Wednesday 13 March 2024

The Political Uses of Racism

Another day, another awful day in the Commons. Having disgraced himself and his office during the SNP's opposition day to spare Keir Starmer's blushes, as those reading this know cringingly loyal Hoyle has done it again. Following the widely publicised remarks of Frank Hester, the moneybags filler of Tory coffers (and who, completely by coincidence, profited nicely from Covid procurement and other government contracts), Rishi Sunak tied himself in knots during Prime Minister's Questions. Hester's comments, in which he said Diane Abbott makes him want to hate all black women and that she should "be shot", was "wrong and racist" according to Sunak. But that the Tories wouldn't be returning the money because he has made a proper apology and that's that. Starmer rightly attacked the Tories, as did the SNP's Stephen Flynn and several other MPs for giving Hester a free pass. However, the one voice we didn't hear from was Diane Abbott herself. Despite indicating her desire to speak on at least 46 occasions during questions.

Having lately broken procedure to "defend MPs", during this tumultuous PMQs Hoyle was the very picture of propriety. At least according to the feeble defence proffered by his office. Abbott was neither on the order paper, which has to be prioritised, and the session only has so many minutes on the clock, and so couldn't be called. The Speaker was chapter and verse by the book, and he's bound by convention to discharge proceedings by those rules. Except this doesn't wash for two reasons. When a member is the subject of a controversy, it is customary to call them. For example, if a white woman MP was the object of similar comments would Hoyle have denied her the right to speak or let sundry men speak on her behalf instead? I very much doubt it. And second, if the order paper is so precious why was Ed Davey called to ask a question when he wasn't on it?

There's no need to don a tin foil hat to explain his decision-making. Because past behaviour is the best guide to present and future behaviour, Hoyle again abused his position to defend Starmer's leadership. This is not because of straightforward partisanship. Hoyle would never allow such crudities to intrude on the "neutrality" of his judgement. He committed a procedural violation in the service of his unstated constitutional role: upholding the authority of the state. As per the SNP's motion, Hoyle did not call Abbott to speak because she wouldn't just attack the Tories over their appalling and unjustifiable defence of their position, but raise the racist attacks she has sustained from her own side. Above all, what was said in in the Forde report about anti-black racism in generally and what was directed at her personally by employees of the Labour Party. A point she reiterates in her post-PMQs Independent piece. Hoyle wants to oversee a smooth transition from the chaos of the Tories to Starmer's briefcase government, and if he can help this by seeing off divisions or preventing racist blemishes from adhering to the incoming administration, he will.

But this episode on Starmer's side reminds us of what racism is in bourgeois politics. For the labour movement, racism is an evil. Among other things it justifies exploitation and is employed by bosses and right wingers to divide and rule. It is immediately, viscerally a class issue. But in the rarefied halls of Westminster, racism is a weapon to be wielded for one's own ends. And that was typified in Starmer's attacks on Sunak. In four years he and his allies have gone from using accusing their opponents on the left of racism for factional ends, to ignoring it when their own side was on the hook, to gleefully exploiting it when sundry Tories openly tout their racist wares. Starmer and friends might occasionally find the expression of racism distasteful and bad manners, but they're not interested in addressing it let alone getting to grips with its roots. Because it is and will always be a handy stick for bashing political opponents with, whether on the Conservative benches - as per Wednesday's PMQs - or (ostensibly) on their side. Labour has to hold the space open for scapegoats of its own too, just in case.

Which brings us back again to the old-fashioned but no less true insight that politics is not about ideas, but interests. And in mainstream politics that applies to the fielding of or batting away accusations of racism, as it does to everything else.


Kamo said...

The concept of racism has long been a political tool, some have even based their entire political bases on identifying it, interpreting it, gatekeeping it, commercialising it, selectively claiming when racism does and doesn't actually count for the purposes of a given point or benefit. So I think you're right, we should always analyse it in terms of interests.

The interesting point for me is how the positioning within grievance politics shifts not from left to right, but from outside of power to inside of power. That is from protesting the demonisation of some given group's behaviour, to actually being accountable for the negative fallout from that group's behaviour.

Rodney said...

A sad illustration of the hierarchy of racism once again. As you say it seems extremely unlikely a white woman wouldn't have been called and if she hadn't the media would've been much more vocal about the injustice of it.

And to perfectly illustrate the point politics is about interests and not ideas we have Gove declaring that a white donor of millions to the Tory party couldn't possibly be an extremist, and the he deserves Christian forgiveness (why did all the dogs suddenly start barking?) for his call for an MP to be shot.

Ken said...

If I said that a particular white, English Tory disgusted me, and he should be shot, would I
a) be eligible for Christian forgiveness? (Does the CofE count as being a proper group to do this?)
b) or, be eligible for reporting to Prevent?

David Lindsay said...

No one should be allowed to give £10 million to a political party, and certainly not someone whose business model was public sector contracts, of which Frank Hester has received £48 million, practically quintupling his investment. Led by a man worth £720 million, and whose wife is even richer, why is the Conservative Party still taking donations? It has no need of them.

Not that Keir Starmer can say anything. Funding by a handful of megarich individuals has been his own method ever since his Leadership campaign, and they do not only want oodles of cash back. They also want policies. They are getting them. Of course, those two come together as, especially, the privatisation of the NHS.

Starmer is also a creature of the centrist media that have abused Diane Abbott on an industrial scale for decades, in one of the numerous examples of the fact that centrism and right-wing populism are con tricks to sell the same economic and foreign policies to different audiences, and that both are thoroughly racist.

Do look up which Labour Party official called Abbott an Angry Black Woman. I have known him since 1989, and he called me a Mulatto for years. A former London Regional Director of the Labour Party, he should be its candidate against her, or he is a coward.

Fred Engels said...

In many years in and out of Labour (from 1970) I encountered zero antisemitism, quite a lot of homophobia, quite a lot of racism and a HUGE amount of misogyny. Although she should be feted by Labour for her achievements, Abbott holds the unholy trinity of being a Black female socialist, all of them a matter of distaste in Starmer's New Model Labour.

Jim Denham said...

Seriously, Fred: ZERO antisemitism? I've heard plenty, though usually not in meetings, but in the pub afterwards. Unite, especially during the McCluskey era, was even worse. The sad thing is that most of the people spouting this stuff didn't even realise it *was* antisemitism

Rodney said...

It is striking though how much sympathy and support Labour victims of antisemitism have gotten from both the party and the wider Establishment compared to Labour victims of racism. And the many anti-Black racists in the Labour party absolutely *did* know it was racism and happily did it anyway, including in speeches party leaders like Blair and Starmer delivered.

Had Fiona Bruce "warmed up the crowd" with jokes about Margaret Hodge instead of Diane Abbott she wouldn't have been the host of Question Time the next day. Nor would Corbyn have been able to keep donations from someone who'd been as antisemitic as Hester has been racist. Not that he would have wanted to keep such a donation anyway.

Anonymous said...

You don't really get more racist then bombing and invading non-European nations, like Iraq and Afghanistan, so Labour being racist shouldn't come as a surprise.