No, Labour Hasn’t Always Been an Anti-Racist Party

by Aaron Bastani

3 March 2019


British politics is afflicted by a strange nostalgia. You hear it in laments for a country before Brexit, where the 2012 Olympics are upheld as a symbol of what the country was and still might be. Less mentioned is how Britain was two years into a programme of austerity that summer, and how use of food banks was rising dramatically while real wages fell. Tuition fees had been tripled and measures against those on disability benefits were so punitive that at the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games George Osborne was roundly jeered.

Because the ongoing transformation of the Labour party is such a seismic event in British politics, that same nostalgia applies there too. The current leadership are presented as a deviation from Labour historically, an embarrassment to a ‘once great party’.

Of course, the forebears of the people making this argument didn’t admire Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan, at least not when they were set to win. Ahead of Labour’s landslide victory in 1945, Winston Churchill claimed institutions like an NHS would require “some form of Gestapo”. Earlier Tory propaganda had painted a potential Labour government as a giant serpent and an army of inspectors. Even Tony Blair, later declared by Margaret Thatcher to be her crowning achievement, was depicted as a demon in 1997.

Such false nostalgia resides within the Labour party too. This is most obvious when some suggest it has always been an anti-racist party, but that under Jeremy Corbyn this has changed, particularly in relation to antisemitism.

For clarity, the idea Labour has ever been an anti-racist party is absurd. That it helped elect the first black and brown MPs and has passed positive laws around race relations are both true and positive. Yet throughout its history, many within it have felt unease and distrust around making a positive case for anti-racism. Worse still, when politically expedient they have pursued racist rhetoric and policies.

It was Labour that opened Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre in 2001. In 2006 Legal Action for Women found that 70% of the women detained there were survivors of rape. Nearly half of detainees had been there for over three months. Similarly, more than half claimed to have had no legal representation while many reported sexual and racial intimidation by guards. Such failures remained unacknowledged and unaddressed. In 2014 Rashida Manjoo, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, was not allowed access to the centre by the Home Office. Yarl’s Wood is a stain on the national conscience. It is also symbolic of broader changes under New Labour, now conveniently forgotten.

Similarly, it was Labour that introduced ‘Prevent’ in 2003 – described by one organisation as a counter-terrorism strategy “built on a foundation of Islamophobia and racism”. The documented incidents of children being surveilled and harassed under the auspices of the program are legion: an eight-year-old who was questioned after teachers mistook his T-shirt for Islamic State propaganda; a 17-year-old who was referred because he wore a ‘Free Palestine’ badge to school; a doctoral student researching counter-terrorism questioned after reading a textbook titled ‘Terrorism Studies’.

Indeed, racism went to the very heart of the New Labour project. As Blair’s polling guru Phillip Gould would write in Unfinished Revolution: “A call for fairness has become a cry of grievance, resentment and anger, expressing the view that my life is bad because others are unfairly benefitting. Clearly this is fertile ground not just for the right but for the far right.” Gould’s startling conclusion to such findings, seemingly positive, was that Labour had made concessions to such a politics: “…a start was made (by New Labour) in dealing with immigration.”

Reading this it is hard not to conclude that such concessions by New Labour made Brexit go from impossible to inevitable. They thought they were responding to public opinion. Just as often, however, they shaped it.

The statistics bare that out. In 1997 only 3% of the electorate put asylum among their top three political concerns. Even until 2000 that figure never went above 10%. By 2002, however, Gould would be writing policy notes for Blair with titles such as: “Concern about asylum seekers has extended into immigration, crime, and civic disintegration. Britain is becoming a soft touch.”

Such conclusions suited the instincts of leading Labour politicians who often sought to magnify the rhetoric of the BNP. One example was when David Blunkett, the then home secretary, accused asylum seekers’ children of “swamping” British schools. A year later, speaking on Newsnight, Blair himself announced his abandonment of policies under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, as well as the ambition to immediately halve refugee numbers by “making it extremely difficult for people fleeing from persecution to reach the shores of the UK”.

