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Young people of colour are leaving the Labour Party. How could Keir Starmer win them back?

Keir Starmer's tenure as Labour leader has seen a raft of young left-wing supporters desert the party. Why are they going – and can he win them back?

07 May 2021

Diyora Shadijanova

When writer Salome Wagaine decided to join the Labour Party in 2015, it was with the intention of voting against Jeremy Corbyn during the leadership election contest, despite agreeing with many of his policies. Salome’s biggest concern was that certain Corbyn allies “could be perceived as antisemitic”. Her stance was rare among her friends, so she didn’t tell many people about it at the time. But Corbyn won, and Salome found herself supporting much of the project he oversaw, although she secretly hoped for a new leader who didn’t have the same controversial figures in their close circles. 

Yet five years on, it was a fresh face in the top job who prompted Salome to finally cancel her Labour Party direct debit and give up her membership. And she’s not alone. 

It has been more than a year since Keir Starmer became leader of the Labour Party. Although Starmer has been given a relatively easy ride by the press, critics are now beginning to scrutinise his leadership more closely. In recent weeks, there’s been charges of ‘Starmerism’ failing to articulate a clear vision for the party. Starmer himself seems to be trying to define himself by what he is ‘not’, distancing himself from both predecessor Jeremy Corbyn and opposition leader Boris Johnson

As a party, Starmer has made it clear his mission is to woo back disaffected Labour voters, particularly those situated in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ of former Labour heartlands in the north of England. But since 4 April 2020, his tenure at the top has not just seen Labour’s poll numbers tank; it’s also found young supporters from a range of marginalised communities reconsider their relationship with Labour. Black, Asian, Muslim, GRT and LGBTQI+ voters have all voiced discontent with Starmer – so what’s going on? And where does Labour go from here?

Taken for granted

For 29-year old Salome, it was seeing the Black vote being taken “for granted” that finally led the end of her relationship with Labour. She decided to leave after seeing Starmer call the Black Lives Matter movement “a moment” in July 2020. Salome already had low expectations, but Starmer’s response still disappointed her. 

“I didn’t expect someone who was really involved with the police force to say that they were in favour of abolishing the police,” she tells gal-dem. Instead, she wanted more of a supportive reaction from him but thinks he decided to betray Black voters in favour of courting a white working class demographic. “It was the obvious dismissal — he was playing his views to the base that he was trying to get at”. 

Even before this though, Salome was put off by Starmer’s “lack of opposition” and originality. “Aside from my issues with his take on the party as a Black person, I wish the Labour party would’ve had something to say about, say, aerosol transmission and Eat Out to Help Out over the summer,” she says.

A poll conducted between 5-12 March found that Starmer’s satisfaction rating amongst ethnic minority respondents fell from +53 in June 2020 to 12 by March 2021. The fall is in line with his faltering popularity on the whole – the most recent YouGov approval ratings from April sees 50% of respondents reporting that Starmer is doing “badly” as leader; in May 2020, only 17% of those polled said the same. Another poll conducted at the end of March by J L Partners – focusing on the ‘Red Wall’ voters – found that 37% said it was “unclear” what Starmer stands for. Predictions for Thursday’s local election results are also grim, with the party already confirmed to have lost a key parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool to the Tories – a seat they’d previously held since its creation in 1974.

For Black Labour members who spoke to gal-dem, a key turning point came in the early days of Starmer’s leadership, when an internal report – compiled to be submitted to an inquiry by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into Labour’s handling of antisemitism complaints – was leaked to the media. It touched on many issues but fuelled allegations of shocking anti-Black racism at the heart of the party, especially towards MPs including Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler. 

“There’s a feeling [within the leadership]  that ‘BAME’ people in the cities will always vote for Labour when the trend isn’t proving [them] right – it’s a real worry.”

Fallout from the report saw Black members leave the Labour party in exasperation and anger, but according to a former Labour staffer, who spoke to gal-dem on the condition of anonymity, it didn’t feel as if leadership were “worried about” the revelations.

