Kim Johnson MP: Tory attacks on marginalised communities are designed to distract from their own failings

'The classic tactics of divide and rule are now dubbed a ‘War on Woke’.

Kim Johnson is Member of Parliament for Liverpool Riverside

As the Tories abysmal record on dealing with the pandemic is exposed and with the economy on the rocks – this government has wrapped up the age-old tricks of surviving turbulent times with a new bow. The classic tactics of divide and rule are now dubbed a ‘War on Woke’ and while the rhetoric is undoubtedly ramping up, we’d be sorely mistaken to fight this merely as a war of words.

Legislative initiatives from this Government are becoming increasingly authoritarian in response to popular progressive movements. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was explicitly connected to the BLM and Extinction Rebellion protests which exploded last year. If passed without major amendments, this bill will criminalise protest including much trade union activity, make damaging statues of slave owners carry a higher punishment than modern day slavery itself and attacks the rights of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities to their nomadic lifestyles.

The (No) Common Sense Group is spearheading much of the propaganda. Self-described as ‘influential’, they are a group of no more than 20 back bench MPs on the hard right of the Conservative Party who have taken it upon themselves to be the spokespeople for working class white communities.

They’ve attacked several high-profile institutions, including the National Trust, the Runnymede Trust and Barnardo’s for their work on anti-racism. While an investigation by the Charity Commission concluded that the National Trust had not broken its mandate, their chairman was forced out earlier this week as a result. 

Their logic? Simple. Large swathes of Britain that have suffered under deindustrialisation are disproportionately white. While focus on these ‘left-behind’ – read: *destroyed by decades of Tory policies of managed-decline, neo-liberalism and austerity* – communities is extremely welcome, the intent behind it is dangerous. The hunger in the belly of a black child living in poverty in Hartlepool or Stockton or my constituency of Liverpool Riverside cuts no less deep then than the hunger of a white child. Any answers to the deep poverty and lack of opportunity in large parts of the country will only be impeded by pointing the finger at Black and Ethnic Minority communities in the fight for meagre resources.

If the Tories are serious about tackling the major class inequalities that have worsened under decades of neoliberalism and the last 11 years of Conservative government, then I’m all for it. But there’s something particularly galling about listening to them attack minority groups for hard won advancements when my own city of Liverpool has lost £450 million of funding to austerity – damaging our ability to serve the most vulnerable communities.

The Report by the Commission for Racial and Ethnic Disparities, chaired by Tony Sewell, has formed another major attack front. Among its more controversial conclusions is its reframing of the slave trade as the ‘Caribbean experience’ – a phrase you’d expect to find on a holiday brochure, not a policy paper about racism. It also made overt attacks on the notion of ‘lived experience,’ and implied that ‘cultural choices’ are responsible for disadvantage in outcomes for ethnic minorities in Britain, not structural racism.

I’ve made my thoughts clear on this directly to Sewell, who attended both the Education and Women and Equalities Select Committees in Parliament. There, he attacked ‘White Privilege’ as an academic issue, saying there’s something in the idea that such discourse carries some blame for the barriers facing disadvantaged white children. This is one to watch, as the policy-struggle moves to freedom of speech at universities and in schools. Akin to the punishment of children in the last few weeks for supporting the Palestinian struggle, such concepts limit the ability of ethnic minorities in Britain to articulate our experiences and our oppression.

If the Tories seriously want to deliver on long-overdue investment in working class communities in Britain, they have my full support. But their record speaks for itself. As a proud scouser, I can vouch for the fact that people have long memories and no matter how hard the Tories try to point the finger of blame at anyone other than themselves, our communities cannot be so easily duped or bought.

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