Confronting prejudice in the Labour Party

Image: Tim Dennell (CC BY-NC 2.0))

A Labour report should spur action against Islamophobia, says Puru Miah

It is not a good time to be a member of the Muslim community in the Western Hemisphere, with a legally upheld Muslim travel ban in the United States, to the largest anti-Islamophobia organization in France being declared “anti Republic” and shut down. In the United Kingdom, we have the refusal by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to investigate the ruling Conservative Party amid complaints of widespread Islamophobia. When the Labour Muslim Network report on Islamophobia came out, the findings were not surprising to Muslim Labour members and oddly fit the pattern of the current state of play in liberal democracies.

A survey of Muslim members of the party found that 59% did not feel “well represented by the leadership”, and 44% did not believe the party takes the issue of Islamophobia seriously. Over a third (37%) have directly witnessed Islamophobia within the party. It found 55% did not trust the leadership to tackle Islamophobia effectively and 48% did not have confidence in the party’s complaints procedure to deal with Islamophobia. This view seems to be justified as no one from the current leadership has yet to sign the recent Early Day Motion against Islamophobia drafted by the Poplar and Limehouse MP, Apsana Begum.

Relations between the Muslim community and the Labour Party have a chequered history. As a councillor and Labour member in Tower Hamlets, I have witnessed, and have spoken to participants in, well-known cases of Islamophobia in the party. Tower Hamlets has one of the oldest continuous and largest Muslim communities in Western Europe. Muslims have been coming to the East End of London for nearly 400 years, starting with the commercial activities of the East India Company. The oldest literary record is that of the Bengali Muslim I’tisam-ud-Din, who arrived in Britain in 1766 and published his experience in 1785 as Shigurf Namah i Vilayat (“The Wonders of Europe”).

From the 1970s to the early 1980s, Bangladeshi Muslims were refused membership of the Labour Party; the explanation given by the local party was that it was full. Speaking to former Councillor Selim Ullah, he vividly remembers the experience of moving down from Birmingham to East London in that period, transferring his Labour Party membership, only to find on repeated occasions the doors at the meeting shut, being told the meetings have already started. As a resident of Tower Hamlets, I witnessed the Lutfur Rahman saga. Having won the selection in 2010 he was removed as the candidate on the basis of uninvestigated allegations replete with Islamophobic tropes. An electoral court in 2015 found Rahman guilty of electoral malpractice in 2014, but was critical of his treatment by the Labour Party in 2010. The judge wrote in his judgement: “although this judgement will have to be critical of Mr Rahman in many respects, in the matter of his deselection the court cannot but sympathise with him. His treatment by the NEC was, by any standards, utterly shameful and wholly unworthy of the Party which, rightly, prides itself on having passed the Human Rights Act 1998.”

The party’s response to date has been to create constitutionally toothless liberation forums and do very little when those same liberation forums actively campaign for change. To add insult to injury, the Labour Party has written a code of conduct for one type of prejudice but is yet to produce for others. In this, it has achieved the feat of being Eurocentric even in its hierarchy of prejudice and suffering, and of course, those with darker pigmentations are at the bottom.

This would be acceptable, if our worldview was still informed by the works of Herbert Spencer, but apparently we have moved on. The progressive approach to addressing Islamophobia requires the party leadership to create effective opportunities for members to learn about multiple identities within diaspora communities and unlearn years of prejudice perpetuated by the mass media.

Speaking to Muslim stakeholders in the party, including those who were involved in the APPG definition of Islamophobia, a deep structural issue exists when the Labour Party lacks a code of conduct for dealing with complaints of Islamophobia. This is compounded by the absence of confidence in the party bureaucracy, and its habit of inaction and inability to address such issues when complaints are made. One prominent local East London example which gives rise to a lack of confidence by Muslim members is that of the widely publicised case of Syed Siddiqi, former Secretary of Ilford South CLP. In 2017, Siddiqi received a torrent of Islamophobic abuse from a well-connected right-wing Labour member in his borough – and recorded it. Siddiqi reported the abuse to the party – which suspended him as well as the perpetrator. Three years later, Syed Siddiqi remains suspended and no action has been taken against his abuser. I can testify to this personally: when I submitted a complaint of racism and Islamophobia against a prominent local party member in early 2016, the last I checked, in late 2020, it was still being reviewed.

A suggested way forward would be for the party leadership to acknowledge the absence of codes of conduct for other forms of prejudices, and to take action to collect and publish demographic data of its membership. Give the liberation groups within the party, including Muslims, the constitutional space and authority to propose their own codes of conduct. These codes of conduct should define their oppression with a robust theory of justice. In the case of Islamophobia, Muslim members would themselves conceptualise their ‘oppression’ and the rationale for the remedies need to deal with it. This process would be aided by a census and publication by the party of the breakdown of its membership in terms of how members self-identify.

When I shared the draft of this article with a fellow Muslim Labour Party member, the story about anti-black and Islamophobic social media posts by Labour donor and member David Abrahams broke. He laughed and said, “They have yet to make a public statement against David Abrahams, and you think they will contemplate this? Keep dreaming!”

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