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Sonny Leong CBE - Chair, Chinese for Labour



As a proud British citizen, born in Malaysia and of Chinese descent, 2016 has been a terrifying year. The rise in racist incidents and attacks since the EU Referendum has been well-documented – an outpouring of hate that shocked so many across the country, who believed us to be an open, diverse and welcoming society. I’ve received so many emails from friends in the Chinese community and with ancestors across the world who have experienced abuse in the last six weeks, it makes you wonder what it means to be British.

But post-Brexit racism is not the only reason that 2016 has been terrifying: it will be remembered as the first year in the 21st Century that it became legitimate and acceptable to incite fear of ‘the other’ and foment division between communities as strategies to try and win elections and sell newspapers.

The Brexit campaign is the obvious feature example and will go down as a truly shameful chapter in British history – not because of the result, but the nature of the campaign. Nigel Farage standing in front of a picture of Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives, declaring that the UK had reached breaking point. Boris Johnson – our new foreign secretary – stoking fear that Turkey would soon join the EU, knowing it isn’t a remote possibility in even the medium term.

The brazen race-baiting of the top Brexiteers almost makes us forget the deliberate, ugly tenor of Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign, which tried to fuel xenophobia to reduce Sadiq Khan’s vote. While Sadiq’s fantastic victory and leadership are a celebration of London’s diversity, we should not forget that the then prime minister himself used the same dog-whistle tactics at PMQs.

These campaigns are a culmination of years of rising discriminatory rhetoric within our political and media worlds. Rather worryingly, one of the best examples is an initiative of the new prime minister Theresa May. However much she championed “the union between all of our citizens, whoever we are and wherever we’re from” in her first statement from Number 10, she was also the home secretary who presided over the infamous, inflammatory ‘go home’ vans targeting illegal immigrants.

Baroness Warsi is absolutely right to say that in using such tactics, “politicians are to blame for the rise of ‘respectable racism’.”

We know that this racism has long been part of our society, an ugly part of reality for ethnic minorities. The British Chinese Project has studied everyday racism experienced by the Chinese-descent community extensively in recent years and it takes many forms, from deeply embedded workplace discrimination to racial slurs hurled at you in public when you least expect it, when you’re just taking the bus, doing the shopping or out with friends. As the Chinese community experiences, so does every other community with ancestors in other parts of the world. It infects every part of people’s lives.

And rather than coming together to tackle this racism and its causes, mainstream politicians have either ignored the issue or cynically stoked it to gain votes. Yet, as we’ve seen, when one creates and widens fractures in society, eventually it will break.

That does not mean that people who voted to leave are racist. Absolutely not – concerns about immigration are legitimate as it has a very real social and economic impact which cannot be reduced to overall GDP statistics that suggest it is entirely good. To bury our heads in the sand and simply dismiss concerns as racist doesn’t help anyone. The reality is that if there is no great thought given to how immigrants live within the communities they move into (socially and economically), unintended impacts can often cause tension.

Yet we cannot deny that alongside these genuine concerns around the impact of immigration, an ugly strain of prejudice and hatred has been encouraged. It is the minority, but if not addressed it will continue to spread. In part, it has already prevented us from doing our full part in helping refugees escape the horrors of war. The poison directed for so long at economic immigrants – people who want to move here – has spilled over onto refugees, people who have been forced to move. While targeting either betrays the innate sense of decency and empathy the British are known for, that it now prevents us from helping people who are suffering beyond comprehension is reprehensible.

Theresa May has pledged to bring the country back together. In a formidably full in-tray, tackling discrimination must be at the top of the pile – embedded into every policy area from Brexit negotiation to public service spending.

There are three principles that a cross-government approach must take.

Firstly, it must shift its focus from multiculturalism to multi-integration: multiculturalism has often promoted the unique natures of different cultures, leading to separation between communities. We must celebrate all of our cultures but also provide much greater opportunities for people to experience and integrate with other cultures, so they can see that different cultures don’t threaten British culture, but enhance it. Responsibility for this lies in part with individuals, in part with government and in part with ethnic minority communities themselves. The British Chinese community in particular has had a tendency to not fully engage in every aspect of society and so we must push ourselves to be full participants.

Secondly, government policy must manage immigration better. Immigration has been a huge positive for the UK, but as the EU referendum has shown us, we have ignored its negative impacts for too long. We need to manage the flow of people into the country very carefully so that these negative impacts don’t happen. For example, we could have a transition period of five years before granting permanent residency status so that immigrants can show they are good citizens, contribute with taxes and have the opportunity to fully engage with British culture, history, customs and, yes, the English language. The TUC have produced an excellent report with a raft of recommendations, including taking action against undercutting and exploitation of workers that drags down; ensuring fair access to housing, education and health by expanding service provision to meet need; and ensuring that there is increased training for the skills required by the economy.

