Keir Starmer wants to show that the Labor Party is ready for power. The days of irresponsible politicians and eccentric MPs are over. These are the adults in the room after successive waves of conservative crises. Just hours before his speech at the Labor Party conference on Tuesday, that pristine image was tarnished.
At a side event at the conference, Rupa Huq, MP for Ealing Central and Acton, said of Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng that “he is superficially a black man”. She added, as nonsensical evidence: “He went to Eton, he went to a very expensive prep school… if you hear it on the Today program, you wouldn’t know it was black. Huq had the whip suspended for those comments.
Huq’s point of view is offensive, but what immediately strikes you is how bizarre he is. Why should having a private education and speaking well disqualify someone from being black? Are the only authentically black people the ones who grew up in housing estates and look like rappers? Huq is hostile to Kwarteng’s politics. That’s fair enough; Dispute is fundamental in politics. But embedded in his mind, apparently, is a vision of black people that should be unthinkable for someone who represents a party that prides itself on progressive values about race.
More than a decade ago, in a Newsnight debate on the 2011 London riots, Tudor historian David Starkey made this comment about Tottenham MP David Lammy: “Listen to David Lammy, a quintessentially successful black man. If you turn off the screen to listen to it on the radio, you’d think it’s white. It was part of a wider tirade about the influence of black culture on British society: white people in towns across the country now sound black. But luckily you have people like Lammy on the other side, showing that black people can escape their darkness.
Huq seems to think the same. His comments suggest that to be black is to occupy the lowest rungs of society, and only the Labor Party can save black people. Wealthy black conservatives like Kwarteng are betraying their identity. They lose their black card because they undermine Huq’s racial image. Blacks can be rich or poor, left or right. They can sound like Kwasi Kwarteng or Dizzee Rascal.
I find it amazing that I even have to write that there is more than one way to be a black person. But the Labor Party is full of surprises. In his speech, Starmer, echoing Tony Blair, described Labor as “the party of the centre”. “Once again”, he said, “we are the political wing of the British people”. Against the current Conservative government, and according to recent polls, that may be the case. But there are still, as the Huq’s example shows, attitudes about race within the party that run counter to central ground. Starmer still has a lot of work to do.
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[See also: Kwasi Kwarteng forgot that radicalism needs to be matched by credibility]