Do Black Votes Matter?

By Dr. Ian Laws, Socialist Historian

Hashtags. I really hate hashtags. In fact, if I had to throw just one thing into Room 101, it would most definitely be…well, just about anything and everything that has contributed to the implementation of a pernicious, global, neo-liberal agenda over the last forty years or so…but you get the point. One hashtag that should be of paramount concern to those of us on the Left, and to members of the Labour Party in particular, is the #OfficialOpposition hashtag that has been trending on social media recently, applied to such diverse personalities, institutions, and organisations as Piers Morgan, Mark Rashford, the UK Premier League, and Black Lives Matter. Whenever Piers Morgan, of all people, is praised for holding the Government to account through uncompromising journalism and hard-hitting interview techniques, social media is full of comparisons between that unlikely champion of righteousness  and the leader of the Official Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer MP.

The humiliation was particularly acute for Labour following Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid’s April 15th interview with Sir Keir on Good Morning Britain. Commenting on a performance which could have had the Labour MP mistaken for a Tory Minister striving to defend Government policy, Facebook and Twitter were ripe with praise for Piers Morgan and condemnation of the new Labour leader’s lacklustre response to  Government ineptitude, with one Twitterer observing: “Piers Morgan is interviewing Keir Starmer on GMB this morning, and he’s holding the Government to account better than the opposition leader”. Another highly critical tweet by Huffington Post contributor Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu claimed Starmer’s words were no different from those of the Prime Minister. This insanity appeared to culminate in a topsy-turvy world in which Momentum plastered videos of Comrade Morgan condemning Government plans to reintroduce parking charges for NHS staff all over the Internet.

Such views were similarly reflected in polls questioning the Public’s views on Labour’s performance during the Coronavirus crisis. An Ipsos mori  poll of April 2020, for example, found that less than one in five respondents believed that Labour was doing a satisfactory job holding the Government to account during the pandemic, while even among Labour voters (as of December 2019), less than a third thought the Party was serving effectively as the Official Opposition. Conversely, considerably more participants felt that the country’s journalists were effective in challenging Government policy and highlighting it’s mistakes, with an impressive  43% of respondents  praising the media involved in covid-19 daily briefings.

Laura Kuenssberg – BBC Political Correspondent (Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images)

Surprisingly, it was only when pressing the Government on the need to release a clear and definitive strategy to end, or at least significantly relax, lockdown restrictions that Sir Keir’s  passion and steadfastness became apparent. Indeed, if anything, the new Labour Leadership gave the distinct Impression that it was attacking the Government from the Right of the political spectrum.  Author and journalist Patrick Maguire has labelled Starmer’s position on the Government’s jobs retention scheme an attempt to  outflank the Tories on the right, while BBC News Editor Laura Kuennsberg accused the Labour Leader of appearing to be a spending hawk. Meanwhile, amidst the deafening clamour of disappointment arising from Labour’s lukewarm response to so many emotive issues of the day, Starmer has at least earned praise from the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, Anna Soubry, and Nigel Farage.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 08: Footballer Marcus Rashford is photographed on February 8, 2017 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Paul Cooper/Contour by Getty Images)

 Likewise, it was not the Labour Leadership, but Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford, who is credited with forcing the Government to reverse it’s decision not to extend free school meals vouchers for children into the summer holidays, again, with all the attendant social media cacophony hailing Rashford as the true opposition to Tory misrule;  whereas such a corporate institution as the Premier League itself has more explicitly supported the recently enlivened Black Lives Matter Movement, in both word and deed, than the current Labour front bench. This support has varied from public endorsement of the Movement’s basic principles, through replacing the Players’ names on footballers’ shirts with “Black Lives Matter” for several matches, to the creation of a  new BLM badge to be included in all Premier League kits for the remainder of the season.

Protesters transporting the statue of Colston towards the river Avon. Edward Colston was a slave trader of the late 17th century who played a major role in the development of the city of Bristol, England, on June 7, 2020. (Photo by Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Keir Starmer, in contrast, has faced considerable criticism for describing BLM as a moment, rather than a movement. When the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was torn down and thrown into the river Avon in Bristol last month, Starmer, in an interview with LBC Radio, claimed that the action was “completely wrong”. While not condoning the presence of statues commemorating the accomplishments of slave traders in a modern British city, the Labour Leader insisted that removing such symbols  must be achieved through ‘proper’ channels, and with ‘consent’. Starmer likewise labelled BLM calls to defund Police authorities that failed to address institutional racism as pure “nonsense”. In an interview with BBC Breakfast, he criticised BLM attacks on policing, and insisted that his support for the police was very strong. The BLM’s somewhat predictable response came from its official UK Twitter account which branded Starmer, who had previously headed the UK Crown Prosecution Service, a “cop in an expensive suit”. Various Union officials and Labour MPS also lambasted Starmer’s statements, with recently elected MP Bellavia Ribeiro-Addy remarking, in a tweet of June 29th, that in the absence of clear support from Parliament, real change was “going to take sustained pressure from below.” At its peak, this “pressure” manifested in 260 UK towns and cities, with considerably more than 200 thousand protestors defying lockdown restrictions throughout June and early July, according to a recent Guardian Exclusive, which described this so-called ‘moment’ as the “largest anti-racist protest seen in the UK since the slave abolition movement” of more than two centuries ago.