Thirdly, the government must strengthen existing legislation against hate crime. The Equality and Human Rights Commission will shortly be publishing a new review into hate crimes with recommendations on this and we should take their recommendations seriously.

As we look to a post-Brexit future, we must make sure that 2016 is a zero hour, from which we can focus on addressing the fractures in our society and challenging the poison of racism both where it manifests itself and at its source.

Theresa May must make the concept of a union of citizens real in the UK. In the aftermath of Brexit and the outbreak of racism that came with it, our future depends on it.

This article is also published in the Fabian Review Online

A Union of Citizens

Sonny Leong CBE - Chair, Chinese for Labour   As a proud British citizen, born in Malaysia and of Chinese descent, 2016 has been a terrifying year. The rise in...


As a young, black woman, I've naturally felt like the Labour party represented me. It's always been the party of equality, social democracy and justice for all. Historically, it has fought against racial inequality and in 2015, I was glad to see a BAME manifesto released. It included ‘closing the BAME pay gap’, ‘taking robust action against hate crime’ and ‘strengthening representation in public life and in politics’. Unfortunately, Labour didn’t win in 2015 and right now, as a party we need to focus on winning a general election so we can work with the BAME community and make sure these changes actually happen.

Last week, Owen Smith hosted a BAME roundtable discussion and it is clear to me that he is open and willing to listen to our concerns. It was attended by Seema Malhotra MP, several councillors and members who came ready with questions and were more than willing to voice their concerns. He said ‘I want to listen more than I’ll speak’ and that was incredibly moving to hear. Unfortunately, liberation issues are often used as a token in politics and end up being ignored and pushed aside but Smith made it clear that he wanted to change this stating that “As a party, we’re not taking these issues seriously enough”. Several topics came up but a constant was representation.


 Labour currently has the most BAME MP’s and it’s something we as a party should be so proud of but it is still not reflective of the multicultural society we live in. Having accurate representation is more than just having more members of parliament. One councillor, made a fantastic point about the lack of BAME representation at a European level stating that they are “often the only one at the European committee of the regions, where issues affecting our community are brought up”. Even at local levels, in areas with large populations of minorities, local councils are not entirely representative of their community. And in the party itself, advisors and parliamentary assistants are overwhelmingly white and this is something we need to change. We need to work with communities and encourage people from BAME backgrounds to stand for positions. Labour must do more than just state this, they need to actively change it.  If we don’t we are at risk of being supplanted by the Tories as the most popular Party in a lot of ethnic communities. This is not just a concern in terms of winning elections but minorities are losing their innate allegiance and loyalty they have always had with the Labour party. 

“As a party, we’re not taking these issues seriously enough”

- Owen Smith

I will openly admit that I did not vote for Corbyn in the last leadership election but I respected the clear mandate he had and was willing to support him as Labour leader. Unfortunately, he continued to disappoint me and his lacklustre performance during the EU referendum was the final straw. Even before the last general election, the atmosphere in the UK changed. The rise of groups like Britain First and the success of UKIP in the last general election has been harrowing and after the result of Brexit, there has been a huge surge in hate crime and racism. Islamophobia has gotten even worse and anti-Semitism is on the rise. We need a leader who will not just address these problems but act on it. I’m very aware of Corbyn’s history and his support for ethnic minorities in this country and it is something I am very grateful for but we need a leader who will speak for all. His response to the rise of anti-Semitism we have seen in recent months has been extremely disappointing and the Jewish Labour Movement’s overwhelming support for Smith shows that a Labour party lead by Corbyn will not be a party that welcomes everyone. It is not acceptable that many of my Jewish friends, who once felt proud to call themselves Labour party members have left because they no longer feel welcome. These are issues that we need to tackle and true change cannot happen unless we have an electable Labour party.

The outcome of the review by the Equality and Human Rights Commission was frankly shocking. Figures like ‘black graduates earn 23.1% less than white graduates’ and ‘Ethnic minorities unemployment rates (12.9%) were twice as high than the white community (6.3%)’ are incredibly concerning but it’s a constant reality for ethnic minorities in this country and it's clear we need a government to address and more importantly act on the BAME community's concerns. Smith has shown me that he can do that and the Labour Party is the only party that can deliver that. That is why I'll be voting for Owen Smith in the leadership race. He is the only one who can deliver the nation the Labour government it so desperately needs. 

Lydia is a young Labour activist and BAME Officer for Leeds Labour Students. You can follow her on @LydiaOkoibhole



Why I'll be voting for Smith

As a young, black woman, I've naturally felt like the Labour party represented me. It's always been the party of equality, social democracy and justice for all. Historically, it has...


