Dani Garavelli: Neither of the big parties has a monopoly on bigotry

Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson go head to head on Friday's live debate on the BBC. Picture: BBC/Getty
Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson go head to head on Friday's live debate on the BBC. Picture: BBC/Getty
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Even by its usual skewed standards, Friday’s Daily Telegraph was remarkable: five broadsheet pages on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. And nothing on Islamophobia within the Conservative Party.

Admittedly the splash headline “Corbyn has made Labour a welcoming refuge for anti-Semites” was legitimate. It was taken from the Jewish Labour Movement’s submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) inquiry. And what a damning submission it was.

It said the party to which its members belonged “promotes anti-Semites to positions of power; does not take action (and in fact subverts action) against those guilty of abhorrent anti-Semitism; victimises those who speak out against anti-Semitism; fails to protect Jewish members from anti-Semitism; allows Jewish MPs to be hounded out of their political home; and derides the issue of anti-Semitism to the extent that its very existence within the party is denied.”

Such criticism was not unexpected. In the past decade Corbyn has been involved in a succession of incidents – from his defence of an anti-Semitic mural in Tower Hamlets to the glowing foreword he wrote to a book laden with anti-Semitic tropes – which appeared to validate suggestions he was fostering a culture of racism.

To understand the impact this has had on Jewish members one need only look as far as East Renfrewshire – home to the largest Jewish community in Scotland. For more than 18 years this constituency returned Jim Murphy, Blairite and one-time member of the Labour Friends of Israel group, as its MP.

Last week, the current Labour candidate Carolann Davidson told a Glasgow Jewish Representative Council (GJRC) hustings the Labour Party did not deserve their vote. She said she’d only come to reassure them some Labour politicians refused to surrender to racism.

With Jewish MPs including Luciana Berger forced out, you would have to be a tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist to believe Corbyn was being falsely smeared (although you might notice with concern the way some campaigners with no previous track record in opposing anti-Semitism have developed a sudden passion for Jewish rights).

You might wonder if five full pages on the EHRC investigation and no pages on – for example – the poverty that is blighting the lives of hundreds of thousands of children at Christmas – was politically motivated. And you might go on to surmise that, while all racism is equally bad, some forms of racism are less equally bad than others.

While Corbyn is suffering as a result of his failure to address anti-Semitism, Boris Johnson is shrugging off quite blatant Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry, such as Sally-Ann Hart’s claim that learning disabled people should earn less because “they don’t understand money.”

We know Johnson is racist, because racist sentiments so often pop out of his racist mouth. He has talked about “piccaninnies with water melon smiles” and compared Muslim women to letter boxes. In 2005, he described Islamophobia as the natural reaction to Islam, while in 2013 he suggested Malaysian women coming to UK universities were looking for a man to marry.

Like Corbyn, he has promised to root out the problem while continuing to support those who embody it. He promoted Zac Goldsmith to his cabinet despite Goldsmith’s Islamophobic London mayoral campaign against Sadiq Khan, and he continues to employ Tommy Robinson’s pal Chloe Westley as an aide.

You can detect the same notes of betrayal in the voices of Berger and Conservative peer Sayeeda Warsi, who described the past four years as like being in an abusive relationship. She spoke after discovering a promised internal investigation into Islamophobia was to be watered down to “an investigation into prejudice of all kinds”.

The incidents of Islamophobia go all the way down into the grassroots of the party. Earlier this year, the Conservatives suspended 14 party members for a string of abusive social media posts, including one that called for all Muslims to be turfed out of public office.

Then, last month, 25 sitting and former Tory councillors were suspended in another social media scandal in which one poster referred to Muslims as “the enemy within”.

The party insists such suspensions are evidence of a zero tolerance approach. What, then, are we to make of ministers Sajid Javid, Matt Hancock, Andrea Leadsom and Thérèse Coffey, who have been out on the campaign trail supporting candidates facing claims of Islamophobia?

Meanwhile Channel 4’s misquoting of Johnson – it claimed he uttered he words: “people of colour” when, in fact, he said “people of talent” – is 
being touted as evidence he is not prejudiced. In fact it is merely evidence that, now and again, he remembers not to gift-wrap racist ideology in racist rhetoric.

This “talent” quote is a sanitised expression of an immigration policy that created a hostile environment for asylum seekers and deported British citizens back to the West Indies. Let’s not get too outraged with C4 for mishearing something that, to most people, seemed entirely plausible. And, while criticising Corbyn for failing to apologise for anti-Semitism during his Andrew Neil interview, let’s not forget Johnson wouldn’t submit to the Neil interrogation. And that his response to questions about Islamophobia in the latest leaders’ debate was to change the subject back to Brexit.

All this measuring of Labour and Tory sins should not be reduced to whataboutery. But it very often is. The way in which the parties (and other invested factions) turn examples of their rivals’ racism into anti-ballistic missile systems capable of combating their own is demoralising

This election should not be a game of bigotry Top Trumps. The Conservative Party’s racism does nothing to dilute the Labour Party’s nor ought there to be some hierarchy of hatred.

Still, it is worth asking why there is so much focus on one type of racism, while another is seen as more trivial. And why – when the concept of anti-Semitism is rightly sacrosanct – the Spectator and other right-wing publications feel free to carry columns suggesting Islamophobia is a fiction created to silence criticism of fundamentalism?

The consequences of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are almost identical: fear, hurt, and radicalisation within affected communities, and a rise in hate crime towards them. Othering is othering is othering. Whether you are a Hasidic Jew visiting the synagogue in Giffnock or a bearded Muslim attending a mosque in Pollokshields, the misery of being insulted, spat at or attacked is the same.

It is to be hoped the EHRC launches an investigation into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party as it has into anti-Semitism in Labour to reinforce that any form of racial discrimination is unacceptable and must be rooted out. And that – instead of posturing and prevaricating and pointing to each others’ flaws – all the parties will come to a consensus on the iniquity of religious/ethnic hatred: for the sake of social cohesion and so their own exiled members can return to the fold.