Town Hall leader: ‘Racism left me feeling worthless’

Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz says Labour must do more to tackle lack of representation

Friday, 29th July — By Charlotte Chambers

Kaya Comer- Schwartz

Kaya Comer-Schwartz

THE leader of Islington Council has told how her party must do more to tackle racism and a lack of representation, explaining how a lawyer’s investigation into the problem has left her feeling “worthless”.

Councillor Kaya Comer-Schwartz, who is black and Jewish, said she could personally identify with the issues raised in a report by Martin Forde QC.

She said: “I would say I’ve experienced a number of microaggressions and a disregard for my opinions and that I noticed that isn’t the case for the white men around the table. It makes you feel a bit worthless to not be recognised as an equal contributor to something you’re proud to represent.”

The same report also found Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn was undermined by Labour’s own staffers and the issue of anti-semitism had been “weaponised” by both opposing factions inside the party.

Mr Forde warned that racism in the party was experienced “through seeing colleagues being passed over for promotion; being the only person from an ethnic minority background around a meeting table; being managed by a near exclusively white senior team; and hearing the particular disdain which colleagues reserve for (for example) ethnic minority MPs, councillors and [Constituency Labour Party] members.”

Cllr Comer-Schwartz said: “I have to say it’s increasingly better in Islington but often when I go to regional conferences in local government I’m the only person of colour at the table – in London leaders alone, I’m one of three people from an Afro-Caribbean background.”

She added: “I would like to see a really proactive statement from the Labour Party about how they’re going to address what the reports talk about – and there have been several reports around this – Chakrabarti, Forde and the EHRC – and now they need to follow up in a way that makes the difference.”

Describing how people of colour were pigeonholed in the Labour Party, she said: “Too often there is only one person from a minoritised community sitting around the table, and the burden feels like it’s on them to talk about inequality rather than being appreciated for their individual talents.

“You can be a white person and very much into the environment brief or the children’s brief but it feels quite often if you are the BAME person in the Labour Party then you’re the one who has to hold the mantle around inequality. That isn’t right. It’s everyone’s work to do.”

Meanwhile, MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor warned Sir Keir Starmer that he risked creating a “hostile environment” for people of BAME backgrounds after he appeared to dismiss the findings of the report as historic.

Speaking to LabourList, she said: “The party has a systemic and wide-ranging problem with racism. This is not a historic account of the state of the party two years ago, and it should not be dismissed as such.

“Unless the party’s leadership produce a specific plan of action that responds to the issues raised in this report and apologises to those who have been impacted, then they risk creating a hostile environment for black and ethnic minority people in the Labour Party.”

Speaking on BBC Radio Merseyside on Monday, Sir Keir said: “What the Forde report shows is how dysfunctional the Labour Party was under Jeremy Corbyn. Because it was a report on what the situation was two years ago. I didn’t need the report to tell me we needed to take action. I’ve been taking action in those intervening two years.”

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