David Blunkett lost interest in the fight against institutional racism following the riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, says Doreen Lawrence.
Speaking at yesterday’s Unite Against Racism conference, organised by the National Assembly Against Racism (NAAR), with UNISON and the South-East Region TUC, Doreen Lawrence won a standing ovation before and after her speech. She recalled the hope of many that real change would come about, following the publication, in 1999, of the Macpherson report into her son Stephen’s murder. Yesterday, as a large number of individuals, trade union members, students and campaigners came together in London to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Stephen’s death, Doreen Lawrence pledged to continue to use her voice to challenge racism.
The government had moved forward following the Macpherson report’s publication, Doreen Lawrence said, but there had been a change after the 2001 riots in the north of England, which coincided with David Blunkett becoming home secretary. As a member of the steering group monitoring the implementation of the Macpherson report, she observed how David Blunkett was usually absent, even though he was the group’s chair, and how he had lost interest in the issue.
Doreen Lawrence challenged Blunkett yesterday to stop downgrading racism issues. People were still being killed and there was a danger of our falling into complacency. She also highlighted the difficulty of passing the anti-racism message down from those at the head of the Metropolitan Police to the officers on the ground, whose mindset needed changing. She urged delegates to challenge easy assumptions about ‘black on black violence’ and ‘black music promoting gun culture’. And she told the conference: ‘This is a very difficult time for me. I wonder what Stephen’s life would be like now. He would have graduated and would be practising as an architect.’
Doreen Lawrence’s strong criticism of the government was echoed by Bill Morris, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union. He recalled how, as chair of the TUC conference on 11 September 2001, he pledged his opposition to terrorism. But, he said, he did not sign up to a war against civil liberties, against Islam or against asylum seekers.
New Labour had seen the tragedy as an opportunity to re-order the relationship between the state and society, he said, and the government had abandoned the need to balance the rights of citizens against the needs of security. He recalled with horror how police in riot gear, last year, battered down the doors of a mosque to remove the Ahmadi family. Imagine, he asked the audience, what would have happened if President Mugabe sent his riot police to ram an Anglican church in Bulawayo?
New Labour panders to populism
Bill Morris attacked the government for pandering to the populist agenda on asylum seekers, rather than telling the truth to the public. The UK is not being swamped and it is not a soft touch. He called for an attempt to understand the asylum issue in a global context in which resource exploitation causes economic migration. Asylum needed to be taken away from the Home Office and administered by an independent body, which would do what is morally right rather than what is politically expedient.
He felt that ten years after the tragic murder of Stephen Lawrence, the cry for justice was still unheard. He called upon everyone to trust the Macpherson report which he described as a shining light on a dark corner of racism – offering a unique opportunity to challenge institutional racism. He argued that Blunkett’s statement, that institutional racism was just a slogan, was calculated to bury the Macpherson report. This was an insult to the intellectual integrity of Macpherson and the memory of Stephen Lawrence. For him, institutional racism was not a slogan but a painful reality, although the Metropolitan Police had never been comfortable with the premise of institutional racism.