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‘Nothing was done’: Labour members call out Starmer’s inaction on racism

The Forde report confirmed the hierarchy of racism within the party, but people of colour feel the Labour leader is continuing to fail them.

08 Aug 2022

The first step to solving any problem is to acknowledge that a problem actually exists. But for Labour leader Keir Starmer, it’s preferable to ignore the issue entirely. After two years and more than 1,000 testimonies, the results of the Forde inquiry into the factious Labour Party landed on 19 July. The damning report highlights the “hierarchy of racism” within the party and exposes serious weaknesses in leadership – from failing to act on members’ concerns, imposing barriers to progression for people from ethnic minorities, and plain bullying. In response, Starmer did what he always does: nothing.

“The Forde report isn’t a historical record, as has been suggested,” says Kate Osamor, MP for Edmonton, London since 2015. “It’s an account of problems that currently exist within the party – there’s a hierarchy of racism that still exists.” 

Indeed, Starmer’s inaction feels emblematic of the way in which the party ignores the lived experiences of marginalised communities. Speaking on a BBC phone-in last month, Starmer said he “didn’t need” the report to tell him he needed to change the party. Yet just last year, he failed to challenge a radio caller who endorsed the racist great replacement theory. 

The Forde inquiry was commissioned by Starmer in 2020 in the wake of an internal report into Labour’s handling of antisemitism, which was completed in the last few months of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The findings, which were leaked to the press in April 2020, included, among others, indications that hostility towards Corbyn hampered Labour’s efforts to tackle the problem of antisemitism, and reported instances of party staffers bullying Black Labour MPs.

Ugly details within the leak laid bare cracks in the party, outlining a normalisation of racism and distressing instances of senior staff in the Labour Party HQ mocking MPs of colour including Dawn Butler, Diane Abbott and Clive Lewis. For example, in private WhatsApp conversations between senior party officials, Abbott, who received almost half of all abusive tweets directed at female MPs in the run up to the 2017 general election, was referred to as “repulsive”. 

“I didn’t need a report to tell me that there was a hierarchy of racism in the Labour Party, because I felt it,” Dawn Butler, Labour MP for Brent Central, who became the first elected African-Caribbean government minister in 2015, tells gal-dem. “When Keir became leader, I offered to help engage and ensure that BAME members in the party were seen and heard, [but] my offer was rejected because they wanted to do it themselves.

“The result is nothing was done,” she says.

“What compounds my anger is the fact that these staff members [engaging in racist abuse/comments] remain Labour Party members and some are working in senior positions in the Labour movement.”

“I didn’t need a report to tell me that there was a hierarchy of racism in the Labour Party, because I felt it”

Dawn Butler MP

Similarly, Osamor says she feels “let down and disappointed”, not least for “the hundreds of Black and ethnic minority people who gave evidence to this report, only for it to be ignored”.  

Members feel the Forde report speaks to wider issues within the party. As gal-dem reported last year, young people of colour are leaving the Labour Party in droves. Nabeela Mowlana, who is councillor for Park and Arbourthorne, Sheffield, and is standing to be the chair of Young Labour, believes young people of colour are being placed under extensive scrutiny. During her campaign to become councillor, she says, “I wasn’t worried about the way my local community would receive me, but I was worried about how my politics would be received by the party under its current trajectory.”

In June, councillor for Hollington ward, Maya Evans, did not make the longlist for Labour’s parliamentary candidate for the Hastings and Rye constituency, despite having trade union backing. According to Labour’s rules, trade union backing should guarantee a longlist place. 

In an open letter, Evans voiced concern about the “growing pattern of leftwing BAME women”, such as Labour leaders in local government, being prevented by the Labour Party from standing for selection, citing two women who were blocked from selection in Hastings despite local and trade union support. Mowlana too alleges that some young people of colour were blocked from standing for elected positions.

Within Forde’s conclusion is also the idea that the party “ignores” some forms of racism and discrimination, exemplified in the treatment of MPs Zarah Sultana and Apsana Begum. In an interview, Sultana reflected on the influx of anti-Muslim hate she had been receiving, and criticised the lack of public solidarity extended to her by Starmer, describing it as “hurtful”. Meanwhile, in June, Begum signed off work after facing an alleged “campaign of misogynistic abuse” enacted by her local party – particularly painful as a survivor of domestic abuse. Last year, she was acquitted of fraud for having allegedly withheld information about her circumstances to obtain social housing. Still, last month, the party announced that Begum would face a trigger ballot, despite sources claiming 40 complaints had been submitted to the party about the process. 

It seems then that in his role as leader, Starmer failed to provide any semblance of structural or emotional support to MPs from marginalised communities, even those who come forward with their experiences. “Speaking up about personal issues of discrimination is never easy,” says Butler. “I often felt my concerns were not being taken seriously, but I was afraid to say in case I was seen as paranoid or accused of the old adage of having a chip on your shoulder.”  

“We need all staff members with any involvement in the racist abuse that took place to be removed from the party”

Kate Osamor MP

Three weeks after the report, people of colour within the Labour Party have still not received an apology from Starmer. Potential solutions offered by Forde – including more transparency within recruitment, training, conducting deep listening exercises and revising codes of conduct – have been ignored. Osamor feels the “muted media coverage” exemplifies the hierarchy of racism itself, and will shroud the larger concerns members have about the party’s handling of racism.

“It sends a worrying message to people of colour,” says Mowlana. “We’re seen as dispensable, and our support is taken for granted. It’s an existential question for our party”. In 2020, a report by the Labour Muslim Network found that over half (55%) of Muslim Labour members do not trust the party to tackle Islamophobia

Speaking to gal-dem, MP Nadia Whittome says the party “cannot claim to be a standard-bearer for equality, justice and liberation if we do not practice what we preach.”

The all-too-familiar feeling of frustration and disappointment is subsequently lingering among Labour MPs of Black and ethnic minority backgrounds. Going forward, Osamor says, Starmer should “acknowledge the findings of the report and apologise to everybody who has been affected”. 

“We also need all staff members with any involvement in the racist abuse that took place to be removed from the party,” she adds. For Whittome, the report “echoes many of the changes I want to see to how the party handles racism, such as the need for participatory education”. 

A Labour Party spokesperson said: “We’re proud of the changes that have been made under Keir Starmer and David Evans’ leadership but there is no room for complacency so we will always look at ways to improve our culture and practice to support all protected characteristics,” citing work within the party to tackle discrimination and better Labour’s organisational culture and practice, including an Independent Complaints Process launched in April 2022.

Yet many feel the culture described in the Forde Report is becoming part of Labour’s very fabric. “I wanted to be a Labour MP because the Labour Party has traditionally been at the forefront of tackling racism and discrimination,” says Butler. “But reading it [the report] for myself left me feeling betrayed by the party I care so passionately for”. 

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