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Race Rows and Not Seeing Race

Race Rows and Not Seeing Race

One common feature of British general elections is the contradiction between ‘race rows’ as parties seek to catch out rival candidates, and not seeing race when it comes to policy.

The ‘Race Rows’

The Conservatives are investigating three PPCs (prospective parliamentary candidates) for antisemitism, two over Islamophobia. The LibDems lost two PPCs to cases of anti-black racism. Labour and the SNP have suspended one PPC each for antisemitism.

These are the cases where action has been taken, however allegations have been made against all parties over candidates who are still in place and not currently being investigated. Every allegation of race or faith prejudice must be taken seriously and, where they have been proven to have brought their party into disrepute, they should have their memberships terminated.  The trouble is the search for ‘race rows’ has been reduced a weapon of political war – especially in the age where the mining old social media posts is quick and easy – rather than a serious endeavour to root out discrimination and prejudice across the board.

While the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) continue to investigate Labour over antisemitism the case grows for the watchdog to launch a wider independent probe into all political parties, embracing Islamophobia and anti-black (or Afriphobia) racism. It is time for all parties to admit to, apologise for, and pledge to fix institutional race and faith biases in their ranks.

The Policies

The launch of Labour’s race and faith manifesto was overshadowed by the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’s warning against Labour. The manifesto contained several ideas that would surely please Mirvis: a school curriculum to teach students about antisemitism; harsher penalties for attacks on synagogues and other places of worship; legal protection for the practice of kosher and halal meat, and the right to wear religious symbols. The Conservatives are offering nothing to Jewish people, and the LibDems just one policy: making antisemitism an aggravated offence.

More broadly, Labour proposed a radical set of actions and objectives to combat racial disparities in society, starting with the goal to “eliminate race inequality from our economy” and backed up by policies like extending pay gap reporting to ethnicity and embedding the mission of race equality at the heart of the Treasury with a coordinating unit. Labour plan a focus on combatting disparities in education (disproportionate exclusions and low numbers of BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) teachers; criminal justice (policing, sentencing and incarceration); and health.

The LibDems have so far failed to bring out a BME manifesto has they have done in the past. They offer a handful of mild measures like name-blind job applications and targets for public sector appointments, but nothing to write home about. The Conservatives nothing new that merits a mention in their manifesto. Assessing the offer of the three parties, it is clear that Labour have, by some distance, the strongest blueprint for addressing race and faith inequality in society. However, the only substantial coverage on these issues for Labour has been the ongoing controversy of antisemitism.

The Media

The voices of BME citizens has been lacking in this general election, from both media coverage and polling. As Dr Omar Khan of the Runnymede Trust points out, polling under-estimates Labour’s share of the vote in seats with high BME populations, despite evidence from Khan’s thinktank that 77 per cent of BME voters backed Labour in 2017. There have been few pundits from black and Asian backgrounds called upon to commentate on this election. People of colour have largely been absent from this election, despite the issue of race often dominating the news agenda.

This is surprising because polling and attitude surveys have frequently found that BME citizens attach significantly different levels of importance to issues such as being more concerned than the general population about issues like policing or tackling racism. We also know that beneath individual topics, wider perceptions of how relatable a party is towards BME communities also matters. Yet it is also unsurprising given how un-diverse large swathes of the mainstream media is. Consequently not only have White middle class media professionals failed to employ many BME staff but they are not going out to seek the views of BME voters. So far there has been just one low-key radio debate on BBC Sounds. That is just not good enough.


The vast majority of ‘race’-related coverage has been about Labour and antisemitism. Some of it has been so politicised that we have seen criticism from the press regulator IPSO. Yesterday, John McDonnell acknowledged that the issue had harmed Labour, which reflects a failure not just to get a fair hearing but also to craft a response that is convincing enough to change perceptions. Merely protesting that the party are ‘taking action’ and that facing the allegations have been painful has clearly not been enough. A new strategy is needed.

Many of the claims of antisemitism have been harrowing to read. The abuse suffered by Jewish members has been shameful. While antisemitism manifests itself with its’ own dynamics, the stories also appeared strikingly familiar to the experiences of black and Asian people in all parties suffering race and religious prejudices. It is therefore incorrect to suggest there is a hierarchy of racism with one strand being more serious unless all strands, in all parties, are investigated and compared. 


The EHRC watchdog report may well be the first opportunity the public gets to view allegations of antisemitism in Labour alongside an assessment of action taken and how effective that has been so they can judge for themselves. Unfortunately, the public will not get to see the report until at least four months after the general election. Until that time, voters will be forced to rely on media reports. Yet the same media fails to provide a fair representation of the issues, and does not bother to assess the policy offers by parties to tackle racial disparities or even seek out the views of BME electors. It is the classic Eurocentric liberal position of not seeing race when it is politically inconvenient, and seeing race when it is.

  • Lester Holloway is Communications and Events Officer at CLASS

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