The tempestuous war of words between Labour and Boris Johnson is nothing new, but it this week escalated rather dramatically when the PM was accused by the opposition of “trying to wage a culture war”.
The prompt for this incendiary charge was the appointment of Munira Mirza to head his newly-announced commission on racial inequalities. It’s a move David Lammy says undermines the body before it’s even begun.
Who is Munira Mirza?
Mirza is currently an adviser to the prime minister as the head of the No.10 policy unit, and also served as one of Johnson’s deputy mayors while he ran London.
She has reportedly been instrumental in the establishment of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities – announced by Boris Johnson earlier this week in the wake of a series of anti-racism protests in Britain, triggered by the killing of George Floyd.
So far, so uncontroversial.
But her past writings as well as her past political and professional affiliations have surfaced in the wake of her latest appointment.
The Revolutionary Communist Party
Mirza used to be a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), a group which swung drastically from the Trotsky-inspired left to the libertarian right in the 1990s and collapsed altogether in 1997.
A number of former members – Mirza included – went on to become influential in Tory Eurosceptic circles and continued to share ideas with each other.
The RCP’s ideals and views were expressed through its journal, Living Marxism, which questioned accounts of the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and pushed an anti-environmental narrative that bordered on climate change denial.
After losing a libel battle with ITV it was forced to close, but was quickly resurrected as the online magazine Spiked.
For those unfamiliar with Spiked, it is funded in part by the Koch brothers, two billionaire US industrialists.
Koch Industries is the largest privately-owned energy company in the US and has been described by environmental campaigners as a “financial kingpin of climate science denial”.
Spiked has also published articles attacking:
It has defended:
Mirza on Spiked
Mirza has written a number of articles for Spiked (none of the ones previously referenced), and it is some of these that have been highlighted this week by her critics and led to accusations of her denying that institutional racism exists.
After David Lammy led a review of the treatment of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups in the justice system for the Tory government under David Cameron and Theresa May, Mirza wrote a piece in 2017 criticising it titled “Lammy review: the myth of institutional racism”.
In it, she wrote: “Certainly there is a historic legacy here from previous decades, but it is equally possible that the current accusations of institutional racism by lobbyists and activists – a perception more than a reality – is behind the further corrosion of public trust.”
On Tuesday, Lammy wrote on Twitter: “My review was welcomed by all parties: Corbyn, Cameron and May.
“But Munira Mirza went out of her way to attack it.”
In a Sun article also written in 2017, she said: “By appeasing the anti-racism lobby and affirming its culture of grievance, public institutions and business leaders are not making Britain a fairer place but harming the very people they aspire to help.”
And on the Windrush scandal, she wrote in a blog post that “the real lesson is not one of racism, as in the deliberate targeting of ethnic minority groups, rather it is that the process of immigration enforcement needs to be improved”.
Mirza has been one of Johnson’s loudest supporters during his most controversial moments, notably when he compared Muslim women in burkas to “bank robbers” and “letterboxes”.
In an article for Conservative Home, she said Johnson’s comments were part of a “reasonable, balanced and a thoughtful defence of Muslim women’s right to choose how they live”.
Mirza too has her defenders. Former chancellor Sajid Javid described her as “smart, compassionate and deeply committed to social justice”.
“One of the sharpest minds inside No 10,” he said. “No wonder the Left don’t like her.”
Defending the commission
Johnson has defended his commission, following criticism that action rather than another review was needed.
The PM, who also faced a backlash for saying he wanted to stop the “sense of” victimisation and discrimination, later acknowledged that racism “unquestionably” existed in the UK.
He told reporters in Downing Street: “The whole point of having a review is to look at the areas where people feel there’s more that needs to be done.
“I think what we want to do is learn now very fast what fresh changes we need to make. What I feel most strongly is that there are so many positive stories that are not being heard.
“Things really are changing. You’re seeing young Black kids now doing better in some of the most difficult subjects in school than they were ever before, more going to top universities.
“We need to start telling that story and building up a culture of high expectations, a narrative about success, as well as stamping out the racism and the discrimination that unquestionably exists.”
Downing Street said the review would also examine poor educational outcomes for white working-class boys.
The new commission will report directly to Johnson and also be overseen by equalities minister Kemi Badenoch.
HuffPost UK has contacted Downing Street for comment from Mirza.
On Tuesday, the prime minister’s official spokesperson said the commission will be chaired by an “independent figure” who will be announced “in due course”.
“Munira is the prime minister’s head of policy, so you would expect her to be involved in setting this up,” the spokesperson said.