It wasn’t just refugees but Roma migrant workers too. In 2001 then foreign secretary Jack Straw oversaw the introduction of discriminatory visa policies aimed at Roma of Slovakian and Czech heritage. Week by week, antipathy towards the ‘other’ spread outwards: asylum seekers, Muslims, Roma, those coming from new EU member states.

This descent found a strong expression in the 2004 Hodge Hill by-election. There Labour just held on despite the Liberal Democrats increasing their share of the vote by 26%. That same night, however, they lost Leicester South. If there was a moment when electoral dissatisfaction with New Labour arrived, it was that evening in the Midlands.

In Hodge Hill Labour ran a campaign which pandered to racists. The party’s candidate Liam Byrne told voters in one leaflet: “I know that people here are worried about fraudulent asylum claims and illegal immigration. Yet the Lib Dems ignore what people say. They ignore what local people really want. The Lib Dems want to keep giving welfare benefits to failed asylum seekers. They voted for this in parliament on 1 March 2004. They want your money, and mine, to go to failed asylum seekers.”

What wasn’t mentioned was that the policy in question was a plan to take asylum seekers children away from them and put them into care – something which Michael Howard, then Tory leader, described as “despicable”. Labour’s campaign manager in Hodge Hill? Tom Watson.

Such rhetoric was very much the signature of the late Blair years rather than the exception. Devoid of core ideological principles, the project increasingly followed what it viewed as public opinion, undermining any basis to vote for it as a progressive force. This was a major factor in the BNP winning almost a million votes in the 2009 European elections. Ukip, meanwhile, went from nowhere in 1997 to the most successful British party in the 2014 European elections.

Labour’s racist nadir, however, would come in the 2010 general election as Phil Woolas ran a campaign even worse than that of Zac Goldsmith for London Mayor six years later. The kind of rhetoric Woolas deployed was disgusting: “Extremists are trying to hijack this election. They want you to vote Lib Dem to punish Phil for being strong on immigration. The Lib Dems plan to give hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants the right to stay. It is up to you? Do you want the extremists to win?”

In addition to attacking asylum seekers, Muslims were another group team Woolas was eager to smear – with the two often easily interchangeable. Team Woolas subsequently adopted a “twin-track approach” where the Liberal Democrat candidate was portrayed as a friend of radical Islam while Woolas was upheld as the voice of decency. In private correspondence discussing the campaign’s most controversial leaflet, Joseph Fitzpatrick, a former councillor and the local election agent, wrote: “We need to go strong on the militant Moslem angle,” suggesting the headline: “Militant Moslems target Woolas.” This would send a message, Fitzpatrick claimed, that Muslim extremists wanted to “take down” the Labour candidate. Fitzpatrick added the need to explain “to the white community how the Asians will take him out […] If we don’t get the white vote angry he’s gone.”

The justification for such rhetoric was bizarre, the claim being that the Lib Dem candidate backed a ban on arms sales to Israel but not to the Palestinian territories. In subsequent court proceedings, however, even this was demonstrated to be false – they wished to prohibit sales to both sides.

And the punishment meted out by Ed Miliband after such a deplorable campaign? Giving the post of Home Office minister to the freshly re-elected Woolas. Not long after, however, two high court judges ruled he had acted unlawfully and ordered a fresh election in the constituency. A racist politician, who had no place in Labour, got what he deserved. But justice was dispensed by the high court, not the party.

As some of the reaction surrounding the case of Shamima Begum demonstrates, barbarism is never far away. A woman, groomed at 15 by a paedophile, and who has lost two children by 19, has had her image placed in a shooting range in response to popular demand. And which politician spoke out on the issue? Corbyn.

As Britain falls deeper into crisis, we have a choice: a politics of hope and tolerance, or one of hatred and division. This is not to imply Corbyn has acted faultlessly on antisemitism – he has not. Labour must now adopt and enforce stringent rules on racism within the party in order to pursue it with all the more venom and integrity beyond it.

Yet the idea that the party’s old establishment is somehow anti-racist, particularly compared to those who have opposed Nazis and the BNP on the streets, is beyond contempt. Labour must overhaul its disciplinary procedures and engineer a more healthy conversation around antisemitism. While it does so, it should singularly ignore anyone who paints the Blair era as something worth imitating when it comes to solidarity that transcends both colour and creed.

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