If the Labour party is institutionally racist, it’s not how Chuka Umunna imagines it is

Image of Chuka Umunna
John McEvoy

On 9 September, Chuka Umunna told Sophy Ridge of Sky News that the Labour party has become institutionally racist. “Part of the reason that I joined the Labour party”, said the MP for Streatham, “was because it was an anti-racist party.” But if Labour is an institutionally racist party, it’s not in the way Umunna thinks it is.

Antisemitism

Umunna claims that Labour’s failure to deal with antisemitism makes it institutionally racist. Antisemitism, of course, is a problem on the left – as it is across British society.

However, as Jeremy Corbyn wrote in the Guardian: “the number of cases [of antisemitism in the Labour party] over the past three years represents less than 0.1 per cent of Labour’s membership of more than half a million”. In August, Victoria Derbyshire demonstrated the numerous times that Corbyn has confronted these “pockets of antisemitism within Labour”.

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Revealingly, Umunna argued this very point in 2016, within a report on antisemitism:

Some have suggested that there is institutional antisemitism across the whole of the Labour Party – this is not a view I share, not least because I have not seen one incident of antisemitism in almost 20 years of activism within my local Labour Party in Lambeth. However, we would be putting our heads in the sand if we denied the existence of antisemitism amongst a minority in our wider Labour family – this is something our movement has a solemn duty to root out if we are to remain true to the principles we were founded to promote and protect.

Umunna also supported “additional clarification” to the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of antisemitism, in order “to ensure that freedom of speech is maintained in the context of discourse about Israel and Palestine”. By July 2018, however, Umunna was aggrieved that Labour had “not adopted the [IHRA] examples in full.”

The closer Corbyn gets to power, the more hysterical (and contradictory) the allegations against him become. Labour’s full adoption of the IHRA definition and examples has not, unsurprisingly, ended these attacks.

In the words of The Canary‘s Kerry-Anne Mendoza, it’s starting to look like “Labour centrists aren’t splitting over antisemitism, they’re splitting over socialism.”

Labour’s real problem with institutional racism

Umunna’s recent judgment on antisemitism within Labour might be misplaced. But it doesn’t mean that Labour has no problem with institutional racism. When it comes to foreign policy, the Labour party has consistently supported wars, sustained colonialism, and sponsored acts of military aggression.

Since the end of the Second World War, Labour’s foreign policy record has arguably been worse than that of the Conservatives. Harold Wilson’s Labour government alone was responsible for some of the worst catastrophes in recent British foreign history. As British historian Mark Curtis points out:

That Wilson government […] depopulated the Chagos islands, covertly supported Indonesia’s slaughter of hundreds of thousands in 1965, secretly armed Nigeria as it destroyed Biafra killing 3 million people, secretly armed Iraq as it slaughtered Kurds in the late 60s and secretly backed and armed US aggression in Vietnam.

Skip forward to Tony Blair’s Labour government. The Iraq War will be remembered as one of the greatest foreign policy disasters in recent history. But that wasn’t all. Blair’s government kept the Chagos Islanders from returning home, acquiesced in the use of US torture abroad, and armed the human rights-abusing Colombian military.

Throughout its lifespan, the Labour party has thus demonstrated a callous disinterest in the wellbeing of vast numbers – millions – of non-British people. According to Curtis:

The interests of the people who live in these regions [the Middle East, Africa, Asia etc] do not figure in British planning except in extremely rare cases.

This is the institutional racism that the Labour party must confront.

Corbyn is not the problem

In terms of Labour’s institutional racism, Corbyn is not the problem. In fact, he’s opposed almost every instance of British foreign aggression since he entered Parliament. And Corbyn is still fighting for the Chagos Islanders’ right to return home.

Umunna, on the contrary, “almost always voted for use of UK military forces in combat operations overseas” – excluding the Iraq War.

Labour ‘moderates’, many of whom are past supporters of British foreign aggression, must take a hard look in the mirror. Who is really responsible for institutional racism within the Labour party?

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Featured image via Chatham House

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John McEvoy