TACKLING racism is hard. It demands leadership and bravery. Sadly, political leadership on all sides has been lacking.

Labour is currently responding to the Equality and Human Rights Commission judgement on its antisemitism failures under Jeremy Corbyn. We still await a promised independent review into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party and we have a Prime Minister in Boris Johnson who has used overtly racist language.

In this light, my Twitter exchange this week with Simon Clarke, the Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP, and his article in this space yesterday, left me deeply concerned.

This year, it seems, leading sportsmen and women have stepped into the leadership vacuum. Players and staff across the world of sport have been taking the knee in an extraordinary and powerful statement on racial equality.

It is depressing, therefore, that instead of applauding this statement and trying to bring about meaningful change, some politicians have tried to dismiss, decry and delegitimise this powerful statement as a “Marxist political entity”.

Middlesbrough legend and England boss Gareth Southgate was very clear this week that the gesture was not endorsing a political movement but was a show of solidarity by players with their team mates and black people in society.

Taking the knee is an act of solidarity with a long history. The image was popularised by Josiah Wedgewood and others in their campaign against slavery and was used by people such as Martin Luther King.

So when a few hardcore Millwall supporters booed the gesture at their club’s match last weekend, it matters. This is about facing up to a growing threat of intolerant, far right ideology.

Home Office figures from June revealed that the proportion of people in custody holding extreme far-right views had increased by a third on the previous year. Hate crime has risen by 97 per cent since 2015. Counter terrorist police say right-wing extremism is the UK’s fastest growing terrorist threat. Just over four years ago, a fantastic progressive pro-refugee female MP was assassinated as she went to her constituency surgery by a right-wing extremist.

And this is unfortunately a big issue in the North-East. Almost a quarter of referrals to the Government’s anti-extremism programme for right-wing radicalisation came from our region. In my area alone, there is a councillor, now suspended from the Conservative Party, who still sits, despite having used an appalling Islamophobic slur.

History shows us that economic hardship creates the most fertile conditions for division and hatred. So in a week when the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that the highest proportion of people in the country facing extreme hardship is in Middlesbrough, you would expect not only that this should be the foremost issue for local politicians, but that they would be even more careful of stirring tensions. A recent report by the charity Hope not Hate found that “the boundaries between the far right and the mainstream right have become increasingly blurred, with mainstream politicians and commentators using language and rhetoric which was once found only on the far right”.

These uncomfortable facts are why gestures of solidarity and equality really matter if we are to become a more tolerant and equal society in which everyone feels valued and able to fulfil their potential. The deliberate fuelling of this phoney culture war is a cynical diversion to avoid responsibility for taking real action.

Responsible words from local leaders and public figures matter, whether they are footballers, members of the clergy, MPs or Prime Ministers.

Anna Turley is the former Labour MP for Redcar