Ten years before the killing of George Floyd and four years before the killing of Eric Garner, the words “I can’t breathe” were also the last to leave the lips of Jimmy Mubenga. A married father of five who had lived in the UK for 17 years, Mubenga died while being restrained by private security contractors attempting to deport him to Angola. His family never saw justice.
A subsequent coroner’s report described “pervasive racism” within the guards’ employer, G4S. But above all, Mubenga’s death must be understood in the context of the 13 years of New Labour immigration policy that preceded it. Over that time, the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown developed a border regime whose cruelties and indignities were disproportionately felt by people of colour.
As Maya Goodfellow shows in her critically acclaimed book Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats, the racism of New Labour immigration policy was part and parcel of the racism of British immigration policy as a whole, going back decades, under Labour and Conservative governments alike. This speaks to a wider truth. Racism has persisted in Britain for so long, and to such a degree, because it is a problem of the mainstream, not the fringe.
Since white supremacy is a structural issue, we need to understand the place of the Labour party within that structure. Labour will be one of many obstacles facing the burgeoning anti-racist movement in the coming years – so it’s worth trying to make sense of what it is we are up against.
There are three senses in which Labour has been structurally enmeshed in British racism. First, its formative history as a party of government in an imperial state. Second, the socio-economic background of its leading figures and the dominant ideology within their milieu. Third, the demands and incentives of electoral politics in a structurally racist society. Looking at each of these in turn, we can see how they interact with and reinforce each other.
Racism in Britain is rooted in the history of its empire, a system of white supremacy imposed through violence. Labour took the helm of that system on a number of occasions, during the short-lived ministries of Ramsey MacDonald, and later under the leaderships of Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson. Brutal counterinsurgencies were waged from Malaya to Aden, as Labour governments exploited the resources of the Global South to lay the basis for Britain’s post-war social democracy.
Today’s international power structure is a product of that age of empire, including its racism and racialised hierarchies. In the 2000s, New Labour mobilised Islamophobia in support of exertions of Western military power in the Middle East, waged under the guise of a ‘war on terror’. Rather than recognise Al Qaeda style terrorism as a fringe backlash against Anglo-American imperialism, Labour preferred to stigmatise and police an entire racialised group as a threat to national security.
Labour’s leading figures are embedded in a wider governing elite, disproportionately white, which has long been the well-spring of imperial values and ideology. When Gordon Brown said of the empire that Britain “should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it”, he displayed a strikingly casual disregard for its millions of racialised victims. But this was no more than a mild version of a worldview that is commonplace within the political class of which the Labour establishment is an integral part.
A party elite forged in these socio-historical circumstances is well equipped to navigate the demands of British electoral politics. There are considerable career rewards to be gained from courting racist newspapers and swing voters, at the expense of a multi-ethnic working class concentrated in safe seats. An anti-racist Labour party would attempt to meet the challenges of the landscape while sticking to some basic moral red lines, but naturally this is not what has happened in practice.
In 1964, Labour lost Smethwick, a previously safe Midlands seat, to a Tory who had effectively endorsed the slogan: “If you want a n***** for your neighbour, vote Labour”. Wilson’s response was to impose what Goodfellow describes as “some of the country’s most poisonous immigration legislation to date”, which de facto targeted people of colour. Under both Labour and Conservative governments, the state carried out ‘virginity tests’ to vet South Asian women entering the country, a practice only stopped in 1979 after pressure from grassroots campaigners.
Returning to government in 1997, Labour picked up where it had left off, with immigration minister Mike O’Brien reassuring the Daily Mail that the UK would not be a “soft touch” for “gypsies” who were “seeking an easy life”. One draconian immigration act after another was passed, as Labour ministers boasted of their tough approach to “bogus asylum seekers”. Increasingly, Labour politicians whitewashed the sentiment behind the Smethwick election slogan as “legitimate concerns” which must be respected. In 2017, the MP Caroline Flint expressed sympathy for her white constituents who had experienced the “big change” of seeing the local non-white population increase from 0.5% to 5% over 20 years.
For many people of colour, the recent scandal over antisemitism in the Labour party has provoked mixed feelings. On the one hand, a lack of surprise at the presence of racists in the party, and a sense of familiarity at the dismissive response from more than a few even when blatant cases are highlighted. By the same token, we experience a profound sense of being gaslit when Labour centrists and their media outriders present themselves as principled anti-racists, coupled with disgust at how these real and painful issues have been exploited for factional ends.
Labour members of colour, especially black members, have left or considered leaving the party because they can see familiar patterns beginning to reassert themselves. Keir Starmer’s recent dismissive remarks towards Black Lives Matter, and enthusiastic praise for a palpably racist police force, should not be seen as a ‘gaff’. They were an authentic and detailed articulation of the dominant ideology in the party: empty gestures and lip service toward anti-racism, coupled with heartfelt pledges of allegiance to the structures and ideologies that perpetuate white supremacy.
Labour is not a monolith, and the impact of anti-racist struggle on the party is visible, not least in the race equality legislation that it has passed while in government. The party remains a vigorously contested space, as the last few years demonstrate, but the forces that bind the Labour establishment to the wider structures of racism in Britain are real and formidable. The new anti-racist uprising faces obstacles on many fronts. The Labour party, sadly but inescapably, will be one of them.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.