Playing politics with race

Muhsin Ahmed, the Rotherham resident who was the victim of a racist murder in 2015.

Puru Miah on the perils of triangulation

“The greatest cruelties of our century have been the impersonal cruelties of remote decision, of system and routine, especially when they could be justified as a regrettable operational necessity.”

Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes

One of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is to cause the questioning of the progress of history. In the field of modern medicine, we have been made to question the assumption that plagues were something relegated to history books or dystopian sci-fi films. In the field of politics, it is leading us to question the assumption that free-market liberal democracies are the endpoint of history. Instead we see one of the consequences of the pandemic is an accelerated rise of an ethnic nationalist discourse. Patriotism is being weaponised by politicians to cover up public institutional failure. Righting wrongs suffered by disadvantaged groups no longer becomes a political priority but is superceded by the need to address the anxieties of a majoritarian political base.

England has the worst coronavirus figures in Europe due to austerity. Years of spending cuts and deepening inequality meant the worst-off limped into this pandemic in a parlous state. The poor and disadvantaged are the major victims of Covid-19, but according to the populist narrative they are the main cause of the pandemic. On the national stage, we hear calls by the Home Secretary for Royal Navy warships to intercept a so-called invasion of boats carrying refugees to these shores. On the 31st July 2020, the day before National Yorkshire Day, Craig Whittaker, the Tory MP for Calder Valley in Yorkshire, went on LBC radio to blame the BAME and Muslim communities for a spike in Covid-19 infection rates. He told LBC presenter Ian Payne that it is Muslim and BAME communities who have not been obeying lockdown rules.

Earlier in the same month, down the road from Calder Valley in Rotherham, a Labour-led council’s licensing committee subjected a Pakistani applicant of a tea shop to over an hour of inquisition as to how he would effectively police his customers from abusing children who reside in the area. The conditions imposed on this business mean under-18’s can buy tea without a responsible adult after 6pm from possibly any place in the entire country, except from this Pakistani tea shop in Rotherham. Criminalisation was not just limited to the Pakistani community: hateful views were also directed towards the Roma community living in the area, with the decision-makers viewing them as effectively ‘uncivilised’ and purveyors of anti-social behaviour.

Again we see a narrative of marginalised communities being blamed for the failure of public institutions – in this case child abuse – through the coded dog whistle of ‘political correctness’. From Theresa May, then Home Secretary, to the right-wing press and commentators, to demagogues such as Nigel Farage. This is contrary to the facts on the ground. In a letter dated 17th October 2017, the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police, Stephen Watson, confirmed that child exploitation in Rotherham was to do with a series of “operational failures” by the police and had nothing to do with a “misguided sense of political correctness”.

Instead of challenging this narrative head-on, we saw Labour politicians and liberal commentators triangulate towards this dog whistle race-baiting discourse. The result is a normalisation of racist views in public reasoning, the latest result being the atrocious behaviour of the Labour councillors on the Licensing Committee. Abandoned by public institutions and the local Labour Party, in the vacuum created the local community has limited scope in terms of action. When they self-organised to challenge a fascist march, they were criminalised and arrested. After the cases were taken up by human rights lawyers Imran Khan and Michael Mansfield QC, the cases of the ‘Rotherham 12’ collapsed before they went to trial – a precursor of the institutional response this summer to the Black Lives Matter movement, with ministerial instructions to criminalise anti-racist protesters following confrontations by the far-right.

A complaint has been lodged with the Labour Party of the alleged racist behaviour of Labour councillors in Rotherham. But campaigners on the ground do not expect any action to be taken, as they see the Labour leadership to be weak on this issue. They see the Labour Party taking the ethnic minority vote for granted – a view reinforced by the Black Lives Matter ‘moment’ comment by Sir Keir Starmer on national TV. This impression is not just limited to campaigners on the ground: it is a view that is widely gaining traction within the Labour Party. BAME party staffers have expressed concerns about the lack of diversity in the leader’s office as well as an absence of personal connection. Figures close to Starmer confirm the above impression, as the current leadership is pursuing a triangulation policy in the Red Wall. Thus BAME and metropolitan liberal votes are taken for granted with a ‘don’t kick up a fuss about issues of discrimination’ approach while aiming to win over lost voters on an economic programme.

Triangulation is a strategy pursued by political parties in a two-party first-past-the-post system, where political parties in their electoral campaign ignore their social movement base and pursue the centre-ground of swing voters in swing seats. This is a self-defeating strategy for progressive politics. Rather than addressing this rise in ethnic nationalism, by taking this approach progressives are actually aiding it. As shown by the experience in the United States, with few exceptions, 2016 offered the choice between pseudo-Republicans on the Democratic ticket and real Republicans. Voters either chose the real deal or stayed home.

This approach of triangulation in politics has been much criticised. The cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, said in an interview with the Guardian:

“[T]he left is losing the political argument – every year, it cedes more ground to the right, under the mistaken impression that this will bring everything closer to the centre. In fact, there is no centre: the more progressives capitulate, the more boldly the conservatives express their vision, and the further to the right the mainstream moves.”

This triangulation policy on race has come under criticism most recently with Labour’s bland technocratic messaging on the issue of refugees crossing the channel. Critics have made calls for the party to make an unambiguous case against racism when speaking on the issue. As politicos in the Palace of Westminster play with the fire of populist ethnic nationalism – one group fanning it, another group triangulating around it – real consequences are being felt on the ground, lives ruined and communities abandoned. On 21st August, the local community in Rotherham will mark the fifth anniversary of the racist murder of 81-year-old Muhsin Ahmed, who lived in the town in the same address for 47 years with his wife Margaret. He was murdered by two local men who followed him on his way to the mosque, repeatedly calling him a “groomer” before attacking him, kicking and stamping his head. Local campaigners believe his murder was a consequence of a dozen far-right marches in the town, increasing racial tension and polarising the local community. Half a decade on, matters have worsened for the local community, abandoned to the mob by the political elite. A portent for things to come.

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