A member of the South Yorkshire Migration and Action Group analyses how racist assumptions have been embedded by Labour politicians.
The general election campaign focused on the big ‘I’ – immigration; but the underlying ‘common sense racism’ of media and political debate framed much of the public arguments. The political world after the election is beginning to look very much the same and constantly reminds us of the insidious way in which Labour governments have embedded racist assumptions and practices in the everyday languages of politics and the very fabric of the state.
First a reminder of the way in which Labour embraced the agenda of the racist Right.
It seems a long time ago that Labour’s ‘no platform’ policy towards the BNP was breached by Jack Straw’s offer to the BBC to appear with Nick Griffin on Question Time – even longer since Gordon Brown made his speech on ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ to the TUC in the autumn of 2007. On reflection this speech ranks perhaps with Margaret Thatcher’s ‘swamping’ speech of 1978 in signalling an official Labour turn to an agenda dominated by ‘xeno-racism’. The TUC that year had no motions before it which remotely reflected this racist slogan, merely motions on agency workers’ rights and organising migrant workers. In fact, despite incitement from politicians, the TUC and all the major unions have in their official policies maintained a principled position on migrant workers and asylum seekers – for instance backing the ‘Let them work’ campaign. When Nick Clegg backed this slogan in the election campaign, Alan Johnson with his ‘trade union background’, called it ‘utter, utter madness’.
Before the election: making the far Right respectable
The response to far-Right politics by Labour has been simply a craven retreat from principle and a race to grant the BNP its main aim of ‘legitimacy’, being embraced by the mainstream as simply another political party competing in the ‘democratic’ system.
This was highlighted in the debates and campaigns within education leading up to the general election. Education was an important battleground because the BNP MEP for Yorkshire, Andrew Brons, is a controversial former further education lecturer at Harrogate College. The educational trades unions are all active in and fund the national and local campaigns of Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and called on the government to ban BNP members from schools, colleges, and universities. The Labour government and the schools secretary Ed Balls’ pre-election response was to commission ‘investigations’ and ‘guidance’ on how to respond.
The Citizenship Foundation, a government funded charity, was asked to give guidance in the treatment of the BNP in ‘citizenship’ education in schools and colleges and whether BNP candidates should be invited into schools and colleges as part of election debates. The Foundation decided that the BNP was ‘radical not extremist’. ‘In this discussion we distinguish between “extremist” and “radical” groups, where radical means groups working within the democratic system to achieve fundamental changes to the way society is run.’ Extremism, by contrast, could be described as: ‘the active pursuit of and/or support for fundamental changes in society that may endanger the continued existence of the democratic order (aim), which may involve the use of undemocratic methods (means) that may harm the functioning of the democratic order (effect)’.
Some campaigners might argue this is a fairly precise definition of what the BNP actually sets out to do within classic tactics. But apparently ‘It is important to note here that the BNP, as a lawful political party, cannot and does not openly advocate violence and in their public pronouncements and activities they take great care to remain within the law’.
Don Rowe the head of the Foundation put forward the classic argument that if people vote for and elect extremist candidates then the party cannot be extremist. ‘The issue of the need to treat the BNP as an existing political party is much clearer in the sense that there are MEP’s’… It is in fact anti-racist campaigners who are going too far: ‘teachers who tend to be anti-BNP themselves, may be going too far in promoting anti-racist views‘ (my emphasis).
Ed Balls then asked Maurice Smith a former chief inspector of schools to look at a ban on BNP teachers following bans in the prison and police services. Smith reported in March 2010 that there were only a tiny number of teachers involved in incidents of racist teaching and a ban would be disproportionate.
‘In addition to the argument that a ban would be disproportionate, there are other difficulties. Although police and prison officers are banned, to ban more than half a million teachers from joining a legitimate organisation would take this to a different scale of magnitude’ (my emphasis).
The argument on legitimacy then was won by the BNP, officially state-recognised as ‘lawful’ and a ‘legitimate organisation’. Ed Balls on behalf of the Labour government immediately accepted all the recommendations of the Smith report, and issued the Citizenship Foundation guidance to schools.
Media and racism after the election
In the days since the election, the elation at the BNP being ‘defeated’ is rapidly fading as Con-Dem and Labour leadership policies and debates unfold – and the media ‘wallpaper’ continues to poison the political climate.
