Hardeep Matharu speaks to Faiza Shaheen, a Labour candidate in the General Election, about why the British left cannot simply bury its head in the sand over the dangerous politicisation of race and class.
Hate Unleashed by Identity War Must Be Tackled
The Labour Party’s refusal under Jeremy Corbyn to tackle the “culture war” waged by the British right has been one of its biggest mistakes, according to the candidate who came very close to defeating Iain Duncan Smith in the General Election.
Faiza Shaheen, who lost by 1,262 votes in Chingford and Woodford Green to the former Work and Pensions Secretary in last’s week vote, said that the left has a lot of work to do in tackling the identity war unleashed by Brexit and the rise of English nationalism and that the Labour leader’s office’s claim that “we don’t want to fight the culture war” is untenable.
“One of my biggest criticisms of what didn’t happen under Corbyn was that they said ‘we don’t want to fight the culture war’, well the culture war was being waged and the leader’s office was saying they didn’t want to get involved in that,” Shaheen told Byline Times. “You can’t get through on economic policy without countering the hate, otherwise it becomes socialism just for white British people.”
She believes that, while left progressives cannot “play into anti-immigration and visceral anti-Muslim sentiments” created by those on the right, it must find a way to counter them – as well as the narrative of a “white working-class” which dismisses its multi-ethnic nature.
The right has also been “very clever” at using colonial era ‘divide and rule’ methods to win votes, which can be seen “in the way that they’ve isolated Muslims as a particular group that everyone should hate and that’s divided the south Asian community”.
Shaheen, who has returned to her work as the director of London-based think tank CLASS, said: “The [right] have really played with this messaging around English nationalism and they did it for Brexit, but it started even before that – UKIP was very successful before the referendum with Nigel Farage and these people will be given even more of a platform and have the ability to speak in the next few years so we’ve got to think very carefully about what our counter to that will be.”
What form can a possible solution take?
“Within communities, organising and bringing people together so people can look around them and think ‘well actually that’s not true and that’s not my experience of what’s going on’,” Shaheen said. “That is the transition that the left needs to make now – we need to become much better at organising locally, rather than playing into supporting a hierarchical structure in our politics.”
She said that part of the solution will also be about establishing clear messages on the British Empire – references to which are frequently made by some of the leading Brexiters – and its relationship with today’s culture war.
“We need to be going out and making sure that we’ve got our story straight because they’re story is very simple: that we were this great country which ruled the world and then the EU came along and now we can go back to being this country that can rule the world.”
Shaheen believes that this myth will “will bump into reality” when Britain realises that countries such as India and China are not going to “just roll over” and sign hasty trade deals after Brexit.
Truth of Brexit Will Reveal Itself
Although she didn’t win the seat, Shaheen’s campaign in Chingford and Woodford Green bucked the trend for Labour nationally in the 2019 General Election, with both its vote share and turnout increasing in the constituency. If no Liberal Democrat candidate – who won 2,744 votes – had contested the seat, it is likely that she would have defeated the controversial Tory MP.
But, there were “problems elsewhere in the national campaign” and she had not expected the scale of lies and misinformation and the “darkness of Facebook” that she was up against.
Shaheen said the Conservative Party spent two to three times more money on its campaign in the constituency, compared to her, which paid for expensive, targeted advertising – both on and offline. This included a leaflet from the Tories mocked up as “your bill for the cost of Corbyn”, which warned that a Labour Government would cost voters £2,400 a year.
“I’ve learnt a lot about positive politics and trying to go high when they’re going really low and I think I was probably a bit naive as to how much we could counter that hate and fear-mongering,” she added.
Although she was buoyed by the level of support her campaign generated – with comparisons made between Shaheen and the US ‘Justice Democrats’ such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – there is still a mountain to climb.
Despite being a beacon of multiculturalism – which the right has “turned into a ‘metropolitan elite’ narrative, saying that we’re part of the problem” – Shaheen believes that London, for example, shouldn’t become complacent about its way of life, with many people having contacted her since the General Election about the “atrocious” racism they have faced in the capital.
Brexit is also likely to make many social issues worse, she believes.
“We’ll see the fallout from Brexit in the next few years and, the truth is, that people who thought Brexit would solve the issues will have a surprise and may not be able to accept that,” she said. “Brexit won’t be able to solve any big issues that we face and, if anything, could make them worse… But people find it hard to admit that they were wrong so they’re more likely to believe more lies.”