Austin v Khan: the Labour splits on multiculturalism.

When Sadiq Khan accused David Cameron, in his “multiculturalism” speech in Berlin, of “writing propaganda for the English Defence League”, he did not get a lot of support from his own side.

None of his senior colleagues condemned him. But they were quick to be muted.

He did get backing from some quarters. Atul Hatwal, in Uncut, for instance, was unusually unstinting in his praise:

“While others were either hiding behind the sofa or couching their disapproval in the gentlest and most respectful of terms, only Khan called it as it was.

The Labour party lost its compass on this issue years ago. Under Blair and Brown the traffic was only ever one way. For years the right have been able to ritually burn multicultural straw men with impunity. The mark of Duffy has only made the party more timid.

But sometimes there are issues where it is simply a matter of right and wrong. No politics, no triangulation and no trading. These irreducible beliefs used to be what distinguished Labour and gave the party its moral centre”.

Khan’s shadow cabinet colleagues remained ominously, but tactfully, silent. The Labour default setting on race held firm: say nothing if you can help it.

Elsewhere on the front bench, though, some shadow ministerial colleagues were rather more boisterous in their pronouncements.

Step forward Ian Austin, shadow sports minister and MP for Dudley North, in which marginal seat the BNP looms large. Hewn from the illiberal granite of West Midlands Labour, Austin was clearly incensed at Khan’s intervention and not prepared to join former Brownite colleagues like Douglas Alexander and Yvette Cooper in taking it lying down.

At business questions that week, he told the House of Commons:

“May I add my voice to a call for a debate on the prime minister’s important speech at the weekend, so that we can discuss in the House how we can build a much stronger sense of what it means to be British, based on the contribution that people are prepared to make, whether they want to work hard, play by the rules, pay their way, whether they are prepared to speak English, because that is the only way to play a full role in British society, and their commitment to the great British values of democracy, equality, freedom, fairness and tolerance”?

“The prime minister’s important speech”. Not exactly “propaganda for the EDL”. Austin’s message is pretty plain. On this issue, for him, Cameron is on the side of the angels, Khan on the side of the others.

Speaking to the Express and Star, Austin warmed to his theme:

“Ever since I became an MP I have been campaigning to build a much stronger sense of what it means to be British. It is only by building a stronger sense of patriotism and national pride, that we can tackle extremism and build a stronger and more united society. If we don’t stand up and say Britain’s history and its values make this the greatest country in the world, how on earth can we expect anyone else to believe it? And if people do not learn to speak English how can they play a full role in society”?

Khan and Austin represent opposite extremes of a major divide within Labour. Neither is alone. While the likes of Atul Hatwal are trenchant in support of Khan, Britain’s longest serving Muslim MP, Khalid Mahmood, spent most of the day of Cameron’s speech telling any broadcaster who would listen that the PM’s central argument was right.

These divisions matter because opinions are very strongly held on either side. And because it is an issue which, directly, shifts votes.

It is surprising, in which case, that these splits are not receiving more attention.

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11 Responses to “Austin v Khan: the Labour splits on multiculturalism.”

  1. Tacitus says:

    I confess to some surprise that Khan wasn’t supported more fully. As a party with a long track record of campaigning against racism we should have stood alongside him more fully. Instead we took a rather wimpy road that lloked like we were waiting to see which way the wind blows.

    A sad state of affairs – in future could we have the courage of our convictions.

  2. john p Ried says:

    At the Eastend of london, In 2004 Even when It appeared ,after 7 years of Nu Labour we’d done very little for the “Working class” ,by which I Include people who’d bought their council Homes, I found a lot of people voting BNP, as a “Protest vote” by what I mean they were’nt bitterly upset with the state of Immigration, Local public sevices appearing to benefit asylum seekrs,
    In both these quotes I haven’t put WHITE Working class, as second /third Generation Minorities were standing by their White neighbours
    Now whether these people who were voting BNP in 2004, had ever voted at all, had voted labour in the 70’s or occasionally voted Labour as their parents did, i don’t know,
    But its clear from the cuts now coming through there’s both a feeling that the BNP could emerge among the Older working class who’ve been left behind ,though not at the expence of :Labour and that the EDL is attracting Labour support for it’s criticism of Militant Islam, baring in mind they’re not a political party they if they were to become one they would attract our voters.

  3. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    That’s a mess of anecdote, John, that fails to match up with the actual data. The BNP’s support is cratering as they implode; and polling has consistently shown that whilst voters think we need to be tough on immigration, the ones for whom it’s the most important issue are overwhelmingly Tories or further right.

    We need a strong stance on immigration. We need to prevent abuse and make sure people speak English. But beating up on some undefined spectre of multiculturalism is cheap gesture politics, and we shouldn’t be afraid to denounce it.

    Austin isn’t so much wrong as spouting a non-stop stream of platitudes. Until somebody can actually explain what he means in concrete terms, it’s no wonder nobody is taking notice of him.

  4. Robert says:

    Well John you shock me, I have gone to meeting and I’ve knocked on doors for labour , I’ve done it all. The fact is labour people by which I mean real labour people have always been open about immigration we have a duty to help the poorest in society, be they Asian Polish or what ever. In all my time within Labour before walking away, I saw shops which had been closed for years and years reopen so getting a community back to life, I even saw my local post office open again as people from Asia got stuck into the community. My local football team was sponsored by the local Asian shop.