There has been no end to the continuous drip feed of racism in the print media with stories of ‘illegals’ being discovered in lorries, under coaches on school trips and trapped in refrigerated lorries. The Sunday Express on the eve of major political developments with the Con-Dem coalition decided to run a front page headline reminder to the coalition to stick with the Tory promises on a ‘Gypsy Law’ of criminal trespass.
Despite this racist atmosphere the BNP could certainly still implode and retreat but the fact remains that they did poll well in areas where they had little or no organisation. In Barnsley with very little local effort BNP candidates received 12,423 votes in the local elections, and they still have a regular Saturday stall in the town centre. They did lose two councillors in their heartland of Stoke – but five were re-elected. Overall they still have nineteen councillors having lost twenty-six. Perhaps a BNP in decline could take comfort in the fact that Labour politicians, even those grasping at the leadership have decided that stealing BNP policies is the way back for Labour to win the support of that mythical ‘white working class’. As John Harris, writing in the Guardian has put it: ‘Some Labour people seem to have come to a truly stupid conclusion that the Con-Dem coalition has to be outflanked on the right, because the proles demand it.'
Certainly Margaret Hodge has drawn the conclusion from her victory against Nick Griffin that in bad times ‘we’ should find ‘ways of rationing’ housing and other services on the basis of ‘how long you have been there’. Housing campaigners will immediately recognise a return to the bad old days of racist ‘minimum waiting times’ and local residence qualifications of the 1960s and 1970s aimed at producing the all-white council estates in places like Bradford and Birmingham which politicians have agonised over in the past twenty years.
It is also interesting that BBC radio has returned to the fray with an analysis of the BNP on the World this Weekend. There was an interview with ‘Renée’ who ‘didn’t like multiculturalism’, and because she was a ‘wartime person’ did not vote BNP. She did agree with them but not in their ‘nasty way’. The programme also had an interview with the new communities secretary Eric Pickles who wanted to deal ‘with the consequences of unrestricted immigration’ and in a dig at Hodge, but not by ‘pandering to BNP policies’.
BBC TV has managed to confirm the criticism of racist bias during the campaign by suddenly, (when the voting is over) screening independent films on the reality of asylum seekers lives (Truth, Lies and Asylum Seekers) and the racism and violence of the English Defence League (Young, British and Angry).
Business as usual? Racism and the Labour leadership
The Labour leadership and the leadership contest race threaten to move Labour policies even further right into racist territory. Ed Balls will need to explain his pre-election policies as schools secretary. Ed Miliband needs to answer some pretty fundamental questions about why he should become leader when as author of the Labour manifesto he included a whole section shamefully and provocatively headed ‘Crime and Immigration’. As a local MP in Doncaster earlier this year Ed Miliband backed a local campaign in Bentley in his constituency to prevent a Gypsy and Traveller site.
Local MP Ed Miliband, who had supported the residents, said: ‘This was clearly not an appropriate site for travellers given the policy of the council … The people of Bentley have made their views clear.'
The site had been chosen using Labour government guidelines, Ed Miliband chose to back local bigots including the local English Democrat mayor of Doncaster in the campaign which successfully kept another site for Gypsies and Travellers (the largest ethnic minority community in Doncaster) out of his constituency.
Andy Burnham another leadership candidate has set his stall out adding ‘his voice to the emerging consensus that Labour in government failed to act convincingly on immigration … For me the big task is for Labour to reconnect with people who are feeling this. They need to feel that Labour understands what they are saying and then will take steps to address it.' It will be interesting, and perhaps chilling, to see what ‘steps’ he comes up with.
There is still potentially the anti-racist John McDonnell; and with Diane Abbott entering the race we have the voice of a Black woman and another principled anti racist and asylum rights campaigner being aired to de-toxify the leadership campaign. There is also the very sobering fact that both have already been written off by the mainstream media.
Diane Abbott has put her position clearly: ‘Rather than wringing our hands about the white working class and immigration, we need to deal with the underlying issues that make white and black people hostile to immigration, things like housing and job security. We need to be careful about scapegoating immigrants in a recession. We know where that leads’.
Campaigners inside and outside the Labour Party can only hope that ‘immigration’ and migrants and asylum seekers rights can be seized from the racist drift of Labour policies.
Then we can start an offensive on the media and on the Con-Dem coalition…