How Labour’s Alleged Afriphobia Left Black People Feeling ‘Politically Homeless'

Part two of HuffPost UK's special report into allegations that Labour has been slow to deal with anti-Black racism and to support its Black members.

Labour’s perceived silence on alleged instances of anti-Black racism highlighted in a leaked internal report last month has cost the party the support of dozens of Black members. But for others, dissatisfaction has been growing over years rather than weeks, and stems from what is seen as a lack of representation at the top tables – and of solidarity with the senior Black politicians the party does have.

Open Labour, an activist group within the party, told HuffPost UK: “The leaked report highlighted multiple instances of anti-Black racism against Black MPs that has now sparked a much-needed conversation around anti-Black racism, a topic all too often ignored.”

HuffPost UK has spoken to or been made aware of more than 50 people who have given up their membership or say they are considering doing so over alleged anti-Black racism in the party.

One is Yvonne Witter, 61, who joined Labour four years ago.

“Labour has been the default party for Black people over the years but now I know many people for whom that’s changing,” she said.

The Londoner, who currently lives in Yorkshire, is alarmed about the contents of the leaked report.

“We traditionally voted Labour because of its policies on socialism. We’ve supported the party which will address social inequalities where we know the Tories don’t do. And many Black people don’t even vote Labour – they just don’t vote,” she explained.

“Black people are going to have to stick our necks out, go with another party – in my case it’ll be the Green Party – and let Westminster know that our votes don’t come cheap: there are conditions.

“They need to re-establish the conversation around Black people, politics and who we vote for, because Labour isn’t it.”

“All forms of racism is wrong and yet there isn’t any focus on Afriphobia in the party”

- Yvonne Witter, 61

Yvonne added: “I’ve cancelled my Labour membership because I don’t fancy Keir Starmer as leader and I don’t like the way they’ve dealt with the report. It has not been addressed at all; there was more of a focus on anti-Semitism and not enough on anti-Black racism.

“All forms of racism is wrong and yet there isn’t any focus on Afriphobia in the party. It suggests to me that there is no real commitment to dealing with Afriphobia or anti-Black racism in the party.

“Over the years when Diane Abbott has been vilified or ridiculed, I haven’t seen the Labour Party really come out and defend her in the way I would’ve liked to see, and other Black politicians.

“For the time being, I am politically homeless.”

In a joint statement published on April 13, Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner, leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party, acknowledged the leaked document raised “serious concerns”, outlined intentions to order an inquiry into it, and urged readers not to draw “conclusions” before it was complete.

“We have seen a copy of an apparently internal report about the work of the Labour Party’s governance and legal unit in relation to antisemitism. The content and the release of the report into the public domain raise a number of matters of serious concern,” the statement read.

“We will therefore commission an urgent independent investigation into this matter. This investigation will be instructed to look at three areas. First, the background and circumstances in which the report was commissioned and the process involved. Second, the contents and wider culture and practices referred to in the report. Third, the circumstances in which the report was put into the public domain.

“In the meantime, we ask everyone concerned to refrain from drawing conclusions before the investigation is complete and we will be asking the general secretary to put measures in place to protect the welfare of party members and party staff who are concerned or affected by this report.”

On May 1, it emerged that Labour’s ruling national executive committee (NEC) had appointed leading Black barrister Martin Forde QC and three Labour peer panellists – Debbie Wilcox, a former leader of Newport City Council; Larry Whitty, a former Labour Party general secretary; and Ruth Lister, an emeritus professor of social policy at Loughborough University – to investigate the leaked report.

The party told HuffPost UK it was “committed to challenging and campaigning against racism, within the party and the country”.

“The content and the release of the report into the public domain raise a number of matters of serious concern,” said a spokesperson. “That is why Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner swiftly launched an urgent independent investigation into this matter.

“The National Executive Committee agreed the terms of reference for the independent investigation into the contents, circumstances and release of this internal report, and appointed Martin Forde QC to lead the investigation. It would not be appropriate to comment further until the independent investigation has concluded.”

The party also said the leader and deputy leader had met with the BAME staff network and “committed to improving representation, progression and culture in the workplace”.

Ibrahim Mustapha, journalist
Ibrahim Mustapha, journalist

Ibrahim Mustapha has been a Labour voter since the age of 18. He was born to migrant parents with a Muslim father – and grew up in a council estate in Camden. These are all features that he says the Conservative Party, and the right wing, have “been against and tried to demonise”. His family were always more aligned with Labour’s policies.

“In Labour, I always thought that these are the things that will be defended – coming from a working class background, protection of immigrants. I always thought the Labour Party were more in support of [those things],” he told HuffPost UK.