“After the Labour leaks, I was conscious that there was a real feeling of unrest and anger from what Labour classes as ‘BAME’ people,” the staffer says. “The way Keir Stamer dealt with Black Lives Matter didn’t show sensitivity towards a core voting group Labour takes for granted. There’s a feeling [within the leadership]  that ‘BAME’ people in the cities will always vote for Labour when the trend isn’t proving [them] right – it’s a real worry.” 

According to Salome, a failure to confront anti-Black racism and a lack of an active pitch to Black voters is taking its toll. “It’s this thing of taking us for granted,” she says. “Eventually, the party will lose young [Black] voters — I’ve already got older relatives and friends who have been voting Conservatives for the past couple of elections.”

Bids to win back the supposed ‘white, working class vote’ have also left young Black voters feeling alienated. Recent leaked strategy briefings revealed that Labour is being advised to make “use of the [union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly”. Such laser focus on this specific demographic, especially accompanied by symbols carrying a loaded history of (white) nationalism, is causing Black Labour members to feel neglected. 

“At times, it’s made me feel that the Black vote isn’t worthy — I’ve felt ignored,” says Jake*, a 21 year-old Black British student and young Labour member based in Liverpool. He foresees Labour’s lack of investment in Black communities resulting in people “turning their backs on politics completely”. “Many people might start losing faith in the system,” Jake says. “Many people already have.” 

“It feels like we’re a minority within a minority”

It’s not just young Black left-wingers feeling disengaged from Starmer’s Labour. UK Muslims – who intersect with the Black community – are also feeling let down. Concern was voiced from the early days of Starmer’s leadership, when he reversed the party’s critical position of India’s actions in Kashmir, upsetting Muslim Labour supporters.

In August 2019, India’s ruling party, the Hindu nationalist BJP, stripped the Muslim-majority region of its semi-autonomy and downgraded it into two federal territories. Subsequently, nearly 7 million people in the Kashmir valley were put under a strict security lockdown and denied access to the internet, with tens of thousands of additional troops deployed in one of the most militarised regions in the world.

Starmer’s decision to take a more ambiguous stance on the issue was a clear departure from Corbyn’s policy. The repositioning followed an April 2020 meeting with Labour Friends of India, (LFIN) — a group with links to Hindu nationalist organisations, who previously said that their relationship with Labour under Corbyn (a supporter of Kashmir’s autonomy) was “strained”.

For some Muslims, backtracking on Kashmir spelled trouble. “I’ve lost faith in Labour — the Kashmir issue is very close to my heart,” says Meher, a 25-year-old former Labour supporter from West Wales, who declined to give her surname. “It feels like because we’re a minority within a minority and our opinion doesn’t matter enough [to Labour] and our vote isn’t important enough to care about.”

The spectre of Islamophobia within Labour also looms large. Research commissioned by the Labour Muslim Network in 2020 revealed that more than one in four Muslims have directly experienced Islamophobia within the party. Nearly 60% of Labour Muslim members and supporters also reported they didn’t feel “well represented” by the leadership. This is despite the important role Muslim voters have played in winning Labour seats — one researcher estimated that 85% of the UK’s Muslim electorate voted for Labour in 2017

Labour’s stance on Palestine is also stirring fears among Muslim communities. As part of efforts to address issues of antisemitism within the party, Starmer has worked closely with the Board of Deputies of British Jews, an organisation which presents itself as the “voice” of the Jewish community but is heavily opposed by many left-wing Jews who challenge the Board’s claim to be objective and representative of the entire community. 

Starmer’s relationship with the Board has recently come under increased scrutiny, after the Labour leader pulled out of an iftar being hosted by the Ramadan Tent Project at the last minute. The move allegedly followed a warning from the Board regarding one of the iftar’s organisers who had previously supported pro-Palestine group CAGE, alongside tweeting support for boycotting Israeli-grown dates (the Labour party say the decision not to attend the iftar was a “mutual” one between organisers and Keir). The Board also came under fire last month for a statement released that defended the actions of Israel in occupied Palestine, following a report from Human Rights Watch which found the Israeli state was committing “apartheid”. 

