Tory prejudice won’t deter our proud multiculturalism

This war on multiculturalism is an affront to our country

Sarah Owen

Sarah Owen is the Labour MP for Luton North

What does Lee Anderson mean when he says “I want my country back?” Who does he want it back from – and why is it only his version of our country that matters?

Because as far as I can see, there has been no take over. Most people in control of our country still look like Lee Anderson. They are his demographic and age, if perhaps not class. So who else could he possibly mean?

This comes with the backdrop of his demonstrably Islamophobic comments about Sadiq Khan (which he still refuses to apologise for) and his most recent former Party receiving political donations from a man who says that Diane Abbott makes you want to ‘hate all Black women’ and wishes she was shot. Only some Conservatives have admitted it was racist, but stopped short of apologising for racism and no Ministers have indicated that the money should be handed back. It is a shameful lack of leadership that Sunak is having to be dragged to admit what is clear for everyone else to see. 

The idea that any of this can be forgotten about, as the Prime Minister wants, is for the birds – not because it has dominated the media cycle for the last two weeks, but because this racism is the cold reality of too many people’s everyday lives in Tory Britain. Recorded incidents of both Islamophobia and Antisemitism have risen following the geo-political crises in the Middle East, and a 2022 study found that nearly two thirds of Black workers in the UK have encountered racism in their workplace.

This war on multiculturalism is an affront to our country. I am from a multicultural, mixed heritage family – my father is white British and my mother is from Malaysia. I have considered it to be a blessing in many ways but the political discourse lately ignores the fact that our country is so much richer for its diversity – not just in culture, but also economically. Luton came third in JustGiving’s 2023 list of the highest donating areas. Our community is as generous as it is welcoming, and it comes as no surprise to me that the bulk of our donations are given during Ramadan.

The town I live in, love and represent is Luton North. It is a town that knows the importance of community cohesion and that it doesn’t just come without trying, especially when those in power or particular media outlets seek division and distraction from government failure.

People often refer to us as similar to a London borough in terms of numbers of people and public service need, but there is a huge difference: people in Luton are always chatting.  It is glorious to go out anywhere in town and hear a mixture of voices, languages, festivals and foods!  But importantly – it is the sharing of all of this that makes Luton so special. Everyone is welcome to events like Desi Fest in the park, the Luton Council of Faith’s Peace Walk which visits different faith buildings, the Gurdwara’s feeding anyone in need, the special meals they provide when Muslims break their fast in town, Discover Islam’s Curry Kitchen and the warm hubs in our Churches.

Just last week, one of our brilliant Councillors Cllr Fatima Begum organised a culture swap for women – she is a fantastic fashionista so this involved lots of beautiful garments and clothes. And at our St Patrick’s Day festival you will hear the Dhol Drums from Bury Park come out to join the bagpipers. It is an amazing mix which we heard lots of when Luton Town FC reached the Premier League, and now enjoy regularly from the crowds pouring out of Kenilworth Road. All this is a far cry from Paul Scully’s scaremongering about ‘no go zones’.  ‘No go zones’ only exist if you refuse to go there.

Instead of fear, the Government should be inspiring hope. At this time when many people are feeling scared to be who they are, Ministers should be addressing that issue. Which is why I am glad that Yvette Cooper has committed Labour to recording hate crimes specifically on Antisemitism and Islamophobia; for far too long the under-reporting but also the misreporting has skewed the figures.

Of course – this is only half the picture. Shutting down discourse has never been a solution to anything, so Michael Gove’s latest cheap headline chasing ideas bare no relation to what is needed to tackle divides and extremism. Dialogue, education and spaces to ask questions are what is needed, and I will not be dictated who I can and cannot speak to by Michael Gove. The mess they have made of our country, the double standards over racism in their party and the latest Frank Hester disgrace shows not only do we need a change of Government, but a complete overhaul of our political dialogue. It’s high time we learned to speak civilly about others again in the public sphere, and remember that whether we choose to disagree amicably or abusively can have devastating real-life consequences.

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