But the silence from leadership on voters’ concerns about anti-Blackness derived from the leaked report has pushed Ibrahim out of the door too.

“The document clearly shows that, at quite a high level within the party, there are people who are not really showing any solidarity towards Black MPs at best [...] and, at worst, are actually contributing towards the negativity and harm that’s being perpetrated against them,” he said.

“I feel that currently under new leadership they’re not prepared to do anything about that. The silence has been quite disappointing.”

For a few fleeting moments after cancelling his direct debit, Ibrahim wondered if he had done the right thing. Should he have first tried to speak to his local MP, someone who he has respect for?

Perhaps, the 36-year-old thought. But, then again, that MP had also been silent on the issue, which did not reassure Ibrahim of his stance.

“This party isn’t for me any more,” he said. “It doesn’t represent my interests as a Black person any more; if anything, we’ve seen that it’s quite harmful to Black people trying to advance themselves within politics and society.”

Labour’s devastating election defeat saw the loss of seats across the so-called “red wall” of de-industrialised areas in the north of England and the Midlands that had voted Labour for generations.

Some members feel that the party has lost its “traditional base” of white working-class voters to the Conservatives by pandering to the so-called metropolitan elite.

In that conversation, many fear, another part of Labour’s “traditional base” – the working-class Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) voters in constituencies that fall within Labour’s “heartland” – have been cast aside.

Head to head - knights on a chess board, in blue duotone. Shallow depth of field.
Head to head - knights on a chess board, in blue duotone. Shallow depth of field.
robynmac via Getty Images

Indeed, Ibrahim’s opinion based on Starmer’s silence on anti-Blackness so far is that he is deliberately leaning into the party’s white base in order to win back votes.

Others have concerns over the absence of Black ministers on the shadow home office team, despite cases such as the Windrush scandal and Grenfell fire disproportionately affecting Black people and individuals from marginalised communities.

“Language like ‘Labour heartlands’ is quite coded and means white working class people from around the country who may well have some sort of negativity towards people like us,” the journalist said.

“So I think the Labour leadership is leaning into that rather than being more inclusive and over the next few years, until the next election, we’ll see that perhaps we don’t matter to them so much.

“And I don’t want to be a part of that – I don’t want to be paying money into that and I don’t want that against my name.”

“People have been making noise, albeit on social media and elsewhere. They can’t have not seen this by now. I believe they definitely could’ve taken steps to reassure Black voters”

- Ibrahim Mustapha

Ibrahim believes the party leadership must by now be aware of dissatisfaction among Black voters, but has remained silent on the issue.

“People have been making noise, albeit on social media and elsewhere,” he said. “They can’t have not seen this by now. I believe they definitely could’ve taken steps to reassure Black voters, or any BAME individuals, that the party will take steps to ensure it remains inclusive rather than being prepared to push people out.

“What’s happening with Labour now is very much going to leave me with no one to vote for. Unless somebody decides one day to start a Black unity party that actually represents interests of Black people in this country, I will always be politically homeless.”

Franklyn Harris BEM, criminal justice advocator and founder of social enterprise SWIM, feels that a Black political party should be formed to counter issues of Afriphobia – something he thinks is rife across society and not just the Labour Party.

“I think it would be a great idea for Black politicians to form their own party. And, if that meant that they sat independently as a small group of MPs, then they would have a much better, a bigger effect than sitting around that table [of other parties],” he told HuffPost UK.

“In terms of the Labour Party’s effectiveness in supporting the causes of Black people [...], it seems to me that Black people’s agenda is totally different from the needs of the party. I’m not going to fight for a party to win the election to then do nothing for me for the next four years.”

Franklyn Harris
Franklyn Harris

Like others, voter George Brown questions why Labour leadership has not yet openly addressed Afriphobia concerns. But he is also disappointed with the lack of mainstream media coverage and attention from Labour politicians.

“It has been very difficult to sit by and watch the lack of press coverage and to see the usual suspects in the party stay silent,” said the 59-year-old.

“I understand that accepting a job at the top table comes with collective responsibility but when you have been banging on about BAME misrepresentation for 10 years or more, it is telling that you can be silent in the face of a report as damming as this, whether it was leaked or not.”

In the meantime, the faithful masses who once championed the Labour Party are growing increasingly disenchanted, he said.

“The view of the young Black community is changing. There is no need to settle for mediocrity. The Labour Party and the country appear to be more interested in the new newcomers. The old newcomers are no longer a thing or a requirement.

“I grew up with Labour from discussions with my father, who arrived from Jamaica during the Windrush era, by plane. It was always the party of the workers, the little people, the people without means.

“Labour’s job was to raise the plight of the working man and woman above that of modern-day slave. What happened to that dream? There has been great progress, but we seem to be going backwards now.”