Racist, Islamophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic tropes and ideas are becoming increasing prevalent and accepted in British society. We speak of racism too often in abstract terms, and not rooted in the day to day functioning of entrenched oppressive structures and power relations. It is no secret that BAME engagement at every level within the Party is abysmal, with BAME Labour itself consistently struggling to capture the imagination of ethnic minority communities across this country, let alone enthuse them to become powerful political agents. This leadership contest, whilst between two white men, nonetheless poses vital questions about how to genuinely challenge the rising tide of hatred in this country.

Jeremy Corbyn is a lifelong anti-racism campaigner; supporting the historic activism of Black Sections as they laid the ground for the election of the first 4 Black MPs in 1987. This was all whilst Kinnock and many in the PLP spoke of how ethnic minority MPs would damage Labour’s standing in white working class communities. This short-sighted sentiment is one that depressingly mirrors much of the Labour Party’s attitudes to BAME issues today. Miliband pandered to the right on immigration at the last general election in the hope of recapturing voters in Labour heartlands only to drowned out by a chorus of Tory and UKIP promises to “close our borders”.

We need a leader who understands that Labour is not exclusively for the white working class, but for all those united under the economic and social subjugation imposed by the 1%. We must seek to dispel the idea that in order to attain electoral success we must allow the debate to take place on reactionary grounds. Accordingly, Corbyn has remained unwavering in his resolve to protecting vulnerable immigrants, reframing the political debate around immigration so that it truly reflects our socialist values. For example, Corbyn has been at pains to hold up the example of the recent Fawley oil refinery strike, where domestic workers won parity pay for their Italian and Bulgarian migrant co-workers. We must show that the solution to the problems of white workers lie in socialist policies, not pointing the finger at migrants or meekly conceding that in some parts of Britain there are “too many migrants”.


It’s not just in our policies that the unsatisfactory nature of Smith’s approach is shown. Notably, aspects of the party culture and the way the debate has been conducted demonstrate the privileged position the party affords to the concerns of white members, the views of white politicians, and the power of a largely white status quo. For example the ridiculous assertion that abuse and hatred is a new phenomenon birthed under Corbyn’s leaderships. Longstanding, complex and deep rooted racism, sexism and anti-Semitism have been exploited as a means for cheap political gain by many Smith supporters. This superficial attitude towards to entrenched racism is something I have known all too well as BAME officer for Labour Students. As a black woman I have been excluded, dismissed, degraded and often attacked for refusing to acquiesce to racist expectations that I be silent on issues affecting BAME communities. Many who rightly clamoured over one another to express deep dismay over incidences that lead to the Chakrabarti report fail to identify their hypocrisy and privilege in being able to pick and choose when racism matters, as they do when justifying Smith’s support for the state sanctioned racism of Prevent. Is it any wonder why the Labour Party is struggling to engage BAME activists, when the visibility of ethnic minorities only matter in leaflets, and are treated as suspect when vocal in defining their own oppression? In order to earn the right to be the home of ethnic minority voters, we must encourage politicians such as Corbyn, who seek to dismantle surveillance structures that aim to demonise Muslim communities.

One critique of Corbyn aimed directly at migrant and BAME communities surrounds his performance during the EU referendum. As a staunch remainer and an EU migrant, I was upset about the referendum result - but not surprised. Many communities across Britain are facing great economic hardship and rightly demand change to the socio-economic order. Therefore the leave result can be seen as emblematic of the anger and distrust towards the political establishment many Britons- including ethnic minority communities- felt. “Stronger in” failed to engage this demographic of voters to whom a leave vote represented a supposed departure from poverty. It was the responsibility of Alan Johnson to present a unique Labour message, one that highlighted the impact of Tory cuts and austerity measures in crippling the working class. Instead we lead with dubious absolutes; such as that the EU categorically guarantees workers’ rights/human rights/women's rights. Or, indeed, that Brexit would lead to Prime Minister Boris. We, as a labour movement, too quickly forgot that our rights were won by struggle and not handed down by benevolent legal institutions. 

We must therefore stop peddling the myth that Corbyn and Corbyn alone lost us the referendum, especially as most Labour voters voted to remain. In fact, his call for reform to EU structures was more in tune with the electorate and contrasts dramatically with Smith’s out of touch and opportunistic call for a second EU referendum. This wildly unpopular stances forces us to consider what is meant by Smith’s claims to “electability”. Is a person electable because craven capitulations force their good intentions into the service of a political mainstream that serves to actively disengage, disenfranchise and disillusion the electorate?  Does this not typify the degradation of British politics over many decades? How can our priority be anything other than to dismantle this rotten consensus? With Jeremy Corbyn we have started down that road: let’s not turn back.

Huda is Co-Chair of SOAS LAbour and BAME Officer for Labour Students. You can follow her on @hudacabdulaziz

Corbyn still stands for a different kind of politics

Racist, Islamophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic tropes and ideas are becoming increasing prevalent and accepted in British society. We speak of racism too often in abstract terms, and not rooted in...

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