Labour leader Keir Starmer has appealed to Black voters not to leave the party, following backlash over an interview in which he dismissed the Black Lives Matter goal of defunding the police as “nonsense”.
HuffPost UK revealed in June that scores of Black people were leaving or considering leaving the party over concerns that anti-Black racism was not being adequately addressed by the leadership.
It was sparked by a leaked report into anti-Semitism in the party, drafted in March and leaked in April, which also appeared to uncover examples of Afriphobia – prompting Starmer to appoint a four-person panel to investigate.
Still, Black voters have expressed disappointment with silence on the matter from leadership while this is underway.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast on Monday, Starmer said: “Nobody should be saying anything about defunding the police.
“I was director of public prosecutions for five years. I’ve worked with police forces across England and Wales bringing thousands of people to court, so my support for the police is very strong.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer tells #BBCBreakfast it’s "a shame" the sentiment behind the Black Lives Matter movement is getting “tangled up with these organisational issues" and it’s "nonsense" to call to ‘Defund the Police’. pic.twitter.com/7ydITWGZWN— BBC Breakfast (@BBCBreakfast) June 29, 2020
Now, amid growing backlash from people who described his interview as “disappointing” and cited it as grounds to part ways with Labour, Starmer is appealing to Black people to stay.
“I don’t want anybody to leave the Labour Party,” Starmer told HuffPost UK on Thursday.
“The Labour Party is a broad church. It is a place that I hope and am determined that Black people feel that they are welcome, that they want to be; we definitely need as much Black representation in the Labour Party as we can possibility get.”
The Labour leader described the party as “anti-racist” and suggested that disciplinary procedures have already taken place internally.
“Amongst the reasons we took the actions that we did [to order an independent inquiry] was to try to show as quickly as we could to people that they could have confidence in [deputy leader] Angela Rayner and myself to root out racism and to take swift action in order to do so without inhibitions. [...]
“We take it really seriously. Angela Rayner and I are determined to root out any racism in the party – whether that’s staff or members. We are a proudly anti-racist party. They are our core values and principles.
“Within hours of getting the leaked report we had ordered an independent inquiry. We didn’t delay, we didn’t just leave it to the internal process, and we have not inhibited that inquiry in any way whatsoever.”
“It’s been in place in a matter of a few weeks and people will judge us, I think, when those reports come in. I’m determined it’ll be independent and I’m determined we’ll act upon it when we see the results of that report,” Starmer added.
“Meanwhile the internal processes are going on and that has led to action already – albeit, frustratingly, for a number of weeks I wasn’t able to point to that when people were criticising me because of the confidentiality of the process.”
He added: “I asked the team, headed up by Martin Forde QC, to go wherever he needs to go on this, and they’ll report to us. There’s no ‘no go areas’. He has not been given any instructions not to look at anything – he has got complete freedom to go where he needs to go, such is the determination to root out any racism in our party and deal with it – and be seen to deal with it – effectively.”
Black voters are still reeling from the aftermath of the leaked report and many have told us that they now feel “politically homeless”.
Among those disappointed by the contents of the report were London Mahmoud Junju, who told HuffPost UK it was “damning” and said he found the silence of the upper echelons of the party worrying. He cancelled his membership after almost a decade.
“The findings exposed anti-Blackness in the party – especially towards Black Labour MPs like Auntie Abbott. She’s one MP who has faced the most abuse in recent British history and we can’t ignore the fact that it’s mainly because she’s a Black woman,” he said.
Starmer’s recent BBC interview won the praise of far-right leader Nigel Farage. When asked by HuffPost UK about his view on that, the Labour leader replied – twice – “I have nothing in common with Nigel Farage.”
The Labour leader also came under fire on Monday for describing the Black Lives Matter movement as “a moment, if you like”, with many people taking umbrage with the possible implication that the anti-racism moving is fleeting and lacking in significance.
But Starmer told HuffPost UK he meant the opposite and denies accusations that he is courting any racist votes, particularly in light of Farage’s endorsement.
“I meant ‘moment’ as in ‘a defining moment’, a turning point, and I genuinely think that reflects the sentiment that many, many Black community leaders have expressed to me in recent weeks.
“If there’s one thing that’s come through loud and clear it’s this has got to be a moment, a turning point, a defining point, moment, call it what you like. Because there’s a deep frustration [...] that we’ve kind of been here before where people have said there needs to be change and there hasn’t been change.
“In that sense, I was absolutely not pandering to a racist vote. I was trying to recognise the significance of what was happening and express a determination that it should be a turning [point], and to join with those across the Black Lives Matter movement who desperately do want it to be a turning point. And I’m very, very happy to say that over and over again because I think it’s very important.”
But he did express regret over his use of language. “If people thought it [‘moment’] meant something else then of course I regret that,” he said.
Asked by HuffPost UK about the diversity of his office – whose most recent appointments he made in May – Starmer described his wider plan to increase diversity across the party as a whole, pointing to his success in diversifying the Crown Prosecution Service during his five-year tenure as director of public prosecutions.
“I’ve spoken to the Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff network to express how much I want to work with them, to ask them to give me their ideas and their challenges – and the idea of having an audit and diversity panel or board within the Labour Party came from those discussions,” he said.
“To some extent I’ve inherited this problem – I’ve just come in as leader of the Labour Party and the staff that are in place [across the party] have been working here for some time.
“We will do whatever is necessary.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.