Issue 242 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
When I heard Imran Khan speak at a seminar about refugees and the law last week, I was reminded of just how deeply New Labour has betrayed the fight against racism. It isn't just that seeing Imran reminded me that Jackboots Straw let the cops off scot free when he could have sacked Condon and put some real pressure on the racists. But Imran pointed out that New Labour--who held out the promise of some justice for the victims of racist attack--were whipping up the worst racist atmosphere for many years and directly creating the conditions where more victims would fall under the racist knives, boots and firebombs.
He is not exaggerating. The witch-hunting of asylum seekers has created a climate in which the thugs and bigots feel free to peddle filth and break heads. Police figures released this week show a doubling of racist attacks reported in the last year. Even allowing for an increase in reporting rates following the Macpherson report, the figures are horrific. The last month has seen a dramatic increase in violent assaults. In the May elections Nazis won an alarming share of the vote in the West Midlands and east London. Jackboots is considering locking up every new asylum seeker in what are effectively concentration camps. And still the Mail and the Sun scream of invasions of scroungers.
In 20 years of political activism, I haven't experienced open racism on this scale. Powell tried it--and got some resonance in 1968--but it is worth repeating that he got the sack and remained on the fringes. It seems to me that an asylum seeker today must feel like the Malawi Asians did in 1976 when Sun headlines were of 'Scandal of £600 a week immigrants'. Then, as now, it was never really a question of stopping anyone from moving around for work (after all, flexible labour is better and immigrant workers, usually young, fit and with few dependants, are particularly cheap). The racism that came during the 1970s was engineered as a section of the ruling class--having begged for immigration during the labour shortage of the long boom--began to look both for scapegoats for the economic crisis and to restrict the families of those who had come to fill the gaps in the labour market from joining them.
At the same time this had such an impact because it took place against a background of the crushing of a generation's hopes. The Labour government, elected off the back of mass struggles against Heath's anti-union laws, redundancies and wage cuts, had betrayed its supporters and presided over mass unemployment, pay cuts, hospital closures and growing poverty. In order to defeat the combativity and confidence of the working class and to justify the betrayal, Labour moved rightwards on every issue. When the witch-hunt against the Malawi Asians began, Old Labour responded by toughening immigration controls and bringing in virginity tests for Asian women coming to join their husbands.
In the absence of mass struggles, as Labour abandoned its socialist principles (even if just in words) it left a vacuum. Once the Tories played the race card Labour felt the need to follow. By the late 1970s the Nazi NF vote mushroomed. They were eventually beaten back by the huge numbers mobilised through the ANL and Rock Against Racism, but the way Labour had made racism respectable assisted in pulling society to the right and was a major factor in bringing out a vote for Thatcher.
I was reminded of all this at the GLA election count in Havering on the outskirts of east London. The Tories had made racism a centrepiece of their electoral strategy by whipping up a campaign around the flag. Just down the road Ford is under closure threat. In every Tory ward voter turnout was up to double that in the Labour wards. The Tories won. The BNP took another 4 percent of the vote. The situation was far worse in some parts of the West Midlands. Staw has played with fire and, just like the 1970s, it has not protected the Labour vote. It has simply demoralised their support and benefited the right.
So why on earth is New Labour doing it?
This is not simply about the colour of people's skin. Black businessmen and women would be welcome at the dinner tables of nearly all the New Labour spinners. This is about the irrationality of the capitalist system. Despite the lack of expansion in the system, immigrant workers remain cheap and the desperate situation of asylum seekers makes them cheaper still. Like any other worker, let them work and they produce more than the costs of reproducing themselves. Those from Africa and Asia in particular are highly skilled and capable of producing massive surplus value. But the system is not generally expanding and this compulsion to pick and choose doesn't quite square with the UN Convention on Refugees, so the only way to deal with the problem is to slam the door shut tight and blame the victims.
With the threat of closure hanging over Dagenham and Longbridge, as the hospital crisis goes on and schools get worse, with a minimum wage that is a joke, scapegoating is once again tempting. Blair and Jackboots can mime the old routine but in modern code: 'Don't blame us for not delivering on your hopes, blame the asylum seeker, they've got your house/job/wage rise.'
But this doesn't mean that history is about to repeat itself. There have been too many changes since the 1970s. Once again it was seeing Imran speak which reminded me of the first change. While it is true that the bravery and determination of the Lawrence family, and of Imran himself, pushed the campaign forward so that Straw had to produce the inquiry, it is also true that the massive wave of public horror and anger at the police reflected a real deepening of the anti-racist current in society over the last 30 years.
The second change is among organised workers. In the 1970s the shop stewards' movement was fantastically strong in one sense. During the long boom they had built union loyalty and won good conditions section by section. Thus they organised the unofficial action that freed the Pentonville Five and won one strike after another under the Tories. But when it came to politics, this was a movement where even the most militant activists organised in the Communist Party were tied to Labour. They obeyed the call to accept wage cuts (the incomes policy) and spending cuts to get the economy back on its feet. Sections of workers fought alone without political or practical support and were smashed by their own union leaders. In this situation, the whole movement was knocked sideways by Labour's slide to the right.
This time around the situation is different. The organised working class is not yet on the offensive but the last 20 years have taught many workers bitter lessons about how capitalism works. Certainly they are not tied to Blair. The political bitterness today is much more class focused. This is why the NUJ statement defending asylum seekers and refugees has had such resonance and why it is possible to win arguments with workers about why refugees should not be scapegoated.
Socialists can have confidence that the strength of anti-racism is not going away. Too many people live and work alongside black people. We can turn back the anti-refugee hysteria by organising in two ways--to answer the lies and to confront every racist idea and action, and, just as importantly, to build the kind of organisation that ensures no group of workers, like those now threatened at Dagenham, Longbridge and Llanwern, are left to fight alone.