Courtesy of Labour x Fashion

Here’s how young activists are feeling about the Labour Party right now

We spoke to a number of young POC who campaigned for Labour in the last general election. They’re not exactly happy.

by Jenna Mahale
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24 July 2020, 3:00pm

Courtesy of Labour x Fashion

Let’s face it, 2020 has been no-one’s year. But if you're a recent graduate or a progressive activist in the UK, the past few months have felt particularly dire. With a wave of unemployment looming, the concept of a retirement pension becoming little more than a distant dream, and a housing crisis that is miraculously getting even worse… Well, we’re pretty screwed, aren’t we?

Politically, the left has seen better days. When one of our stronger “wins” in recent history has been ensuring that over one million schoolchildren don’t literally starve over the summer, the dystopian consequences of the devastating 2019 general election result are all too clear.

In April, the Labour Party chose to replace leader Jeremy Corbyn with his shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer — who positioned himself as a unity candidate, bringing together the movement’s left, “soft left” and more rightist tendencies. In a recent piece for The Guardian, Christine Berry noted that while the Labour Party’s new leadership may not be “irredeemably right wing”, it doesn’t really seem to stand for much at all, particularly as the next general election looks to be quite a while off: “Corbynism has not been replaced by reheated Blairism,” she writes, “it has been replaced by a vacuum”.

However, as the party looks to save face in the post-industrial heartlands it lost in the 2019 election, it is undeniably moving rightwards, to a kind of centrism; Starmer may have pledged to keep many of his predecessor’s policies, but a number of recent actions on his part have served to exclude and alienate party members from marginalised demographics.

Whether it’s falsely equating the ideologies on both sides of the trans rights debate, or his lacklustre economic plan for renters affected by the pandemic, Starmer isn’t exactly scoring points with progressives. He seems hesitant, too, to appear supportive of anti-racist politics despite their strong global resurgence following the state-sanctioned murder of George Floyd, referring to the Black Lives Matter movement dismissively as a “moment” and the idea to defund the police -- in order to more usefully redistribute the amount of money they receive -- as “nonsense”.

Writing for the i newspaper, journalist Maya Elese wrote that this unwillingness to engage is a likely consequence of Labour’s efforts to re-connect with the “traditional working class” (i.e. the older, white, provincial working class), and the party’s caution to not appear “too ‘radical’ or left-wing”. Starmer’s inaction over a leaked report detailing seemingly toxic behaviour by Labour right-aligned party staffers — including bullying Black MPs — is a particular sticking point for many, especially when contrasted with his far more decisive crackdown when responding to allegations of anti-Semitism.

For 22-year-old Aliya, the leaked report was the straw that broke the camel’s back. “In April, I decided to step away from campaigning for the Labour party,” she tells i-D. “I felt disenfranchised with how racism had become a political football, and how the toxic culture within the party stood in the way of a Labour-led government.” After the party leader’s disrespectful comments about Black Lives Matter emerged, the London-based writer found herself feeling even more politically homeless. “I'm debating whether I should cancel my membership altogether. Obviously, we're not expecting Starmer to call to defund the police outright, but he could've easily taken the chance to comment instead on what constructive reforms Labour would fight for in the judicial system, instead of calling it all 'nonsense’.”

One particularly disturbing endorsement of Starmer’s position on BLM (and a definite indication that things are well and truly going off the rails) came from none other than the amphibious leader of the Brexit party himself.

“Resorting to dog-whistle politics that even Farage feels comfortable enough to agree with at the expense of communities feels insensitive,” says Aliya. “It is so insulting to Black activists and the causes they have dedicated so much time to fighting for.”

Amin, a 21-year-old university graduate, says that the recent comments have been “like slaps to the face,” but he has been losing his resolve slowly for a while now, likening Starmer’s leadership to a “death by a thousand cuts”. “It feels like day and night,” he says. “Whilst there was much under Corbyn that I disagreed with, it felt like we could actually create some meaningful structural changes in our economic and foreign policies.”

Now, Amin is finding that his time and energy are better spent on extra-parliamentary projects: “My membership runs out in August and I won't be renewing it,” he states. “I don't want to be providing financial support when I could be funding much better projects.”

Like Amin, many young activists in the party are feeling like their support is being taken for granted. Sarah from Sheffield, now 19 years old, has been “a proper little Labour fangirl” since she was 16. “I campaigned and advocated for them hardcore,” she says, referring in particular to the 2017 general election. Despite the loss, Sarah felt empowered by the gains the party had made under Corbyn, but had these hopes crushed in 2019. “I hoped people were right when they said a centrist might help.” In her humble opinion, Starmer hasn’t. “He's absolutely shite. Labour will not get my vote in the foreseeable future.”

“I hate everyone saying ‘the only way to defeat [the Tories] is to stay in the party’. Do I not deserve to have my vote earned?” she says. “I would rather spoil my ballot or vote for an independent who genuinely wants to help people in my town, over a party that has consistently shown that they’ll just use me.”

For 21-year-old Safyan, Starmer’s leadership marks the first time he “[does] not feel entirely safe within the party.” The Oxford-based student feels that the Labour party appears to be upholding a “hierarchy of racism”. “While many were still waiting on affirmative action on the anti-Blackness, Islamophobia, and the weaponisation of anti-Semitism that was revealed to be at the core of the party in the leaked reports, the same MPs who were racially abused were immediately reprimanded by the leadership on dubious guilt-by-association charges,” says Safyan. “This lack of consistency on anti-racism has really disenfranchised me from the party, as I’m doubting whether Labour is actually value-led anymore.”

However, some supporters aren’t quite ready to abandon ship just yet. Faiza, London Young Labour's BAME officer, is determined to reform the party from within. “I understand and empathise with other people who have [left], but I am committed to stay and fight to make our party worthy of winning back their trust, and their votes,” she says, adding that she believes Labour HQ are making some big tactical mistakes right now. “The party leadership is betraying some of our most valuable activists and they're mistaken if they think a bit of dog-whistle racism and denial of trans rights will win them back the seats lost in the 'heartlands' in 2019.”

In her heart, Faiza believes that the Labour party is much more than Keir Starmer: “While factional struggles are inevitable, it is the only organised mass party for the working class, and removing ourselves from it means marginalising socialism as a concept again. The policies are popular, and the principles are worth fighting for.”

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