On the Howard Beckett/Priti Patel controversy

Submitted by AWL on 18 May, 2021 - 6:44
Howard Beckett

Debate and discussion on the Unite election here.

Unite the Union’s assistant general secretary, and candidate for general secretary, Howard Beckett, has landed in hot water after tweeting – in the context of denouncing the Tories’ anti-migrant policies and supporting the magnificent resistance to them in Glasgow – that home secretary “Priti Patel should be deported, not refugees”.

Beckett said: “She can go along with anyone else who supports institutional racism. She is disgusting.”

When it was pointed out by many on the left that, regardless of Patel’s appalling politics, suggesting the deportation of a high-profile women of colour, the child of migrants, was not good, Beckett doubled down for a while and defended the tweet. He then deleted it and apologised.

We have already explained why we do not regard Beckett as a candidate left-wingers in Unite should support. This episode, demonstrating his populist opportunism and lack of solid socialist political principles and judgement, has reinforced that view. However there are more serious issues to raise about him and his politics.

The Labour Party has now suspended Beckett, who was until now also a trade union representative on the party’s National Executive Committee.

Given that the context of his dire remark about Patel was a more broadly anti-racist attack on the Tories’ anti-migrant politics, and given that he fairly quickly deleted the tweet and apologised, this seems majorly disproportionate.

Or worse. An anonymous senior party source has been widely quoted in the media boasting that “Keir is prising [Unite general secretary and Beckett-backer] Len McCluskey’s cold, dead hand from the Labour Party”. In other words, making what should be a serious discussion about racism and migrants’ rights a matter of crowing factionalism.

This in a party with an often weak record of tackling sometimes much worse cases of bigotry and bad behaviour.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Beckett has been suspended because he is a prominent and aggressive factional enemy of the Labour leadership. Contrast, for instance, the case of Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman, who last year quickly apologised after tweeting about “silver shekels” in connection with two Jewish businessmen, and avoided disciplinary action. Or indeed Labour frontbencher Steve Reed, who apologised after calling a Jewish Tory donor a “puppet master”.

Quite a few Labour politicians have engaged in agitation against travellers, with no come back from the party; and in fact official party campaigns have sometimes done the same.

Labour has a very weak record of standing up for migrants: under Starmer even more than under Corbyn the party has in general evaded the issue of migrants’ rights.

The Labour machine is acting after agitation by the Tories and the right-wing press, who want to shift the story away from the mass solidarity action in Glasgow and the mounting persecution of migrants it has highlighted. Beckett deserves censure for opening the door to this situation, as well as the more fundamental issue of what was wrong with his comment about Priti Patel.

To be fair to him, it should be said he has been much more vocal on questions of migrants’ rights – albeit in a typically shallow and populist way – than either of the other two left candidates for Unite general secretary, to say nothing of the Labour leadership.

On multiple levels this fiasco has highlighted the need to build a better left, in the unions and Labour, one that is serious and principled.

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