Of course, it is never easy for any senior political figure to publicly endorse activity of, at best, questionable legality, and those who combine a role in ‘respectable’ representative politics with street-level activism are certainly few and far between, but it is not difficult to imagine a very different response from the Official Opposition had this occurred on Jeremy Corbyn‘s watch. Indeed, the former Opposition leader himself spoke at a local BLM demonstration in Islington on July 1st, amongst other occasions.

The Corbyn era gave us a glimpse of how Labour as a Party, can be a home for Labour as movements; a chance to analyse the interaction between a reformist parliamentary institution and an amalgamation of various protest movements and causes. Now, nobody would expect Starmer to leap on the stage at Glastonbury, to rapturous applause, or to be greeted with a spontaneous chorus of “ohhhh Sir Keir Starmer”; nor, more importantly, would he feel remotely comfortable with any such acclamation.

My recent article, amongst other things,  traced the connection between the eruption of student protests against tuition fees in 2010  with the emergence of Corbynism as a political force 5 years later. It outlined the argument that the seeds of organisations like Momentum were to be found in such anti-austerity street demos, and in the founding of activist groups like the People’s Assembly Against Austerity. Comparisons were made between the response of the contemporary Official Opposition and then-fringe figures such as Corbyn or Diane Abbott. While the likes of Corbyn and McDonnell endorsed the protests, attacked police brutality, and even participated directly, then-Labour leader Ed Miliband  refused to attend demonstrations, and publicly opposed a teachers strike in 2011, while Shadow Home Secretary Ed Balls frequently criticised the protestors, their aims, and most especially, their methods.

Photo by Retha Ferguson on

If Keir Starmer’s attitudes and actions are not a million miles away from those of Ed Balls in 2010, or Ed Miliband in 2011, it hardly takes a great stretch of the imagination to envisage that a void similar to the one which facilitated the radicalisation of Labour Party politics from 2015 could open the door to history repeating itself in the not so distant future. But to who, then, can we look to harness the potential energy of these emerging protest movements? Just as the attitude of senior Labour officials has apparently resulted in an exodus of BAME members from the Party, Including such notable figures as Journalist Evie Muir,  leading the Labour Leader to publicly call for BAME people to remain, and telling the Huffington Post: “I don’t want anybody to leave the Labour Party…It is a place that I hope and am determined that Black people feel that they are welcome…”, a younger generation of Labour MPs  are simultaneously being praised for their commitment to the struggle. The so called ‘Baby of the House’, Nadia Whittome MP, has received particular acclamation for calling the tearing down of the Colston statue “an act of resistance to be celebrated”. She could almost certainly have been speaking for like-minded comrades such as Zarah Sultana MP, who, during the early days of BLM protests in the UK, posted advice for demonstrators on Twitter regarding their rights and how to deal with the Police, whilst personally attending and speaking at a BLM gathering in Coventry city centre a fortnight later. Meanwhile, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity is still committed to “rebuilding resistance to the  Tories”, in the words of former Labour MP Laura Pidcock, who, during the opening months of 2020, took an increasingly active role in directing the movement in its efforts to renew local campaigns against government cuts.

 Yet this disillusionment of grassroots protestors at the changing direction of the Labour Party is only half the story. While the energy and activism of the Corbyn era is still very much alive on the street and in social media chat rooms, this radicalism is no longer the ‘new normal’ of Left Wing political discourse in the UK, and, following early Shadow Cabinet reshuffles and the appointment of David Evans as the Party’s General Secretary in May, and despite the lingering traces of radicalism in Sir Keir’s ’10 Policy Pledges’, Labour looks certain to return definitively to the centre ground. It was no doubt in reference to these pledges that the former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, in heaping praise on the new regime for making Labour ‘politically competitive’ again, added that: “there are a whole set of questions around  policy and so on that in time I’m sure and know he will come to”.

This attitude is far from being an isolated one in Labour circles, with many Party members and Labour voters alike jubilant that the Party is slowly making its way back to ‘electability’. Words like ‘competent’ and ‘confident’ are most often bandied around whilst discussing the Labour leader, often accompanied by praise of how forensic he is in his questioning of government policy. This so called ‘professionalism’ is often contrasted starkly with the anti-establishment tendencies of Jeremy Corbyn, and, perhaps not quite incidentally, the BLM movement.

When listening to the announcements coming from the current Labour Front Bench, one will almost certainly come across more talk of “fostering aspiration” and “helping people who want to get on” than was the case only a few months previous. And this kind of talk will attract support both from within the Party, and the wider population. Those who scorn the new Labour Leadership for coming across more like apologists for the Government rather than its opposition during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, or for criticising or letting down the thousands of BLM protestors flooding Britain’s streets are, at least on occasion, countered by those expressing relief that they no longer need to feel ashamed of supporting Labour. As one previous, and allegedly future, Labour voter, Louise Hantman from Northumberland, put it, during one of Sir Keir Starmer’s weekly online consultations with the Public: “We feel quite excited that you’re there now. There’s a light on the horizon.”

But one should remember that sometimes, just sometimes, the light, whether on the horizon or at the end of a tunnel, happens to be an oncoming train, a train quite possibly filled with protestors heading to a BLM demo…

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