Labour usually takes a strong pro-Palestine stance, supporting a two-state solution. Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy previously urged for a ban on imported goods from the West Bank if the Israeli government pressed ahead with annexation plans in June 2020. A recent poll by YouGov found that 61% of Labour’s members supported the BDS Movement — an organisation focussed on boycotting Israeli goods which has been described by the by British Board of Deputies as “divisive, unhelpful and counterproductive.” 

Starmer’s continued alliance with the Board in the wake of these events has left Labour’s Muslim community feeling stigmatised and silenced when it comes to the Palestine/Israel conflict, an important issue for many Muslims, with the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) announcing that they were “deeply disappointed” with Starmer’s decision to withdraw. 

But some young Muslims within Labour believe progress is in motion. Henna Shah, chair of London Young Labour, told gal-dem that tackling issues like Islamophobia “takes time” and Starmer is “making progress” on implementing change. “In my understanding, Keir Starmer accepted the recommendations of the report in full. I think it’s right that [progress] is done properly,” she says. Some of that progress may be on the horizon – Labour’s NEC recently announced that the party will introduce new codes of conduct and training on Islamophobia and anti-Black racism to support the “culture change” pledged by the leadership. 

Inaction and alienation

For members of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities, Starmer’s Labour has been a disappointment, but this isn’t a new problem. According to Luke Smith, a Romani-Gypsy software engineer who set up the GRT Labour Campaign Group, now rebranded as GRT Socialists, GRT discrimination has “been a part of Labour Party norms” for decades.

“Several ministers under Tony Blair openly engaged in racism against our communities,” he tells gal-dem. Using the GRT communities as “racist political football” has also been a “prominent” feature of local election campaigning for decades. A recent incident saw Warrington MP Charlotte Nichols distribute campaign leaflets pledging to “deal with traveller incursions”. Nichols later apologised but the episode echoed a 2019 furore when frontbencher Toby Perkins published leaflets exclaiming he was “disgusted” by Travellers “exporting thousands of pounds for leaving illegal settlements”. 

For Luke, seeing a repeat of such racism left him “utterly betrayed the second time round”, which wasn’t helped by leadership’s “awful” response. “We got a private letter from the general secretary and that was it,” he tells gal-dem. “The Labour party has done absolutely nothing to tackle anti-GRT racism so we can only assume they approve of it.”

A similar feeling abounds among young LGBTQI+ Labour supporters of colour. Transphobia within the party has become a serious worry, with prominent MPs including Rosie Duffield and Jess Phillips challenged for statements that appeared to play into transphobic talking points. Paul McGowan, the co-chair of the Labour Party LGBT+ Network personally saw “dozens and dozens” of LGBT+ members leave the party — the majority of them “identifying as trans”.

“Since Starmer came into power I have felt a huge disconnect between the Labour party I felt so strongly for – I believe that he is alienating the marginalised communities”

“I’ve lost count of LGBT+ comrades who [have] left the Labour party, feeling unrepresented, or unsafe under Starmer’s leadership,” says Paul. “These were some of our most active campaigners. It’s a huge loss. We don’t need empty platitudes – support from our communities can not be taken for granted”. 

This sentiment was echoed by Felix Mufti-Wright, 20, a trans actor based in Liverpool. “When Starmer releases statements saying we shouldn’t be ‘chucking bricks at each other’ for trans rights, it shows he does not have our best interests at heart,” he tells gal-dem.

“When no action is taken against outwardly transphobic MPs such as Rosie Duffield, it proves we are not Starmer’s priority in his aim for a populist Labour.” As a young person of colour, Felix feels that supporting Labour is currently akin to the “lesser of two evils” but Starmer isn’t a viable opposition. “Since Starmer came into power I have felt a huge disconnect between the Labour party I felt so strongly for – I believe that he is alienating the marginalised communities Corbyn made an effort to involve.”

