Issue 252 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2001 Copyright Socialist Review





Tory malice, Labour myths

Tony Blair signs the CRE pledge and puts the Tories on the defensive
Tony Blair signs the CRE pledge and puts the Tories on the defensive

The pre-election row over racism that erupted between the Tories and New Labour last month is unprecedented. Right wing politicians have played the race card before, especially during elections. This time, however, it was Labour foreign secretary Robin Cook who made a speech attacking the myth of a single British race, and the argument turned on the Tories' attempts to shore up support by stoking up racism.

The Tory disarray was something to behold. Michael Portillo, the leader in waiting who is cultivating a socially liberal image, refused to endorse a Commission for Racial Equality pledge not to exploit race as an issue in the election. Tory leaders struggled to dissociate themselves from openly racist MPs. As they did so, Tory activists in Dagenham were issuing a leaflet claiming that Labour is 'flooding the NHS with HIV-infected nurses from Africa'.

That Cook could choose to attack the Tories over race is an indication of the success of decades of campaigning against racism. It is also perhaps a sign of how concerned at least some Labour leaders are to win back core activists who have been sickened by Labour's scapegoating of asylum seekers. The first time the race card was used in postwar British politics by mainstream politicians was in the general election of October 1964.

Labour ousted the Tories on a 3.5 percent swing, but in the Smethwick seat Tory Peter Griffiths won a 7.2 percent swing to see off Patrick Gordon Walker, a member of Labour's shadow cabinet. Tory canvassers in Smethwick endorsed the slogan, 'If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour.' Pollsters estimated four other Labour candidates lost to racist Tory campaigns.

The Labour government suffered a string of catastrophic by-election losses in the mid-1970s. It responded to Tory (and fascist National Front) attacks on immigration by rushing through further immigration controls.

Cook's speech reflected a changed climate. But it does not signal a fundamental shift by the Labour Party. The same Labour government is boasting that it will forcibly deport 30,000 asylum seekers in the next 12 months. That is after even the Metropolitan Police report that racist attacks soar after politicians' speeches on asylum.

The blast by Cook was carefully focused on the bigoted little Englandism that runs through the 300,000 reactionaries who make up the Tory Party. His announcement that chicken tikka masala is the new 'national dish' was hardly radical--all the tabloids made the same discovery last autumn. It was also patronising--why not praise the far more substantial contribution immigrants have made to Britain?

It could wind up the Daily Mail, which thinks that every white person in Britain shares the same 'Anglo-Saxon' heritage. But it reduced racism simply to attitudes people may have about cultural mixing, and ignored institutionalised racism. So there was nothing from Cook about the police being five times more likely to stop and search Afro-Caribbean people, or about the treatment of asylum seekers. Institutionalised and 'respectable' racism means that the seemingly innocuous pledge from the CRE can suddenly become a hot political issue.

The Sun, the News of the World and the Daily Mail all fuel this approach. They feel able to praise the contribution of previous immigrant groups, before then going on to abuse 'bogus asylum seekers' as 'dole cheats' and worse.

Capitalism constantly creates a breeding ground for racism by creating competition between people. The likes of New Labour cabinet ministers then face a dilemma. They initiate restrictions on the right to asylum--the new racism--and are surprised when that encourages attacks on non-white people who are already here--the older racism.

Jack Straw wants an 'inclusive English nationalism'. It is a fantasy. Such nationalism can only come from creating divisions between 'the English' (whoever they may be) and others who come here. That fuels racist divisions between white and black. New Labour's anti-refugee policies, appeals to 'national identity', defence of racist institutions and attacks on working class people ensure that racism, new and old, remains an ugly feature of British society.
Kevin Ovenden


  • Over 100,000 schoolchildren admit to playing truant from school in order to do paid work, according to a TUC survey. Almost half the children said they worked after eight at night, and 23 percent said they worked before six in the morning. The survey showed that
    one in four under 13s, nearly 289,000, do paid work
    one in four under 13s, nearly 289,000, do paid work, a third earned less than 2.50 an hour, and nearly one in five get less than 2 an hour.
  • City bankers have been told to economise by keeping bills for backslapping dinners to less than 7,000. Bosses at the Credit Suisse First Boston have told their bankers to rein it in and spend less on wine, which can cost up to 1,000.
  • Rail travellers have been put through months of hell. Now with Virgin's increase of 10 percent in fares, they will be able to travel to Hell and back for less than the cost of a return ticket from London to Manchester. The Hell in question is a small lake near Iceland's capital, Reykjavik. A return fare with Go airline to Reykjavik costs 118, wheras a standard open return ticket from London to Manchester with Virgin costs 168.

