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SCOTTISH MP Hugh Gaffney was — rightly — reprimanded last week for remarks about Chinese people at a Labour event.
I would prefer it these things never happened, but such incidents should be judged on the aftermath as much as the event.
Gaffney gave a swift, humble apology. He faced public censure, and will now attend training where he will hopefully emerge with a serious understanding of how words can bite in a culture that still struggles with the real, material impact of racism.
Hopefully this shows that Shami Chakrabarti’s review into internal racism following anti-semitism allegations — the first modern protocol on identity-based discrimination to be drawn up by a major British political party — is working.
Meanwhile the Tories have a Foreign Secretary who throws around terms like “watermelon-smiled piccaninnies” and uses Libyan corpses as the butt of conference speech jokes, while they preside over an economy that has damaged minority communities and sponsor an immigration control regime that has returned racial profiling to our streets.
Labour is the party of the first black female MP, of the Race Relations Act, and of the Macpherson report. But that doesn’t mean we always get it right.
A year ago, 12 of the 14 constituency Labour parties in special measures were ones with large minority communities.
I hear regular stories about strategists relying on an “ethnic vote” over real community engagement, or of MPs making casually racist remarks.
Only a few years ago, former immigration minister Phil Woolas was turfed out of office by the courts for a campaign based on, in his aide’s words, “getting the white vote angry” by smearing local Muslims.
So it was horrifying to hear former Scottish Labour MP and leadership contender Anas Sarwar allege that a Labour figure had told him Scotland was “not ready for a Paki leader.”
The merit of these claims is for the party to determine, and hopefully Sarwar is engaging with its procedures. But this incident aside, I’ve no doubt that Anas — like me — has seen racism inside and outside Labour throughout his life. That’s a matter for solidarity beyond factional lines.
But some responses to Gaffney’s gaffe smack of factionalism. Sources on Labour’s right have been heavily briefing that Gaffney was “let off” by Richard Leonard and Jeremy Corbyn because he’s on Labour’s left.
Yet there is nothing to suggest disciplinary procedures were not followed precisely. In any case similar and worse incidents have been ignored by previous leaderships.
And of course Sarah Champion (no Corbynite) got away with lots of concerning comments before pressure finally came on her to resign last year. Woolas was ardently defended by party grandees even after the courts slapped him down.
Furthermore, the leaking of Sarwar’s apparent refusal to sit next to Leonard at First Minister’s Questions last week smacks of a deliberate attempt to turn the issue into a question of Leonard’s leadership.
It isn’t. Leonard has stood up against racism throughout his career, joined an anti-racist rally barely a week ago, and there is no suggestion he is weak on the issue.
It seems an open secret in Scottish Labour circles that just as some Labour figures attempted to destabilise Corbyn prior to the 2016 coup, a few hope to execute similar, more successful manoeuvres against Leonard.
In spite of surging polls for Scottish Labour over the last year, sections of the party’s right remain unhappy.
Some would be perfectly willing to exploit ongoing rows for political gain. But any race issue in the party is a collective, not factional, issue.
The charge against Gaffney is now led by, of all outlets, the Scottish Sun. This is the same paper that routinely denigrates Muslims, refugees and other minorities it regards as undesirable, and whose English sister paper has a roll call of hatred that could fill volumes.
A senior Sun journalist claims Scottish Labour “moderates” are worried by Leonard’s response. The “moderates” were less worried when they appointed a former Scottish Daily Mail political editor as the party’s director of communications, after a record of minority-bashing headlines.
This spin doctor subsequently ran Sarwar’s failed leadership bid, accompanied former leader Kezia Dugdale on I’m A Celebrity to provide media advice, and has now returned to Holyrood politics — according to some sources to head up the anti-Leonard faction behind the scenes.
The Sun, Daily Mail and Labour right are not the people to lead a crusade against racism.
Sarwar said he wants to see “deeds not words.” So do I — I will judge people on their contributions to building a better world, not their level of performance-outrage every time someone makes a boorish comment.
The Chakrabarti principles, and the Labour party’s democracy review, will allow us to strengthen a climate where people can report discrimination.
But it’s a backward step when any allegation is weaponised for partisan gain, which still happens too often.
Let’s hope that any questions of discrimination in Scottish Labour stay clear of the intrigue and plotting which the party can do without.
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