For members of some communities however, the change in leadership has been “relieving”. Julia* is a 23-year old Jewish member of Labour; under Starmer she feels Labour is going in the “right direction”. “The problem with Corbyn was that he was never honest about neither the size nor the scope [of the antisemitism issue],” she tells gal-dem. “Like we all know, you can’t address a problem until you’re honest about the size of it. The community just felt so ignored. We felt like we were shouting and Corbyn and his team were just not listening.” 

Starmer’s “zero tolerance” method of tackling antisemitism has seen him sack former shadow education secretary and Corbyn ally Rebecca Long-Bailey, after she shared an interview containing now-retracted claims Israeli secret police taught US law enforcement brutal policing tactics. It also led to the suspension and removal of the whip from Corbyn himself following comments from the former leader that the scale of antisemitism was “dramatically overstated”. The whip is yet to be restored to Corbyn. 

Julia says that such decisive action makes her feel that Jewish members once more have “a future” in Labour. But she’s still hesitant to deem Labour “anti-racist”, thanks to the increasing discontent among fellow marginalised communities. “If it isn’t antisemitism, but there’s still Islamophobia or anti-Black racism, it isn’t good. All of these factors are intertwined,” she says. “Eradicating just one type of racism should never be a cause to celebrate.”  

Where next? 

For several disaffected left-wingers, their vote for Labour is no longer a given. “I’ve always been really vocal about using my vote as a woman, I think our right to vote is so important,” says Meher. “But my heart wouldn’t be in voting Labour anymore.” 

Ex-Labour members like Salome are feeling detached from mainstream party politics in general. “It feels more than ever like picking the least worst option,” she says. “When I think about all the effort party politics takes, it just feels so distant from the lives and interests of people.” Right up until the wire, Salome was still considering where to place her vote in local elections, but has tried to “stay away” from the Hartlepool discourse. “I was sad to see Drillminister didn’t get on the London Mayoral ballot though,” she says, referencing the UK drill rapper who unsuccessfully campaigned for the mayoralty this year. “Sadiq Khan saying the last general election result was probably right really annoyed me and felt ungracious but I think he’ll win and I won’t be disappointed with that. We’ll see.”

In contrast, Jake still feels loyalty towards the Labour party. I’ve been Labour my whole life,” he says. “Politics is open to change, things change, people change, leaders change, your own views can change on things too. Maybe in a few years I’ll still be a member, maybe I won’t.”

Others are turning to local community activism. For Felix it is “direct action” that is most rewarding and changes the world. “As trans issues gain more conversation, it is important we meet that with the correct education,” he tells gal-dem. Some of the young people who spoke to gal-dem said they’re investing their energy in different areas, such as campaigning for workers’ rights and community safety.

“With a resurgence of youth grassroots campaigning in response to issues such as racial inequality and increasing police powers, it’s clear the energy and fight is still there”

Meanwhile, the pandemic has been an opportunity for politically invested young people to come together via different community projects, like mutual aid. Mass activism has also offered chances to organise outside of Westminster politics, like getting involved in movements such as Black Lives Matter and Kill The Bill

For Labour’s part, they say they’re listening. But is that enough? “All concerns around matters of diversity and inclusion are taken extremely seriously and if anyone feels unwelcome in the party we must and will go further to change the culture of the party,” a party spokesperson told gal-dem when asked about the issues raised in this piece. 

For now, there’s no clear roadmap ahead for young left-wingers of colour who no longer see Labour as their spiritual home. But with a resurgence of youth grassroots campaigning in response to issues such as racial inequality and increasing police powers, it’s clear the energy and fight is still there – Starmer’s Labour just isn’t offering them a package they can get behind yet. And if there’s one legacy of the Corbyn era that will remain, it’s that major political parties can’t take your vote for granted – they have to earn it.