This article was initially commissioned and published by the Independent. It was spiked within hours.
Within twenty-four hours, Change UK racked up more racism scandals than the Brexit Party, Farage’s shifty bunch of ghouls. How?
It is partly amateurism. Two candidates were caught out by old, casually racist, social media posts. Ali Sajdady, who was to represent the group in London, had said: “When I hear that 70% of pick pockets caught on the London Underground are Romanian it kind makes me want Brexit.” Joseph Russo, the top candidate in Scotland, had put his fear of black women down to having been “chased through Amsterdam by a crazy black whore”.
They had probably forgotten about this offhand racism. Any professional party would have warned them that old tweets could become an issue. No matter how small the audience for something posted seven years ago, the potential audience for it is in the entire internet. That’s the corollary of Twitter’s microcelebrity lotto. And even if your candidates aren’t racist, no one is so squeaky-clean as to be invulnerable. Anyone aspiring to be a candidate should surely be begged to scrub or delete their old accounts.
So if Change UK didn’t do this, they might not be tactical geniuses. They may also complacently assume that racism is a nasty attitude displayed only on the ‘extremes’, to which ‘moderates’ are immune. For example, when Chuka Umunna’s old Blue Labour-inflected anti-immigration tweets are brought up, the prevalent assumption appears to be that this can’t be racist because he is a moderate, professional politician. This logic is exemplified by the dubious Anna Soubry. The second she attacked Theresa May’s racism on immigration, the smart bet was that her voting record would show that she had consistently voted to make life harder for immigrants and refugees. For, Soubry had been careful to impugn May’s “personal” attitude to immigrants, as though the issue were individual prejudice. Soubry could thus defend her record by insisting that she doesn’t have a “personal” problem with immigrants. After all, she voted to make life harder for almost everyone, particularly the most vulnerable, sick, disabled and jobless.
Perhaps more worrying, though, is the niche obsession that leading members of Change UK militantly defend. Who would die in a ditch for the right of Nora Mulready, a right-wing exile from Haringey Labour, to be a self-appointed hammer of Islam? Why should a small party struggling for progressive support rally for her right to define, against the Muslim Council of Britain and Tell MAMA, what is ‘Koranically justified’? Whence her theological authority? Why do they need a candidate whose reaction to right-wing protests in Pakistan is to panic about immigration, or who thinks that Tommy Robinson “touched a societal raw nerve”? What part of the Remain constituency is going to be set alight by this sort of Islam-baiting edgelordism. Yet Mike Gapes, Joan Ryan and Ann Coffey, all of whom resigned from the Labour Party citing allegations of institutional racism, have all lined up with Mulready on Twitter. And they are doing so with that soul-wearying, petty, sanctimonious belligerence that politicians have begun to display on social media.
That’s because Gapes and company are unreformed relics of New Labour, defending a legacy they ought to be burying. Beginning with Jack Straw accusing gypsies of shitting in shop doorways, and reaching its apex when Tony Blair blamed “black culture” for a wave of knife-crime in London, New Labour jolted the language on race to the right. Intellectuals and politicians of the hard-centre adopted a neo-Powellite, culturalist language on race. They complained that Britain’s minorities, particularly Muslims, were ‘self-segregating’, refusing to ‘integrate’, a threat to ‘Britishness’, in need of surveillance and policing. They claimed that immigration was a threat to the welfare state and community cohesion. On the neocon-curious end of this tendency, this bled into a nerdy, hyperventilating fixation on tendentious readings of the Koran and Muslim history. This was all congruent with policy: militarism abroad, internment, surveillance and police shootings at home. By 2006, when Jack Straw was a Home Secretary berating Muslim women for wearing the niqab, a congenial Blairite columnist could write: “I try to imagine how I would feel if this rainstorm of headlines substituted the word ‘Jew’ for ‘Muslim’ … I would be looking for my passport.”
As the Blairite Dan Hodges once put it, Labour’s language drove the BNP’s obsessions up the agenda. It propelled the nationalist-right to years of success. Blair, the patron saint of this tendency, is still at it, blaming migrants and multiculturalism for the far-right. Thankfully, that era of Labour’s history has passed. The Labour Party the Tiggers left is far less racist than the Labour Party the Tiggers loved. That’s the stark truth about Change UK. Just because they’re pro-European doesn’t mean they’re anti-racist.