In her speech at the Labour Against Austerity Assembly Diane Abbott warned that anger at economic stagnation was being scapegoated on migrants and ethnic minorities, and that the government was to blame for a ‘rightward shift in race relations’.
The assembly saw members of the Labour movement gathered to oppose public spending cuts and expose xenophobia as a tool used by the government to distract from their failures. IThe Shadow Home Secretary also decried the current government as one of the most racist governments since she had entered parliament 29 years ago, when she was elected as the first ever black female MP in 1987.
London Student caught up with Diane Abbott to ask her –among other things– about the status of foreign students, the marketization of student housing, what Jeremy Corbyn offers to London Students, and whether Malia Bouattia is a racist.
London Student: Philip Hammond said this week that foreign students should be excluded from net migration figures. Do you agree, and why do you think Theresa May doesn’t agree?
Diane Abbott: On this one issue I do agree with Philip Hammond, it makes no sense to include foreign students in net migration figures when over 90% of them will actually return to their country of origin.
I think the reason Theresa May wants to include them, however, is just because she knows perfectly well that when people talk about immigrants they don’t necessarily mean people who are subject to immigration control; they mean students, they mean asylum seekers, they mean refugees, they mean people like my son who is in the third generation of his family to hold a British passport. So Theresa May is trying to bear down on students because she is playing to what she knows is an anti-immigration agenda.
LS: You said a lot of people will return home- but do you think that EU students who are studying in the UK at the moment should have the right to remain and work in the UK if they want to?
DA: I think EU students and also EU workers who are currently here should have the right to remain if they wish.
LS: Are you worried about the increased racist attacks –including on campus – post-Brexit, and what should the government be doing about it?
DA: I’m very worried about the increase in racist attacks on campus, on the street, and it’s not just people who are Eastern European: it is anyone who looks visibly like they might come from overseas. I think the police obviously need to prosecute people, but the government should really reconsider its anti-immigrant rhetoric. Whether its talking about more British doctors, or encouraging companies to keep lists of foreign workers, I believe that it is partly the anti-immigrant Brexit campaign which UKIP and the Tories ran, but it’s also the rhetoric the government is using now.
LS: Why do you think they are using that rhetoric?
DA: Well, because it is a way of stopping people pay attention to the real cause of declining living standards which is Tory policy.
LS: Are you concerned about the impact of marketization and privatisation of student housing on student living and also on local communities -such as your own in Hackney- in terms of gentrification?
DA: I’m very concerned about the marketisation of student housing, you are increasingly seeing in the East End of London, these new developments designed for students, but obviously designed for students with a higher income –notably overseas students- and it’s almost as if student housing is being made unaffordable for British students in order to encourage more foreign students who obviously make more money for the universities, it’s shocking that students should have to worry about how to pay for that privilege.
LS: What do you think the government could do about that, or what do you think Sadiq Khan in London could do about that?
DA: Well, Sadiq has quite important planning powers which he could use to crack down on some of these new developments, and I think what the government should do is put more money into higher education so that universities can afford to offer students subsidised accommodation.
LS: How do you respond to the recent Home Affairs Select Committee report which labelled Malia Bouattia, of the NUS, a racist?
DA: I think that Home Affairs select committee report was really misconceived, and I think it is very wrong to call Malia a racist. She may have used language that she now regrets, but it would be a very worrying thing that if because you took a strong position on Palestinian justice you were automatically labelled a racist.
LS: Do you think the government is racist?
DA: Well, there is no question that a lot of the governments policies are impacting unfairly on people of colour, and their rhetoric around migration is very negative.
LS: In the Labour leadership election this summer, 18-24 year olds voted for Owen Smith sixty to forty percent, whilst members in London only just voted for Jeremy Corbyn. It then seems that 18-24 year olds in London were the least likely to have voted for Jeremy Corbyn. Why do you think that is, and what does Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party offer to that demographic –in particular London Students?
DA: I think we have to have a very clear offer for young people, including students, and perhaps we could have done more to emphasise what Jeremy is saying for instance on issues like student accommodation and tuition fees –that’s the first thing.
But I also think the thing about London is that a lot of political advisors and so on live in London, and they go back to their constituencies and are providing an echo chamber for some of the wilder claims of the PLP and that’s tended to depress Jeremy’s support in London, whereas outside of London you have hardly any special adviser type people. They are judging Jeremy on his merit instead of through the prism of a really hostile parliamentary labour party.
LS: Do you think that fully explains all of it? The hall today [at the Labour Against Austerity Assembly] is very filled with old people and there aren’t many young people at all.
DA: Well, because of the Labour anti-austerity campaign funding position they have had to charge for the conference, and that would tend to depress the number of younger people and black and ethnic minority people here, but that doesn’t mean to say that Jeremy doesn’t have support amongst black ethnic minority people –he has very strong support- and it doesn’t mean to say that he doesn’t have support amongst young people. But I do think we need a really strong offer for young people.
Featured image: Flickr/Gary Knight