  • Foot and Mouth

    An epidemic of lies

    That government scientists are claiming the foot and mouth epidemic is now under control should be a warning to us all. An epidemic of lies and cover-ups continues to emanate from Millbank. Most news stories concentrate on the risk to animals, but the real health risk concerns those who have to drink water contaminated by the rotting carcasses of buried animals, or those who have to breathe in poisons from the pyres.

    The department of health has advised people living near burning pyres to keep their windows and doors shut, and to wash fruit and vegetables carefully. But the real issues are buried away in the financial pages of the 'quality' papers--the interests of competing sections of big business, the incompetence of the Blair government, and how they helped turn a drama into a fiasco. For instance, the cost of foot and mouth is estimated to be around 253 million per month. To avoid having to spend this money every month they would have to turn to vaccination. But this solution is not considered to be profitable by the meat industry. The animal health market is worth only 4 percent of the giant human pharmaceutical market, therefore there is little incentive for drug companies.

    The threat of BSE contaminated cattle affecting our drinking water is potentially so damaging to the profits of the privatised water industries that they have been forced to 'raise concerns'. New Labour's reaction is to bury the problem, carry on regardless, and deal with the next crisis as and when it appears. Why, when the EU spends 46 percent of its total budget on agricultural subsidies, more than on health, education or job creation, is there such a crisis in the farming industry? Britain also receives the fifth largest farming subsidy in Europe, an average of $17,000 per farmer.

    The free market, which Blair and his friends in big business defend to the death, cannot deliver the fundamentals of safe food and water. If this now feels like a country in permanent and severe crisis it is because New Labour has abandoned any pretence that reform of the system is possible.
    Karen O'Toole

    Tube Strike

    On the right track

    Bob Crow
    Bob Crow

    London tube workers are due to strike on 3 May. Bob Crow assistant general secretary of the RMT rail union spoke to Socialist Review about the current dispute.

    'There is a genuine concern about safety on the underground. The public-private partnership is deeply unpopular, and people have the experience of seeing British Rail getting into a horrendous situation and they don't want to go down the same road. Also there's been good joint campaigning between the two unions, Aslef and the RMT. Over the years there have been major differences between the two trade unions. But Aslef realised that the RMT was stitched up in court by the judge. As a result they weren't going to go across picket lines. The RMT called their action and Aslef respected the solidarity that the RMT gave, and vice versa.

    Although Aslef has the checkoff system, Aslef's ballot was illegal as well. The judge actually said that its ballot was defective. So whether you have checkoff or not, it's not just about where your members are--you now have to give every workplace and category.

    New Labour want to stop workers taking action. It was a scandalous act that the judge used as well. He actually said that there was no difference between running a trade union and a bowls club. Well, there's a lot of difference between running a union and a bowls club. I mean, there's a difference between concern for your Hush Puppies on a Sunday afternoon and having a fork in your hand digging balasts out at 3 o'clock in the morning.

    The 'Take Back the Track' campaign involves all three unions. It involves getting Railtrack first of all back into public ownership, then bringing the rest of the train operating companies, and the whole lot eventually.

    New Labour gave a 4.7 billion subsidy to Railtrack, so there's no problem with money. The fact of the matter is that they've got a loan off the government. There's no difference between giving them money and bringing it back into public ownership, as it's public money. That public money could have been used to get it back into public ownership. I don't think it's globalisation concerning Railtrack. It's because Labour actually embraces the free market. It wants private enterprise because it is now a party driven by private enterprise. It shares the interests of the privateers now. It does not stand up for working people.

    The RMT's affiliation to the Labour Party is a union decision, and we'll respect that decision. Personally, I believe that we're giving money to people who are not fighting as hard as they should be on behalf of working people, who are unrepresented in Britain.

    We've met Ken Livingstone more since he's been mayor than we've met the government for four years. We've got a dialogue with Ken and he's not anti trade union--he supports them. He's not going to condemn us taking strike action. I don't think it's an issue of whether he's on the picket line or not-- it's our members who should be there.

    People have seen that with privatisation there is nothing in it for workers, and on that basis everyone can stand together.