One former member from Brighton, who has asked not to be named, told HuffPost UK: “I don’t think that Labour is a party for Black and minority ethnic people and it would take a lot for me to rejoin the party now.”

She joined the party in 2015 but cancelled her membership last month.

“I feel politically homeless, certainly with regard to the two main parties, plus I would never vote Liberal Democrats ever,” she said. “I’m stuck, like most people.”

MPs Bernie Grant and Diane Abbott pictured in 1988 during a debate on the creation of separate Black sections within the Labour Party at the party's annual conference in Blackpool
MPs Bernie Grant and Diane Abbott pictured in 1988 during a debate on the creation of separate Black sections within the Labour Party at the party's annual conference in Blackpool
PA Images via Getty Images

As far as pressure groups, condemnation of the leaked report and alleged Afriphobia in the Labour Party has been swift with organised resistance gaining momentum.

As the inquiry into the leaked report continues, Open Labour – an activist group within the party – has called for concerns around Afriphobia in the be taken seriously.

A spokesperson for Open Labour told HuffPost UK: “The leaked report highlighted multiple instances of anti-Black racism against Black MPs that has now sparked a much needed conversation around anti-Black racism, a topic all too often ignored.”

Drawing comparisons between failures on racism in wider society and within Labour, Open Labour has called for the party to increase its efforts in redressing the balance of equality and fairness for all.

“Black people in the UK are more likely to die of coronavirus than white people. Against this backdrop, it is essential that Labour fulfils its role as the party of equality and anti-racism”

- Open Labour

“The Windrush report found ‘institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards race’ in the Home Office,” they said. “The Conservative manifesto in 2019 supported increasing stop and search powers which are disproportionately used against Black people.

“Against this backdrop, it is essential that Labour fulfils its role as the party of equality and anti-racism. However, the revelations of racism and other forms of prejudice in the leaked internal report as well as the ongoing EHRC investigation into anti-Semitism in the party demonstrate what BAME members have known for a long time – the party has had grave failings around issues of race.”

Open Labour has also called for an increase in Black representation at all levels of the party – and the adoption of all-BAME shortlists to be considered. One voter we spoke to pointed to the example of Birmingham, which has a large Black African-Caribbean community, but where none of the party’s eight MPs is Black.

Though the investigation into the leaked report is “welcomed” by Open Labour, the spokesperson added: “To have the full confidence of members it must be conducted independently of the Labour Party, not by Labour peers.”

The Black Labour Movement, founded in 2016, is an umbrella organisation which represents over 750 Black voters and members of the Labour Party across the UK.

On April 16, the organisation released a statement calling for “all staff and senior party members involved” in the leaked report to be suspended with immediate effect.

Speaking to HuffPost UK, Sunny Lambe – BLM founder – said Afriphobia in Labour is something many people within the party have long grown accustomed to.

“Many Black people see the Labour Party as a champion of equality, human rights and social justice; many see it as their natural, political home because we identify with these values, but whether that’s translated into every member of the party is a different question,” said the South Bermondsey councillor.

“The leaked report exposed the atrocities that’s now happening within the Labour party but it’s not new: it’s been happening for a long time.

“Every single Black Labour party member has a story to tell about being somehow discriminated against. Perhaps this report happens to be the one that broke the camel’s back, which saddens a lot of people including myself.

“This led to the establishment of BLM in 2016 because Black people just vote and what do we get in return? People don’t take us seriously at all levels from branches and CLP [constituency Labour Party] to regional and national.”

Black Labour Movement founder Sunny Lambe
Black Labour Movement founder Sunny Lambe

Operation Black Vote is non-profit national organisation established in 1996 to address what it describes as the “Black British and ethnic minority democratic deficit”.

Founder Lord Simon Woolley, who is a cross-bench member of the House of Lords, acknowledged the concerns held by many Black people.

“The new leader must deal with this effectively,” he said. “The elements that have arisen from the leaked report must be effectively dealt with. If the allegations are true about what happened to Diane Abbott and others – and of anti-Black racism – then it is extremely serious.

“We’ll need to see a lot more done before full confidence is restored for many Black voters because there’s a lot of rebuilding to be done.”

A spokesperson from BAME Labour told HuffPost UK: “BAME Labour strongly condemns racism in all its manifestations and has been in the vanguard of challenging racism in the Labour Party, politics and public life.

“BAME Labour campaigns to increase Black representation at all levels within the Labour Party and UK parliaments.”

Echoing Lambe’s comments, a Labour councillor – who has asked not to be named – made the claim that Afriphobia is deeply embedded within the party.

