Jack Straw has made it known that racism is one issue that he feels strongly about. In an interview earlier this year, he said that: ‘If the only thing that could be said for me was that I made a difference on race, then I’d die a happy man.’ Perhaps racism is an issue where Straw senses that New Labour can offer radical change without alienating the cherished middle England vote. And there is no doubt that room for political manoeuvre has been opened up, if the newly discovered anti-racism of the Daily Mail is anything to go by. Its support for the Lawrence family has been followed up with the cases of Michael Menson, Ricky Reel and Akofa Hodasi. Similarly, the Daily Express has recently run a sympathetic piece on Satpal Ram and led calls against the deportation of Nigerian banker Ben James.
In this new climate, Jack Straw granted the inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s murder, which was grudgingly welcomed, even by the Mail and Telegraph. But the debate on institutional racism has now given way in these papers to the fear that the police have been overly handicapped by public criticism. Why has the paper which championed Stephen Lawrence not also turned its attention to the cases of black people dying in police custody? It appears that where victims of racism can present themselves as ‘respectable’ they can win support. Otherwise the Mail doesn’t want to know.
Meanwhile the summer months have seen a wave of criticisms of the government on the asylum issue. Here things are even more clear-cut, since the tabloid press and politicians are all agreed that asylum-seekers are hardly ever genuine. Hence asylum has become nothing more than a law and order issue. Ann Widdecombe has shown that asylum remains one issue where the Tories can get Labour on the run. Even with a Labour government that has been happy to continue the general direction of asylum and immigration policy which began under the previous government removal of benefits and rights of appeal, and added its own policy of forced dispersal there has been a chorus of columnists accusing Straw of being too weak. And Straw himself has responded by trying to be as tough as the Tories. The only remaining check on this Dutch auction is the appeal courts there have been at least eight court rulings against the Home Office on immigration and asylum since the election.
Added to this are Jack Straw’s famed illiberalisms. Over the last four years he has made comments about ‘aggressive begging’, ‘squeegee merchants’, ‘scousers’ and, more recently, travellers, all of whom, he claims, are likely to be criminals and need to be cracked down on. At first glance, these off-the-cuff comments seem to have nothing to do with actual policy and, if anything, are just there to keep up appearances of toughness for the tabloids. But these comments do reveal the nature of the government’s law and order agenda. What Straw is effectively saying is that certain groups in society are legitimate targets for suspicion because they are reckoned to be more likely to be involved in crime. And a host of policies and new guidelines have been introduced which give the police new powers to act on suspicion alone (notably the Crime and Disorder Act 1998). But the black experience of policing shows that when police are given blanket powers to act out of suspicion alone, civil rights abuses and miscarriages of justice are the inevitable outcome.
While Straw has chosen not to mention the black community in this regard, Professor David Smith, his adviser, has argued that it is legitimate for the police to treat the black community with greater suspicion than other groups. But this is precisely what is meant by institutional racism in the police, which the government claims to want to tackle. What this logic leads to is a revival of the Victorian separation between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Only now we also have the undeserving victims of racism, and the undeserving seekers of asylum. These are the black people who you won’t read about in the Mail because, according to the police, they were on drugs when they died in police custody. And these are the asylum-seekers who have been stigmatised as bogus (now the more politically correct ‘abusive’). For them, it is only the first part of Labour’s pre-election slogan of ‘tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime’ that seems to apply and these groups are subject to the full force of state racism.
Ultimately Straw’s legacy of anti-racism will be meaningless unless he is prepared to take on causes which don’t fit neatly into a middle England world view.