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Out of left field

INTERVIEW: Yomi Adegoke interviews leadership race outsider Jeremy Corbyn [PHOTO CREDIT: John Harris/Harris DPI]

IN BETWEEN speeches at a recent hustings held by the Patchwork Foundation and Operation Black Vote (OBV), contenders for the Labour leadership harked back to decade-old anecdotes to outline their commitment to equality to an audience who were unimpressed for the most part.

But despite a long history of working alongside Britain’s black and minority ethnic (BME) community, Jeremy Corbyn decided against citing past victories.

He didn’t reference his long-standing campaign for the rights of Palestinians, or that he had previously opposed the Iraq war, or the fact that he had been staunchly anti-Apartheid.

Instead, he spoke of the here and now, or what he proposes to do in the future.
“He’s not pandering because he’s talking to a particular audience,” Edmonton’s newly-elected MP,” Kate Osamor says. “It’s not coming from nowhere – it’s always been there.”

Most in attendance at the event (held in front of a predominantly BME audience) said Corbyn was the only candidate they heard address issues regarding race so pointedly prior to it.


He remains one of the few candidates (if not MPs) who has refused to win margins through marginalisation.

Take his position on migrants, for instance. “The whole country, forever, has been a subject of migration,” he says. “It didn’t all happen in 1949 when the boats arrived from Jamaica. It’s long before that, for centuries and centuries.

“We should say quite bluntly to people, ‘if it had not been for the higher levels of migration since the second world war, what kind of living standard would we enjoy? What kind of education? What kind of health system? What kind of anything would we have?’ Instead of blaming minorities for our problems, start blaming the tax evaders and avoiders for the lack of resources to deal with these issues.”

His approach may well help win back disillusioned minority voters, many of whom felt deserted by Labour’s attempts to reclaim supporters lost to UKIP by appeasing rather than opposing growing xenophobia.

Corbyn believes that any capitulation to UKIP’s rhetoric on immigration is the very opposite of what Labour should be doing.

In the run-up to the general election, the Islington North MP spent time campaigning in Thanet, the area in which UKIP leader Nigel Farage was hoping to be elected.

He recalls: “Once you got past the discussion about strange perceptions of the number of immigrants in our society and got onto issues of wages, housing, jobs, schools, hospitals, the language of inclusion – I don’t say it brought them all over, because it didn’t – it began to work.”

Instead of giving quarter to what are often racist opinions, Corbyn believes Labour must reassure disenfranchised working class voters through policy, not pandering. “Reach out to these people and tell them look, your housing problems are going to be solved by a Labour government investing in council housing and giving everyone a decent chance in life,” he offers.

The issue of housing, in particular, is one that affects working class and BME communities and remains at the top of his political agenda.

Corbyn explains: “If you look at any part of London now, you’ll see working class communities being driven out.

“Councils doing what they call ‘improvement schemes’ in whole areas actually results in the social cleansing of council tenants.”

He hopes rent regulation will halt increasing gentrification and maintain the balance of communities.

Similarly, he remains keenly aware of the ramifications the proposed cuts enforced by the Welfare Bill would have, too, remaining the only leadership candidate to oppose it and acknowledge the effects were ‘disproportionate’ on BME communities, as outlined in a recent Runnymede Trust report.

But his prioritising of the less fortunate has some worried that his policies are anti-aspirational, unable to acknowledge, for instance, the hard work put in by many minorities to secure places at good universities and in high-earning jobs.

When challenged with the idea that his election would undercut the economic aspirations of minorities, Corbyn’s response appeared at odds with the ‘Loony left’ characterisation that appears in the press and points to his “very substantial economic strategy document”.

“At one end of the spectrum, we’re dealing with the issues of poverty, welfare state, housing, health and the investment in those services,” Corbyn tells The Voice.


“The other side of it, we’re saying we should be rebalancing our economy away from an over reliance on the financial services sector into an expansion of the manufacturing industry, high tech industry, green jobs, green energy jobs…We’re suggesting a national investment bank which would be able to invest and do joint enterprises with those companies so we very rapidly develop a high skill economy.”

Osamor has known Corbyn for a number of years but it’s his politics that has encouraged her to rally behind him.

‘Because of Jeremy’s track record, I believe he is the strongest candidate,” she says. “He has made it is business to walk in the shoes of the BME community. If there’s been an atrocity or murder or any other case with a cloud of suspicion over it, he’s always gotten involved to find out all sides.”

One example of this is when Corbyn took up the case of Roger Sylvester, one of his constituents who died in police custody in nearby Tottenham.

Originally, Sylvester’s family was denied legal aid, but was granted after Corbyn met with the solicitor general.

LEFT OF LABOUR: Jeremy Corbyn at an event

An unlawful killing verdict was initially granted by the coroner’s court jury, but an appeal by the police changed it to an open verdict. “That was the nearest we ever got to a prosecution of somebody who died in police custody,” admits Corbyn.

“There has to be a much tougher inquest process and investigative process…There has to be much wider access to legal aid so that families’ victims can be represented on this. It is a disgrace.”

Corbyn also hopes to address the current problems with the controversial law of joint enterprise, which, in his role as a member of the select committee on justice, he sought an enquiry into. “I persuaded the committee to adopt a view that the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) issue new guidelines on this, which they did,” he says.

Before the recent reforms to stop and search, he recognised that without an intelligence basis the particular tactic wasted police time with young Muslim and black men disproportionately targeted.

He believes tougher monitoring of what the police do and their reasons will instil a greater sense of trust and accountability between the community and the police.
Corbyn also acknowledges that despite the police’s initial positive response to the 1999 Macpherson enquiry, authorities “are not sufficiently addressing this issue [of institutional racism within the police]”.

In Corbyn, there appears to be a candidate putting ethnic minorities at the forefront of the agenda. Hindsight shows that he is often on the right side of history; perhaps this time around his party might join him.

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