United Kingdom

Starmer can’t undo own goal on Bangladeshis

I’M SORRY I upset you about ‘Bangladeshi Removals’” read the headline on the Evening Standard article describing how Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer tried to limit the damage from his careless comments on Bangladeshi migrants.

Sorry? Sir Keir Starmer? Yes, he probably is sorry. Sorry because he did not dream there would be such a backlash from the community he was being so dismissive about. He did not dream that Rushanara Ali would have words with him about his comments. (There had to be a first time.) He did not dream that the Deputy Leader of the opposition Labour Group on Tower Hamlets Council would, after gritting her teeth for nine months of Starmer ambivalence over the slaughter in Gaza, manage to resign from the Party.

Is Starmer sorry about his comments for the hurt and anger they caused to the British Bangladeshi community? No way. Is he sorry for legitimising the race card as a valid electoral ploy? Not at all. Is he sorry for the casual Isamophobia, the racist lumping together of a whole community as “illegal migrants” who should be sent home? Hell no.

As the penny dropped and he realised he had put his foot in it, Starmer gave a second interview in which he back-pedalled like an Olympic cyclist going downhill. But he did not say “sorry” and he did not apologise. The Standard had either not viewed the second interview, or it was putting a massive spin on it.

In the first interview, Starmer said that Bangladeshi people who had applied for asylum in the UK but whose applications had not been processed should be sent back to Bangladesh – because he believes it is a “safe country” without political persecution so, the reader infers, no asylum claims can be legitimate. There is so much wrong with this.

●First, Starmer spoke about Bangladeshis – not to Bangladeshis. He clearly sees Bangladeshi as different from, as outside mainstream British discourse. In his damage limitation video, Starmer admitted – no, flaunted the fact that – he had met some very nice Bangladeshi people. But this came after he had lumped Bangadeshi people together as a problem people that we Brits have to deal with. (He’s probably met some nice British people in his time too.)

●Second, Starmer did not plan to mention Bangladeshi people. He seized on Bangladeshi people to be an example of those who make false asylum claims when he was pressed to go into detail. That shows how his mind works – how he truly, subconsciously, sees Bangladeshi people. It goes like this. You can patronise the community and give it credit for enriching our lives – but you Bangladeshis are not one of us. That is why we are happy to have your votes, but we retain the right to choose which Bangladeshis will represent you – as Mayor and Councillors in Tower Hamlets.

●Third, he had no idea why this collective stigmatising would cause offence to Bangladeshi people, to Muslims or to Labour Party members.

●Fourth, he clearly has no idea about the politics of Bangladesh. He seems unaware that Bangladesh is ruled by an authoritarian government which relies on corrupt police, judicial and press practices. There are many people languishing in Bangladeshi jails – without trial or conviction – or who have been attacked, injured or killed by state forces. Bangladesh, Sir Keir, is not a safe country. If you want to learn more, go and talk to some of those who have managed to reach the UK and apply for asylum.

●Fifth, Starmer did not realise that the way he spoke about putting Bangladeshi people on planes sounded like he wanted to deport all Bangladeshi people, not just recent asylum seekers.

In the second interview, Starmer stopped short of saying “some of my best friends are Bangladeshi”, but he dug himself a hole that kept getting deeper. He has been to Bangladesh. He values the Bangladeshi people who have enriched our lives (“our” being “white British”). He thinks we can have a wonderful trading relationship with Bangladesh. None of that twaddle amounts to an apology for his racist comments.

Even the Evening Standard realised Starmer had fallen short. It changed the headline in its printed paper – “I'm sorry I upset you over ‘Bangladeshi removals’, says Keir” to “Keir Starmer ‘very concerned’ about fallout from Bangladesh comments made at general election event”. Quite. When commentators say Keir Starmer is Labour’s “White Knight”, they mean it.