    I see no reason why or as you say labour people were annoyed by immigration for that thats bull shit, what annoyed me was seeing New labour telling people you cannot come here unless you have money or a factory or you were able to do something for the state.
    The poor in the world have a right to live, thats real labour socialism not the cockeyed shit new labour produced.

  5. Will says:

    I wish we in the Labour Party wouldn’t keep shouting “racism” every time somebody dares to talk about integration or “Britishness”. It just obscured the real debate. I’m with Austin and Mahmood- if people in this country aren’t prepared to respect certain liberal, democratic values, that is a real problem that has to be sorted out.

  6. red star says:

    More a sharing of views than a split
    We really do need to up the quality of debate on this issue
    The leadership cannot ignore the challenge in the long term

  7. Liam Carr says:

    Having lived and worked in India for three years I know what it feels like to be a foriegner… Multiculturalism is not a strategy or a party political policy. It is an ideal not an idea. Multiculturalism cannot fail. We must work towards it, we have only failed in that we have not reached a truly tolerant multicultural society yet. read the rest on my blog

  8. Sunder Katwala says:

    There are different views on these issues, but I feel certain the post rather significantly exaggerates what substantive difference there would be between Sadiq Khan and Ian Austin. It is wrong to say they “represent opposite extremes of a major divide within Labour”. (I do suspect there would be other Labour voices further from Austin’s view than Sadiq is).

    I am a friend and colleague of Sadiq Khan, who I admire greatly. He was been a thoughtful and creative voice on these issues of Britishness and integration. But I don’t personally share Atul’s view of Sadiq’s comment on this occasion, or the broader Labour debate over the years before it. However, that said, I do think it was fairly clear that it was a reaction to the very simplistic media briefing of the speech, which polarised discussion sharply. The comment was made ahead of the speech itself. (And I can quite understand why the front-page headline “David Cameron tells Muslim Britain: stop tolerating extremists” would generate a strong reaction from somebody who entered Parliament as London’s only MP from a Muslim background in May 2005, and did lead to (perhaps opportunistic) propagandist claims from the EDL and others that the PM was moving their way (which is a rather simplistic view of the speech, and a misreading of its content).

    Other than their different views of Cameron’s public messaging, I don’t see so much in Austin’s comments that Sadiq Khan would reject, judging by the content his writing and speeches on these subjects, for the Fabians, beyond some differences of tone.

    I imagine Khan would feel he can legitimately criticise the style and projection of Cameron’s message while sharing several of Austin’s concerns.

    Austin says: And if people do not learn to speak English how can they play a full role in society”? So is Khan at an opposite extreme to that?

    What he says is this: “As British citizens we cannot ask for respect without showing it. We have to learn the language. English is the passport to participation ? jobs, education, even being able to use the health service. Language can be used as a barrier, supposedly to keep us pure when all it does is to keep us poor. We all need to speak English. Without English, no-one can participate fully in British society ? in work and the economy, as a citizen of our democracy. So let us put an end to futile debate about that and concentrate on providing good, compulsory classes for all”.

    Austin says: “I have been campaigning to build a much stronger sense of what it means to be British. It is only by building a stronger sense of patriotism and national pride, that we can tackle extremism and build a stronger and more united society”.

    Khan has said: “As a British Muslim I know how important it is to make Britishness an active concept for all its citizens I want my daughters to grow up as proud British citizens. For their colour and faith to be as much a part as that British identity as their birthplace. We have to move quickly and surely to bring together the diverse citizens of this country ? the alternative is polarisation and violence.

    For me, one great weakness of the Cameron speech, as somebody who would be sympathetic to several of its intended themes, beyond the failure to distinguish between security and integration as policy goals, was its predictable effect in polarising a rather tired debate in which there is rather a lot more potential for building common ground.

    There are some serious and important issues for Labour. We won’t get very far with them if we decide to factionalise into multiculturalist and integrationist tribes before the conversation begins. And many (I suspect most) people in the party will see some value in these apparently “opposed” views, and would endorse a protection of the needs and rights of those from minority backgrounds, and a strong inclusive citizenship which the majority feel belongs to them too. These could be framed as alternatives, but if we accept that we would fail with a social democratic politics of integration and support for equality.

  9. Rob Marchant says:

    Sunder, your comments are very measured and sensible (as ever), I am sure that Khan is a very decent MP and I really don’t have a huge amount of time for Ian Austin. But at the same time Khan’s comment was unhelpful, simply because it grabbed the headline on our side and made us look “loony left” when the Shadow Cabinet was also being very measured, and all Cameron was really trying to do was start a debate. I am so bored – and I’m sure I’m not alone – with the cries of “racist” any time anyone tries to do this.

  10. john p Ried says:

    Living in Essex ,Baring in Mind that dagenham was the safest laobur seat in the counrty in the 50’s and Brian Gould only won a 2000 majority in 87, I come from the exception htat the working class vote Labour, so I’m blad if the rest of the working class aren’t as right wing as around her,e Yes the BNPa s aparty are falling tobits ,but they only lost hteri seats at teh council election as labours’ vote increased the BNP one did too but by a smaller amount,
    Good post sunder.

  11. Chris says:

    Khan was right.

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