Black, White and Asian working classes who suffered collectively with more than 2000 people left unemployed. The modern working-class is multi-racial and no amount of imperial nostalgia can change that. Places like Birmingham and Brixton are just as important as places like Barnsley and Blackpool and Labour must be cautious to avoid divisive nationalist ideals.
It would be wrong to assume support for the Labour Party among ethnic minority voters is guaranteed. In April, Starmer referred to the Kashmir crisis as a “bilateral issue,” seemingly abandoning a previous position under Corbyn, which expressed solidarity with the people of Kashmir. His remarks caused outrage amongst Kashmiri communities in traditional Labour strongholds such as Birmingham, Bradford and Luton. More than 100 British mosques even threatened to boycott the Labour Party over the stance.
When Starmer referred to the Black Lives Matter movement as a “moment,” and failed to acknowledge very real concerns of anti-Black racism in the criminal justice system, he alienated many Black voters. Following the Labour leaks, which documented anti-Black racism within the party, Labour are yet to take any decisive action against party officials who directed abuse towards Labour’s Black MPs. Such inaction has led to Labour losing Black members. These issues affecting ethnic minority voters should not be taken for granted.
It remains to be seen what effect Labour’s new nationalist rhetoric will have on official Labour Party policy but there is a historical precedent for Labour adopting the rhetoric of the right and then pursuing policies detrimental to the lives of ethnic minority communities in Britain.
We don’t want to see a return to the era of “controls on immigration” mugs under Milliband or crackdowns on asylum seekers under Blair. Such policies were pursued during the 2015 general election to avoid ceding ground to UKIP and the Conservatives on immigration. These policies not only failed to help Labour win the 2015 General Election but also increased hysteria surrounding immigrant communities in this country. Appeasing the nationalist right simply reinforces a right-wing message, which has used ethnic minority communities as scapegoats in this country for decades. Labour can't adopt right-wing nationalist views.
Nationalism is the reason Britain has failed to come to terms with its imperial past and continues to suffer from historical amnesia on the question of colonialism. It is the reason why xenophobia and moral panic surrounding ethnic minority communities has gone unchallenged. In the midst of a global pandemic and a global climate crisis, Labour must not abandon its internationalist values. It must champion a vision that is unashamedly proud of our diversity as a nation and it must never take for granted ethnic minority voters who have often formed the very backbone of the Labour movement.
Taj Ali is the outgoing ethnic minorities officer at the University of Warwick