“Whilst, on one level, the report highlights anti-Blackness in the party, this has been a longstanding issue,” the councillor said.

One Labour Party activist told HuffPost UK he felt the party was “institutionally racist”. And another anonymous Black Labour councillor said issues around Afriphobia far predated Starmer’s tenure as leader.

“I’ve been concerned about anti-Blackness including overt personal and institutional racism for the last 10 years,” the first councillor told HuffPost UK.

“I’ve seen a failure to address formal complaints when [they have] been raised. Plus, the approach to handling racist, anti-BAME complaints has been far worse than [the] approach to antisemitism.”

The councillor said Labour did not even have a system to log complaints of racism prior to 2018, which they believe shows a historic unwillingness to tackle the problem head-on.

A second councillor told HuffPost UK: “There are issues around selections of Black candidates to become MPs and councillors. It’s not just within the party – it’s a problem across the stake-holders that the parties engage with. Why don’t unions back particular candidates?

“Even before Starmer became leader, there were obviously issues around anti-Blackness in the Labour Party and a lot of criticism needs to be directed at the Labour Party’s national executive committee because the leader of the party is not the person who makes the decisions around what happens.”

Stormzy with Jeremy Corbyn in 2017
Stormzy with Jeremy Corbyn in 2017
David M. Benett via Getty Images

And, nodding to Starmer’s appointment of Doreen Lawrence to head up Labour’s review into disproportionate BAME Covid-19 deaths as an indication of his commitment to race equality and his well documented belief in an “independent complaints review process”, the councillor defended the Labour leader’s silence on the issue around Afriphobia.

“Starmer already made it clear from the very beginning that he believes in an independent process into disciplinary matters in the party, so I’m not trying to defend him – but I think we have to give him time to see what he does.”

The councillor went on to describe some of the online backlash against Labour from some Black people as unfair, and said anti-Black racism worsened while Corbyn was leader.

“I’ve been at the heart, on the frontline, of what was going on in the Labour Party. I think some of the outrage of people on ’Black Twitter, for example, is out of touch with the realities of what’s going on,” they said.

It has also been suggested that Black British celebrities’ endorsement of the Labour Party as a progressive, pro-Black political party has served to create a false impression, far removed from the reality of the situation.

In the lead up to the general election in 2017, the Grime 4 Corbyn campaign was established by a number of popular, Black grime artists pledging support for the Labour leader.

This was well received by Black communities and the media, and resulted in an upsurge of younger generations becoming more politically active.

However, the second councillor described how a show of support from Black public figures made a lot of Black staffers at Labour HQ “cringe” while they were being actively discriminated against on the frontline.

“This is not some soap drama. This is politics, this is people’s lives,” the councillor said.

And they said that, in their opinion: “The Labour Party used the #Grime4Corbyn movement as an opportunity to jump on ‘grime’ and things that are associated with being pro-Black but had no real intentions of doing anything progressive for Black people among its ranks.”

Artists including Dizzee Rascal and Skepta have publicly questioned the #Grime4Corbyn campaign for similar reasons.

As a result of endorsement from Black stars, the councillor says, it became harder for the predominantly white mainstream media to report on anti-Blackness in the Labour Party.

The local leader alleges that this wall of silence has exacerbated the ongoing problem and lent itself to the culture of intense disregard that enables racism to thrive.

A Labour supporter wears a #Grime4Corbyn T-shirt
A Labour supporter wears a #Grime4Corbyn T-shirt
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“I do think journalists are aware of it but when you’ve got very high profile Black British people saying they support the party, would you feel comfortable as a reporter – especially if you’re not Black – [saying that] actually this is an issue?” the councillor asked.

“In the last couple of years Labour has been seen as the party of pro-Blackness, #Grime4Corbyn [...] when actually it’s not always been a safe space for Black people within the party itself, from councillors and staff to general members. And there’s a fear of talking publicly about anti-Blackness in the party.”

Speaking to HuffPost UK, another source recalled shocking instances of infighting between Black colleagues at Labour HQ.

“There’s a new generation of Black MPs who are more vocal and really want to do some great things and there’s a bit of an internal battle with [the] old Black guard, who like to keep things softly, softly, try to get drawn onto the front bench; it’s all about them rather than what can be [done] on a bigger scale,” they said.

Echoing this, the councillor further concluded: “I think a lot of people would accept that some senior Black politicians, even, haven’t always been supportive of Black junior members of staff, Black members of staff and Black people in general.”

As well as commissioning the investigation, the party said, its leadership had “instructed the then general secretary to put measures in place to protect the welfare of party members and party staff who are concerned or affected by the report”.

Asked for any data it held about the number of people from different ethnic backgrounds who had joined or left the party, it did not respond.


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