‘People have already forgotten Jo Cox’: Samuel Kasumu on why he quit as No 10’s race adviser
He resigned amid the fallout from a government report that dismissed institutional racism. In his first interview since, he says some members of the government are waging a culture war – and endangering the country
- Johnson’s former race adviser accuses Tories of inflaming culture wars
Samuel Kasumu is worried about what is to come. The former race adviser to No 10 has watched, dismayed, as commentators and members of the government – who he believes should know better – engage in a bitter culture war. He warns that the consequences for the UK will be severe.
“There are some people in the government who feel like the right way to win is to pick a fight on the culture war and to exploit division,” he says. “I worry about that. It seems like people have very short memories and they’ve already forgotten Jo Cox.” Kasumu believes the man who killed the MP may have been radicalised and worked into a “frenzy” by the narratives in certain newspapers that are pushed by media commentators.
Kasumu is making this stark intervention while we have breakfast in King’s Cross, two months after he resigned as Boris Johnson’s special adviser for civil society and communities, a position he had held since 2019. The resignation came as no surprise, as he first attempted to step down in February – accusing the Conservatives of pursuing a “politics steeped in division” in his leaked resignation letter – but was persuaded to remain in place by Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, whom he holds in high esteem. But it was only a brief respite. In April, he resigned in the middle of the furore over the government’s controversial racial disparity report.
He barely touches his food as he urgently lays out the crucial juncture at which the UK finds itself – and the desperate need for politicians to dial down the rhetoric, instead of inflaming tensions. “If I was going to go to William Hill today and place a bet on what the most likely option is, I’d probably say a Jo Cox, a Stephen Lawrence, a Windrush scandal is where we’re headed if you don’t find a way to overcome this cultural moment. I feel like the government must be the ones to try to help drive that change.”
He was born in London in August 1987 and was raised in the city apart from a short spell in Nigeria. He was six when his parents separated, and grew up in a large single-parent household with four siblings (a fifth would come later). He describes his childhood as difficult; the family moved every 18 months or so and he did not always have his parents around. His Christian faith became very important to him, igniting his passion for social justice and his belief in taking responsibility for your destiny.
“The church became my surrogate parents, because they’re the ones that taught me about having a vision,” he says. “They’re the ones that really taught me about servant leadership – not necessarily focusing on what you can get from situations and actually doing things without thinking about who gets the credit.”
He went to Brunel University in west London to study business and management accounting, becoming president of what was then the largest African-Caribbean society in the UK. He ran for vice-president of the student union; the young Kasumu is softly spoken in his 2007 campaign video, decrying the cliquiness of student politics while the song It’s a Fight by Three 6 Mafia plays in the background. He won – and became the first candidate to receive 1,000 votes for the post.
He attended National Union of Students meetings with activists who would go on to become prominent Labour MPs. But what he heard failed to resonate with him. He cannot deny there are challenges and barriers, he says, but he did not agree with the narrative that he could not get far with his gifts and talents alone.
There are some people in the government who feel like the right way to win is … to exploit division
The conferences “brought out the things that I’m passionate about – social justice, social change, improving outcomes for students and everybody else – but I just can’t really relate with their methods”, Kasumu says. “I just can’t really relate with this idea of not having agency. I didn’t like the idea of being outside of parliament protesting. I want to be in there making those decisions.”
After working on his own social enterprise for two years to try to improve outcomes for students with similar stories – at a time when he was “completely broke” – Kasumu went to work for the Conservative party on special projects. He was interested in how the party could broaden its appeal.
While he does not describe himself as “a Cameroon”, he thinks the former prime minister David Cameron, and the party, did well to invest time in reaching new groups in the run-up to the 2015 election. It was work he continued doing under Theresa May, in No 10’s race disparity unit, fighting to overcome what she described as “burning injustices”.
When May’s resignation in May 2019 forced a leadership contest, there were fears that the work to reach new communities would be undone. Kasumu says he was asked to establish five principles to which every leadership candidate should agree. The teams of every candidate bar Boris Johnson signed up, according to Kasumu.
He was therefore unsure what to do when he was tapped up to be a special adviser on race for Johnson. He was scared, then, of being embroiled in a culture war. But after speaking to a few trusted individuals, including Simon Woolley, who once led the disparity unit and is now a crossbench peer, he accepted the role. “I decided that, actually, on balance, if you have the opportunity to serve your country, it’s probably something you should take very seriously,” he says.
Kasumu argues that there is a disconnect between Johnson and “Johnsonism”. He describes the prime minister as a liberally minded individual. “When I think about my interactions with the prime minister, he was always very supportive about things that I wanted to do. And I would actually go further and say that he was often more keen for me to go further, to be even more ambitious.”
Kasumu re leading the response to the Windrush scandal and prepping Johnson before they headed into a meeting with a victim and stakeholders. “He basically said: ‘Why are we not having an amnesty for migrants?’ and he was like: ‘We need to do this because not only is it right, it will demonstrate that we genuinely are repentant.’”