    Tube privatisation involves all the same companies as rail--Balfour Beatty, WS Atkins, big multinationals. At the end of the day if they take over the contracts we have to deal with them. We're not a political party, we're a trade union, and unions are about defending people whoever the employer is.'

    Middle East

    An occupation with no end in sight

    Jewish settlers attack Palestinians
    Jewish settlers attack Palestinians

    'Is the wanton destruction of these homes a tragedy or a war crime?' Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk had no doubt about it. It was a war crime. The question headlined his front page article for the Independent in April when Israel invaded Rafah in the Gaza Strip and smashed up Palestinian homes. By this act Israel surely destroyed the final remnant of the Oslo peace accords. Fisk also quoted from a pro-Palestinian journalist in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz: ' the demolishing of dozens of civilian homes not an act of terror? Perhaps...the firing of mortars by Palestinians is an act of self defence against the occupation that has no end, and against the Jewish settlements...that are growing larger and larger before their exhausted eyes.'

    It seems, though, that Sharon managed to overstep the bounds of US tolerance in launching the attack. Commentators were united in their surprise at the unusually strong rebuke delivered by Colin Powell, US Secretary of State. He called Israel's move into Gaza 'excessive and disproportionate', and demanded that the government keep its promise to vacate the territory. Israeli tanks scuttled out nearly as fast as they had invaded, provoking outrage among Sharon's fanatical supporters that he was going 'soft'.

    As the Guardian's on-line edition on the Middle East crisis put it in an article by Mark Tran: 'Mr Powell had to intervene because the US cannot afford to see Israel's conflict with the Palestinians boil over. The country's attack against a Syrian radar station in Lebanon on Sunday was a dangerous escalation.'

    Three Syrian soldiers were killed. Ominously, this was the first deliberate attack on a Syrian target since the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, an attack also masterminded by Ariel Sharon. The fear of even the most pro-Israeli western press is that the situation will run out of control. US foreign policy in the Middle East wants to keep Iraq in line--a policy already shaky because of the widespread unpopularity of western sanctions. As Tran argues: 'The US already has enough trouble keeping Arab countries in line. If Washington is seen to be an acquiescent partner or even idly standing by while Israel keeps on squeezing the Palestinians, American policy on Iraq would become untenable. Saddam Hussein can be counted on to exploit the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians for his maximum benefit, rallying the Arab world behind him. Beyond Iraq is the deep-seated fear among US policy makers of popular unrest in the oil-producing states such as Saudi Arabia, where the Palestinian cause still resonates among ordinary Arabs.'

    This is precisely the point. The new intifada has created uproar throughout the Middle East. And it's not just the oil-producing states. In Egypt Palestine has become a focus for discontent with the Mubarak regime. The issue dominates the opposition press. The moderate liberal Al-Ahrar ran a headline on the Arab summit on 10 April: 'The Intifada Rages... And The Arabs Are Silent.' The network of activists which sprang up last October at the outbreak of the uprising has solidified into a number of campaigns, including the Egyptian Popular committee for Solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada. Activists from the Committee began a well publicised hunger strike in the first week in April. The committee has also organised two convoys of food and medical supplies to the Occupied Territories, and held large rallies in the coastal towns on the route to Gaza. Street protests are also continuing on 3 April around 3,000 students demonstrated in solidarity with the Intifada at Cairo University.

    The Egyptian government's complete subservience to the US was highlighted at the summit meeting between George Bush and Hosni Mubarak in Washington at the beginning of April. The pro-government daily Al-Ahram reported that Egypt and the US issued a joint call for talks leading to a complete settlement on the 'basis of previous negotiations': the Palestinians should resurrect the peace process which Israeli bulldozers and tanks have been busy burying for the last six months. The intimate connection between Egyptian and US policy is one important factor which pushes protests in solidarity with Palestine towards outright opposition to the Mubarak regime. At the time of the last Intifada, Palestine solidarity demonstrations across Egypt moved quickly to raise slogans against price rises and state repression. Mubarak's visit to Washington was also aimed to win further aid for the Egyptian economy--the message was clear enough: World Bank loans are crucial to maintaining Egypt's support on the Palestine issue. The Arab rulers are increasingly finding themselves the target for anger at their impotence in the face of US-backed Israeli agression.
    John Rose and Anne Alexander

    Return to
    Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page