Zarah Sultana, who represents Coventry South, accused ministers of denying that racism is a problem in the UK, and argued that their recent pledges to tackle violence against women in the wake of Sarah Everard’s killing amount to little more than “spin and empty promises”.
The MP told The Independent that the UK government is seeking to provoke a so-called culture war, reminiscent of recent US political discourse, in a bid to “keep control”.
Her comments come after the government’s recent race report, which has been fiercely criticised, claimed that Britain is no longer an institutionally racist country, while the women and equalities minister Liz Truss recently announced that ministers would be moving the UK’s equalities agenda away from “fashionable” issues of race and gender.
Ms Sultana said: “When you look at the phrase ‘culture wars,’ it is about human rights, it is about racism, it is about transphobia. It is about marginalised communities and their right to be able to live with dignity, respect and human rights.
“The government is instrumentalising it to divide communities. From a Labour Party perspective, this is not something we can just sit out of – or be complicit within, based on what we think red wall [voters] or focus groups think when it comes to equality. These are all issues of social justice, which is within the DNA of the Labour Party.”
The politician also raised concerns about the Conservative Party’s plans to make photo ID compulsory for all elections – noting that the proposals mirror measures previously rolled out by Republicans in the US.
The plans fly in the face of grave warnings that the measure would suppress the turnout of working-class and ethnic minority voters, who are statistically more likely to vote Labour. Some 3.5 million UK citizens are estimated not to have photo ID, or a passport or driving licence.
Voter impersonation is extremely uncommon, with only one conviction for impersonation in more than 59 million votes during the 2019 general election.
Ms Sultana warned that there is a shortage of MPs with a political perspective that is “cognizant” of the “struggles that people face” – adding that many of them do not consider the impact policies have on “communities beyond their own”.
The MP, who is on the left of the Labour Party, argued that the government’s alleged culture-war rhetoric fuels and compounds the abuse women MPs – including herself – routinely face.
“Words have power,” she said. “They don’t just operate in a vacuum. Islamophobic incidents increased by almost 400 per cent in the week after Boris Johnson compared veiled Muslim women to letterboxes.”
Ms Sultana, who has a sizeable Twitter following of almost 150,000, said she is subjected to vitriolic racist abuse on social media.
Trolls tell her to return to her “own country” as well as wishing her a “slow painful death” and telling her she is “not British” and is an “Islamist terrorist”, she added.
A 2018 study by Amnesty International discovered that black female MPs and journalists were 84 per cent more likely to be mentioned in abusive tweets than those who are white.
Ms Sultana, who said she has received death threats via handwritten letters which she has reported to the police, said she is always concerned that people who disagree with her views may recognise her in person.
She said this was particularly worrying in the light of Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, being murdered by a far-right extremist in June 2016.
“With people online not liking someone, the fear is whether that would therefore escalate to something in real life,” Ms Sultana added. “When you get things in the post that are handwritten which wish harm upon on you, the fear is whether that would then manifest into something more.”
She criticised the heavy-handed response of the police to a peaceful vigil to remember Ms Everard in Clapham Common last month, near to where the 33-year-old marketing executive was last seen before she went missing.
The “optics” of the vigil, where police officers “manhandled” women protesters, “trampled on flowers” and “arrested women sitting on the floor”, were “awful”, Ms Sultana said.
“That speaks to a larger issue that we see in society,” she added. “Women face violence within households and harassment in public places.”
Two women a week are killed in England and Wales by a current or ex-partner, while a recent survey by UN Women found that 97 per cent of young women in the UK said they had been sexually harassed, while 80 per cent reported experiencing sexual harassment in public spaces.
Researchers, who polled more than 1,000 women aged between 18 and 24, found that the reported harassment included being groped, followed, and coerced into sexual activity.
Meanwhile, prosecutions and convictions for sexual assault and rape reached record lows last year – with government data showing that in the year to March 2020, just 1.4 per cent of 55,130 rape cases recorded by police had resulted in prosecutions.
Ms Sultana went on to raise fears that the government is launching a “descent into authoritarianism” via the controversial policing bill and other pieces of legislation.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which recently passed its first hurdle in the House of Commons, would hand police greater powers, allowing them to implement conditions on non-violent protests with convictions potentially leading to jail time. The Labour Party has warned it could mean that criminals received a harsher penalty for damaging a statue than for attacking a woman.
The government’s policy paper for the bill argues that the new rules would “strengthen police powers to tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect on the public or on access to parliament”.
However, Ms Sultana argued that the government is “ramping up anti-civil-liberties legislation” to quash future protests, which she said are likely to be sparked by the climate crisis and by unemployment surging to levels not witnessed in decades.
The politician, who is originally from Lozells, a working-class area in Birmingham, claimed that multiple crises were overwhelming the UK at the same time. She said it “scares” her to see the government “laying down the groundwork” to “stop and criminalise” protest.
A spokesperson for the government said that ministers want to “unite, not divide people” – adding that they had taken “positive steps” to build a fairer Britain.
The representative said: “Following the awful death of Sarah Everard, we reopened the call for evidence on tackling violence against women and girls, to hear views on this hugely important issue. The 180,000 responses received will inform our new Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls strategy, to be published later this year.
“The government has also taken immediate steps to provide further reassurance for women and girls, including more than doubling the Safer Streets fund to £45m, to provide measures such as better street lighting and CCTV, as well as the introduction of protective tools such as sexual harm prevention orders, sexual risk orders and stalking protection orders.”