Johnson, he says, added: “‘We’re leaving the European Union, we’re going to have strengthened borders, but this is a wonderful way to reset and bring people together.’ That was just one example of him always wanting to say: ‘How can we go further? How can we be more ambitious? How can we bring the country together?’”
The prime minister was always very supportive about things that I wanted to do
Kasumu is most proud of the work he did on vaccination, describing Zahawi as “the right man” for the job. Vaccine hesitancy among certain BAME groups has reduced since the first jab was administered in December, although Kasumu acknowledges that a lot more work needs to be done to ensure no demographic is left behind.
But his concerns over what he considers to be the government’s destructive rhetoric have deepened in the past year. This reached boiling point when the equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, accused a young black journalist, Nadine White, of “creepy and bizarre” behaviour for asking questions about a Covid vaccines video. White received a torrent of abuse as a result, according to her then employer, HuffPost; the incident led to an alert about the risk to media freedom being registered with the Council of Europe.
“There’s an assumption that I have issues with Kemi. I don’t have any personal issues with her. We always got along fine,” Kasumu says. “But when that happened, a lot of things went through my mind. I thought to myself: if that young journalist was my sister, or a relative of mine, how would I feel about a minister responding to her in such a way?
“If the journalist was Andrew Neil, or Laura Kuenssberg, or Robert Peston, would the minister have responded in the same way? Were the minister’s actions distracting people from very important public health messages? And all of those things, and a few other things, just led me to the conclusion that it was completely unacceptable.”
He became even more concerned when people within the government did not criticise Badenoch’s behaviour more strongly. Downing Street stuck by the minister, although the press secretary, Allegra Stratton, said the MP’s handling of the issue “would not be how we in No 10 deal with these things”. The Cabinet Office later dismissed a complaint lodged by HuffPost.
Kasumu is less forthcoming when the discussion moves to the race report. When it was announced last summer, Kasumu says he was the pointman for the commission that set out to investigate racial disparities in the UK, helping to recruit commissioners.
“When I was reviewing the commissioners, in my mind, there were a number of things I was looking for. I wasn’t the only one involved. There were three of us in that marriage,” he says. “I was looking for people who had direct experience of practical things, to help to improve outcomes for different groups. Also, people that didn’t seem to have already prejudged the conclusions – people that were going to be willing to objectively follow the evidence.”
Kasumu feels that the commissioners who were selected met the brief he set, although he acknowledges the outcry when Tony Sewell was announced as the chair of the commission. He believes Sewell deserved to be on the commission, describing him as a good man who has helped change the direction of thousands of young people’s lives. He also says he told colleagues that they owed Sewell a duty of care to protect him.
“But during the time that I was helping to recruit the commissioners, I felt like there should have been a chair that commanded the respect and authority from both sides of the debate. And the test was: could they have been seen to prejudge the outcome and did they have practical experience?” he says.
So does he believe the report, which did not find institutional racism in the areas it examined, was a bad-faith exercise to stoke a culture war? Kasumu refuses to comment. (He tweeted on 5 June that he had “so many emotions” reading the report and was “in total shock”.) What does he think of the sharp criticism that followed the report from a range of individuals, including Woolley and Doreen Lawrence, who said it would allow racism to flourish? Kasumu refuses to comment. What role did Munira Mirza, who runs Downing Street’s policy unit and has previously cast doubt on the existence of institutional racism, play in pulling the report together? Again, Kasumu refuses to comment.
“What I would say about Munira is we had a very productive working relationship. Munira is someone who’s very thoughtful and who doesn’t have the right of reply as special adviser right now,” he says. “On the left, people are holding her to account for things that she’s written in the past and, on the right, people are holding her up as some kind of hero for their position in this culture war.”
A No 10 spokesperson said Liz Truss, the secretary of state for women and equalities, had set out plans for “an evidence-based equality agenda in the UK … This includes racial equality, which is why the prime minister set up the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities and, following their detailed report, the government will shortly respond to their recommendations.”
Kasumu says he is frustrated by an unwillingness among Conservative MPs “to stand up and say: ‘Hold on a second, aren’t you going a bit too far here?’” He argues that most MPs feel the same way as him. “But the reason why they won’t say anything in public is because we do so well in the polls. So they really don’t have a leg to stand on in their mind.”
He believes most people would be foolish to deny that there are inequalities or that racism still exists in the UK. But the challenges around the nature of a culture war means that people have to take sides that ignore the complexity of the conversation.
“The vast majority in government recognise that barriers exist for certain groups and we’re not a post-racial society. The battle is: to what extent do you accept the nuance and to what extent do you want to wage war? And I think the majority of people want to just find a way forward for us to become a lot more cohesive than we already are. A few people may have different opinions.” Those few people, he adds, have a lot of power – and the polls are working in their favour.
He hopes that someone will soon see sense and push to find a way that allows the inhabitants of these islands to live more harmoniously. But he is not holding his breath.
“Politicians – it’s in their DNA – will always think of the next election. A statesman will think of the next generation. And so the challenge is: how do you get to a point where you have somebody who’s willing to think about the dream, the narrative, the future, the legacy in a political climate where there is always a focus on polls and next elections?”