Passing the One Nation test

by Sunder Katwala
Director, British Future

IF WE want an integrated Britain, every party that aspires to govern our country should commit to meeting this ‘One Nation’ test – no citizen should feel there is a tension between that party and their faith or their ethnic background.

Both Labour and the Conservatives would say they aspire to that – but they have got work to do before that aspiration could be said to be a reality.

Labour further damaged its reputation and relationship with British Jews by its tone-deaf response to concerns about anti-Semitism this summer. It has eventually put a policy in place and must now show it is serious about having an internal culture that treats anti-Semitism as seriously as every other form of racism and prejudice.

People will debate whether or not it is fair for Labour MP Chuka Umunna to label this as institutional racism. What matters is that Labour certainly does not yet have the confidence of most Jewish people, including many whose natural party is Labour. The party needs to do much more to uphold its proud history on anti-racism.

A democratic party is doing something impressive if tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people, want to join. It may well be that just one or two per cent of those come with anti-Semitic motivations. It may mean dealing with 1,000 or 2,000 people with toxic views. Labour has not had a robust process and party culture in place to do that.

The re-election to the party’s National Executive Committee of members such as Peter Willsman, who said he had never seen anti-Semitism in the party despite serving on the disputes panel, engenders very little confidence that the promise of zero tolerance of anti-Semitism can be kept.

The party will keep going wrong if, when people hear about an allegation of anti-Semitism, they engage in factional politics, starting by asking whether it comes from someone who is Labour or Tory; whether they are on the left or the right of the party; or how supportive they are of the party leader. The reaction to Umunna’s comments shows how left-right debates inside Labour could undermine the responses that are needed.

This issue is not unique to the Labour party. The Liberal Democrats have had their own issues with anti-Semitism. The Tories worked hard to improve their historically weak relationships with ethnic minorities, but they may now be slipping backwards.

The Conservative party had seen its weak relationships with black and Asian Britons as a problem of dealing with the historic baggage of the Enoch Powell era. It hasn’t really had a proper public debate about how it is sometimes creating new baggage today, as with Zac Goldsmith’s campaign for London mayor, or suspicion of the motives of Boris Johnson’s recent interventions on the burqa.

Political education does have an important role to play here. It is important to be able to criticise Israel, without lapsing into anti-Semitic tropes. We also need to debate real integration challenges but without MPs stoking casual anti-Muslim prejudice. There are party activists and members who struggle with understanding where the boundaries lie.

It means everybody in the party understanding that it is legitimate to criticise the policies of Israel, but it is never legitimate to do so using anti-Semitic tropes, nor always insisting that British Jews account for the state of Israel whenever they want to talk about anti-Semitism in Britain. It means knowing that parties of the left will want to challenge corporate power and may mistrust the media too – but that doing so in a way that reinforces anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jewish domination of the media and business can never be acceptable. Such conspiracy theories can also bring the party into contact with toxic allies that should be shunned.

There is a similar issue of political education on the right. Anti-Muslim prejudice is much more broadly held in British society than most other forms of racism. Conservative constituency associations need to get better at spotting it and challenging it proactively.
There is a challenge to civic society too. While it is important to take on prejudice against our own group, it matters especially that we all stand up against prejudice towards others.

If there has been one silver lining of a depressing summer, it has been the increased commitment of groups to do that. We have seen Muslim-led groups such as Tell Mama, Muslims Against Anti-Semitism, and New Horizons in British Islam showing solidarity and support to demonstrate that British Muslims and Jews stand together in challenging racism, antiSemitism and anti-Muslim prejudice. They have rejected those who want to use these controversies to set minorities against each other.

Consistency matters in this debate. It is easy to challenge political opponents. It is harder to put your own house in order, but that is what really matters if we are to see all parties step up and meet the One Nation challenge.