The BAME Game
‘Is Dishy Rishi on your side?’ asks a recent attack ad made by ‘One Rule for Them’, aiming to expose the chancellor’s allegiance to an international class of billionaires. Sunak’s portfolio is certainly breathtaking. The MP for Richmond (Yorks), known in his constituency as the ‘Maharaja of the Dales’, is the wealthiest in the House of Commons, boasting property worth around £10 million (most of that’s a five-bedroom mews house in Kensington). His father-in-law is the billionaire businessman and co-founder of Infosys, N.R. Narayana Murthy. He has declined to clarify whether Thélème Partners, the hedge fund he co-founded with Patrick Degorce, would profit from the escalating share price of the biotech firm Moderna, which reported on Monday that its Covid-19 vaccine appeared to have an efficacy of 94.5 per cent.
His wealth may be a valid target, but the ad appears to have backfired. Sunak’s predecessor, Sajid Javid, tweeted in response: ‘The Left really, really do detest ethnic-minority Tory Cabinet ministers.’ The foreign office minister James Cleverly noted a ‘pattern’: ‘The left really don’t like us BAME people being successful.’ During a recent Commons debate on Black History Month, three women on the opposition benches asked the Conservative MP Bim Afolami if he would ‘give way’. He wouldn’t. ‘Is that what they teach you at Eton?’ Tulip Siddiq called out (she was trying to make a point about the ‘difference between being a middle-class Asian woman and being working-class’). He responded that he was ‘proud’ to have gone to Eton: ‘I reject the idea that if you are Black or you are non-white then there are certain places you are not able to go.’ In September, the Tory candidate for mayor of London, Shaun Bailey, claimed that ‘the left’ does not want Black people to succeed because we are its ‘chosen victims’.
One Rule for Them was founded by Adam McNicholas, who in fact describes himself as a Labour ‘centrist’. The campaign is targeted at ‘swing voters’ who ‘lent’ their votes to the Tories in 2019: a demographic often identified as pro-Brexit, anti-immigration and socially conservative. Why should the attack ad on ‘dishy Rishi’ be expected to appeal to them? The suggestions that Sunak’s wealth is targeted in a racialised way aren’t unfounded: the emphasis is on his decadent, extravagant, ‘lavish celebrity lifestyle’, with orientalist undertones. (The Mail on Sunday recently reported on ‘campaigning footballer’ Marcus Rashford in similar terms, saying he’d bought ‘five luxury homes worth more than £2 million’.) The ad shows a photograph of Sunak stroking his chin, and then animates his eyes so they flick sinisterly to the side, making him look like Jafar in Disney’s Aladdin. A caption appears: ‘What are they trying to hide?’ (‘They’?) Prominent white Tories, meanwhile – Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Jacob Rees-Mogg – tend to be presented more as ‘out of touch’ traditionalists: their wealth is framed as anachronistic rather than hedonistic.
The first Black woman to stand as a parliamentary candidate for the Conservative Party was Lurline Champagnie, who ran against Jeremy Corbyn in Islington North in 1992. Looking through the archives of the Voice recently, I came across a copy of the magazine from 1990 in which Champagnie was quoted as saying that the Labour Party conspired to ‘manipulate’ Black people for its own political ends, using them as ‘instruments of revolution’. She even blamed Labour-controlled councils for encouraging ‘black women to become pregnant in order to gain council housing’. Such comments are ridiculous, but they speak to an enduring blind spot that left-leaning people often have when it comes to the politics of Black and Asian Britons.
Many middle-class Black and Asian people feel that the left makes them invisible, falsely representing ethnic minorities only as a disadvantaged constituency in need of white saviours. In the face of the institutional racism that has dispossessed generations of migrants, the individual prosperity of Sunak or Afolami, regardless of their class origins, is viewed by some as a template for success. The Conservatives have been alert to this for decades. A campaign poster from 1983 showed a young Black man in a suit above the caption: ‘Labour says he’s Black. Tories say he’s British.’
A right-wing economic agenda can be articulated through ostensibly race-conscious rhetoric, contending that the wish to seize and redistribute the wealth of ethnic minority communities is a racist endeavour – especially given all they have already contributed. Champagnie is, after all, a nurse of the Windrush generation. The disparaging of wealthy BAME Britons, and the homogenising of BAME communities, are both volatile strategies for Labour.
The party still commands a plurality of the Black and Asian vote, but this is gradually weakening, and even to talk about ‘the Black and Asian vote’ in the singular is misleading: data compiled by the Runnymede Trust indicates that Indian and Black African support for the Conservatives increased between 2010 and 2017, though Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black Caribbean support strengthened for Labour.
In June, a group of BAME Labour MPs wrote to the home secretary, Priti Patel, to express their ‘dismay’ at the way she had used her ‘heritage and experiences of racism to gaslight the very real racism faced by black people and communities across the UK’. Patel responded by saying she ‘would not be silenced’ by Labour MPs ‘who continue to dismiss the contributions of those who don’t conform to their view of how ethnic minorities should behave’. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said the Tories ‘don’t think there’s such a thing as the wrong type of BAME, we think all people are equal’.
This week, an official inquiry found that Patel’s ‘approach’ to civil servants in the Home Office ‘on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying’ and ‘was in breach of the Ministerial Code’. Boris Johnson disagreed. Alex Allan, the independent adviser who wrote the report, resigned. Jacob Young, the new Conservative MP for Redcar, tweeted: ‘A female, BAME, daughter of immigrants who: speaks out against the “woke” left; won’t vote the way they say she should; wants controlled immigration; dared to become home secretary. Of course they want to tear her down.’
The Conservative Party is clearly trying to define racism as the denial of self-determination and political liberty to individual Black and Asian people, avoiding a structural definition that would implicate the party for the way it has presided over the Windrush scandal, the hostile environment, prisons, policing, school exclusions and so on. Kemi Badenoch, the equalities minister, told the Spectator last month that the politicising of skin colour was ‘creating a prison for Black people’. It’s a sinister comparison (26 per cent of people held in Britain’s actual prisons are BAME), but it’s clever in the way it appeals to Black Britons who desire integration and ‘equality’, not ‘segregation’. Rishi Sunak’s statement on Black Lives Matter, which outclassed Keir Starmer’s response to the movement, spoke of those who desire ‘a better future for themselves and their children’, peddling an emotional narrative of equality along with the Conservative values of individualism and inherited wealth.
The Labour Party, meanwhile, is distinguishing itself by displaying outright disrespect for its Black, Asian and Muslim politicians, councillors and members. Black party members have reported resigning in droves. The former Labour mayor of Islington, Rakhia Ismail, has defected to Bailey’s Conservative mayoral campaign, after resigning from Labour on grounds of racism in the party. If Labour does not get to grips with the problem, more defections seem likely. This does not mean giving up on a commitment to greater redistribution of wealth, or abandoning the idea of structural racism to champion individual success, but it does mean building a compelling narrative of collective aspiration, in place of the sometimes insensitive narratives of mass degradation. Mistakes such as the 2017 general election message that ‘only Labour can be trusted to unlock the talent of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people, who have been held back by the Conservatives’ – or the attack ad on Sunak – are culturally incompetent and should not be repeated.