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6 Considerations on Rotherham, Racism and the Right

If you’ve even had half an eye on the news recently you’ll know that not only has a married woman of child-bearing age conceived a second baby, but there’s been a political and moral maelstrom in the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham. Released in August, an independent report led by Professor Alexis Jay exposed that at least 1400 children and young people have been victims of a child sexual exploitation (CSE) ring operating between 1997 and 2013. Five men were convicted in connection with organized CSE in 2010, but Jay’s report has suggested both the police and council worked to limit public knowledge of the extent of the crimes. Not only did her inquiry discover that around a third of the victims were known to the police, but it found that many of those who came forward were treated ‘with contempt’ by officers.

It is alleged that the authorities were particularly keen to cover up the abuses for fear of being labelled racist due to the majority of the perpetrators being British-Pakistani. This has been jumped upon by Home Secretary and former Women and Equalities Minister Theresa May, who blamed the failures on “institutional political correctness”, but more significantly (given the Tories have little sway in these parts) the proclamations of the far-right are now falling on open ears. Here are six things we should be clear about when considering the wake of the Rotherham scandal:

1. Police were scared of being labelled racist because they are racist.

Let’s get this one out of the way. Much has been made of the suggestions that within Rotherham council and within the police there has existed a taboo relating to ‘cultural sensitivity’, and indeed even Rotherham’s former MP Denis MacShane told the BBC “there was a culture of not wanting to rock the multicultural community boat”. Right wing commentators have run with this, setting up an ‘Asian perpetrator, white victim’ narrative and using the story to make out the police are a soft touch when it comes to race. Aside from the implication that the police need to ‘get tough on race’, the facts point to the opposite, as 147 confirmed BME deaths since 1990 testify. Instead, if police are scared of being labelled racist, we should acknowledge it is because since admitting institutional racism in the 1990s little has changed.

2. The far-right have not just arrived in South Yorkshire…

The liberal press would have you believe that in the last few weeks this quiet, once-proud ex-mining town has fallen prey to white nationalists flocking from far and wide like urban foxes over discarded chips. This is misleading. Growing up in South Yorkshire, in the nearby fellow ex-mining town of Barnsley, I was constantly aware of the rising far-right in the area. Fair enough, South East-based Britain First is a new addition to the mix, but Ukip have ten councillors in Rotherham, the EDL are as active as in any other working class town, and the BNP have not only consistently polled around 20-25% in local by-elections since 2006, but they have received their deposit back every time they have stood in a general election. In fact, it’s not an uncommon sight to witness local BNP branches holding weekly stalls in town centres in the area, or even to have Nick Griffin speaking at a packed local pub meeting.

3. …but the affair is playing into their hands.

The mobilization of the far-right in Rotherham is less about external forces ‘descending’ (as in the case of Britain First) and more about the galvanization of widespread but largely inactive local sympathizers. The fact that the Jay report concerns CSE in particular is being treated as a vindication of the long-standing hysteria of the BNP and the National Front around so-called ‘Muslim grooming gangs’.

3. Britain First, in particular, is likely to draw strength from this.

Previous moral panics concerning children have often tended towards an impulse for vigilantism, such as the News of the World’s facilitation of social mania in the wake of the murder of Sarah Payne in 2000. And as we know, vigilantism is what British First likes to do most, particularly when it concerns ‘Muslim morality’. Already Paul Golding, Britain First leader, has suggested he may stand as a candidate in the upcoming general election. While he is unlikely to be elected, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Britain First polling in the top three or four if they continue to leech off the injustices of the abused.

4. The rise of the right is a class issue.

All the talk of rising bigotry, the rights and wrongs of political correctness, and whether or not Islam ‘condones child sexual exploitation’ (hint: it doesn’t) belies what is really happening in towns like Rotherham. Since the 1980s these are towns which have been consistently sold out by the Tories, New Labour and the far-left (yep, I went there). Most obviously, the selling off and subsequent closure of industry by the Tories decimated communities in the 1980s and early 1990s. Subsequently, Labour left these towns behind through insufficient investment and neoliberal projects such as the Private Finance Initiative, while taking them for granted as ‘safe seats’ in the knowledge that they would never elect a Tory MP. Though the far-left had set up camp while the class struggle was raging on the picket lines in the 1980s, by the 1990s they had mostly fucked off (usually back to London) once the more mundane struggles of everyday life under neoliberalism set in. Taking a step-forward, the far-right in the first instance presented plausible answers to everyday problems, drawing upon patriotic sentiment to provide a certain sense of community in the face of adversity. Of course, this continues to take root by scapegoating non-whites or foreigners, but the material seeds of were sown long ago.

5. Labour will not sort this…

This will be a huge wake-up call for Labour, as finally it is faced with a challenge to its authority in one of its ‘strongholds’. Worse yet, the challenge is of Labour’s own making and it is being forced into pretty despicable and cynical ‘damage limitation’ by distancing itself from the figures at the centre of the storm. Faced with widespread rekindled nationalist sentiment rooted in at least some knowledge of the material problems facing towns such as Rotherham, in which 14,000 children live below the breadline, no amount of ‘One Nation’ gloss is going to put a shine on the Labour party’s inadequacy for long.

6. …and nor will likes of Unite Against Fascism.

It’s a familiar sight. St George’s flags one side of the street, shouting about wanting ‘our country’ back, and the SWP’s most successful front group the other side, shouting ‘fascism’ as if it were a biological condition. Fair enough, there are definitely fascists in groups such as the EDL and Britain First, usually with certain leadership responsibilities, but among their ‘rank and file’ or more tactic supporters are a whole load of fairly ordinary people with ordinary problems. At any one time, the far-right has two targets in its sights. First is the amalgamation of social groupings it will seek to scapegoat (Asians, immigrants, Others). Second is the working class, from whom it will seek to draw its strength, support and ‘legitimacy’. Too often our essentialist denunciations of ‘the fash’ fail to deal with the fact that the rising popularity of far-right groups attests to their ability to better provide ‘solutions’ to social – class – problems in a time of crisis, just as every popular far-right movement has done in the past. If we want our anti-fascism to go beyond providing the obligatory opposition and fist waving at a growing number of ‘bigots’ (maybe education is a class issue too… just a thought…), perhaps we need to make an effort to gain a better historical and class understanding of towns such Rotherham.

Update: This article was edited on 15/09/2014 as the previous version incorrectly stated that the majority of victims were British-Pakistani, contrary to the findings of the Jay inquiry.

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Published 11th September 2014

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