Slaver Robert Milligan's statue removed from Docklands by Labour council

Unmesh Desai says that while the removal of monuments is important, it should not obscure action on racism and inequality

We are dealing with two viruses today, which have come to be interlinked: the coronavirus, which has disproportionately affected minority communities, and the virus of racism, illustrated so vividly by the murder of George Floyd on 25th May. That terrible murder has unleashed a flood of anger on a global scale, in a way not seen for many years, about the issues of race, class, poverty and inequality that are entrenched in society. In America this is compounded by the legacy of slavery, but how does one explain the intensity of the protests here?

Those protests were spontaneous and grassroots-based. In Barking, in my constituency, a group of young people organised a vigil via social media that overnight brought out a couple of hundred of people. The protests have brought onto the streets, despite the risks of doing so, people from all sections of our society, many who aren’t protest “regulars”, and especially many young people. Years of frustration at the impact of institutionalised racism – despite numerous inquiries into racism in everything from policing to prisons to education and employment – has found a profound resonance in the Black Lives Matter message.

The issue of public statues has, at the same time, both obscured and highlighted this message. The pulling down of the Colston statue in Bristol and the removal of the Milligan one in Tower Hamlets have dominated the news, sparking counter demonstrations by the Far Right. Public monuments honour one particular view of the past, and the only surprise is that statues honouring slave owners have not previously attracted the attention they richly deserve. Yet, important as these actions are, the substantive issue remains: how do we dismantle the institutional and systemic racism that is pervasive in our society?

It would be a shameful lost opportunity if all focus remained on the monuments. All historical figures are flawed, and we must not allow ourselves to be distracted from the real change that is needed. The government has announced a commission to look at all aspects of racism in our society – this from a right-wing Brexiteer, Little Englander government is a remarkable symbolic achievement in itself – yet as David Lammy has said, we have had many inquiries and the need now is for action. The key people appointed to the commission have a record of denying institutional racism, so I feel the government’s rhetoric here will prove to be hollow.

Despite that, I believe we can use this opportunity to reshape the political terrain with regard to racism. We can ensure the school curriculum reflects the true history of this country, so future generations grow up knowing how our multi-racial society has evolved. We can achieve fundamental reforms, from immigration law to equality of service provision, in areas like housing, health and social care.

To do this, we will need a nationally led race equality strategy. I said some years ago that with such a strategy, we can genuinely tackle and dismantle institutional barriers within a decade if the political will is found. Labour in opposition must lead the formation of that strategy, while effectively holding the government to account, at the same time as the progressive devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and London make progress directly where they can. We cannot wait till 2024 to act.

As the economic consequences of the pandemic set in, these tasks will acquire further urgency if we are to see off a new resurgence of the Far Right. Make no mistake, the depression that is coming is the ideal breeding ground for fascism, and that’s another reason we must start acting now – before it’s too late.

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