JS Titus on the Labour Party’s legacy of racism and its relationship to electoralism and imperialism.
Over the last five years, charges of antisemitism have been laid against Labour Party members and the former leader Jeremy Corbyn himself, with the recent storm around the release of the EHRC report on antisemitism reviving a discussion about racism in the Labour Party. After Corbyn’s suspension for stating the truth that the scale of antisemitism in Labour had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons”, he was suspended from the party. On his readmission, Labour leader Keir Starmer withdrew the Labour whip from his predecessor without giving any concrete reason for the move. There is little ambiguity in Starmer’s reasoning. The new leadership of the Labour Party are not interested in appeals to unity against the Tories (who they are barely opposing in any case). Rather, Starmer’s first task is to bring the Labour left to heel in order to rehabilitate the party and allow it to once again fulfil its role as the second party of British capitalism.
One of the loudest advocates of the suspension was Margaret Hodge, who reportedly threatened to resign as an MP if Corbyn were given back the whip. Hodge had previously accused Corbyn of being “a fucking anti-Semite and a racist” in July 2018. Hodge was just one of many former New Labour ministers to weigh in against Corbyn in recent years. In November 2019, David Blunkett spoke of his despair at antisemitism and thuggery in Labour, while Gordon Brown demanded Corbyn apologise before being allowed to sit as a Labour MP again. Of course, Corbyn had apologised many times for occurrences of antisemitism in Labour, and for structural failings in dealing with complaints too. A common thread running through much of the commentary around the matter was that Labour had previously been an anti-racist party and that Corbyn had sullied this reputation. Stephen Pollard, formerly editor of the Jewish Chronicle, claimed in July 2019 that Labour was now a racist party and members should leave, while Ian Dunt of Politics.co.uk hailed Starmer’s firing of Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Shadow Cabinet in June as a return to Labour’s anti-racist roots.
In fact, such claims are based on hopeless historical myopia. To understand the relationship between the Labour Party and racism it is important to understand the contradictory nature of this organisation. On the one hand, the Labour Party is the second party of British capitalism; it is of necessity an electoralist, nationalist, and imperialist formation. On the other hand, the Labour Party is a workers’ party of sorts; it seeks to mediate between capital and labour, is backed by the trade unions, and much of its membership (though by no means all of it) is committed to anti-racism and opposition to war. However, the electoralist nature of the Labour Party means that activists will stick with it despite disagreeing with its position on race and immigration while the party leadership makes empty gestures towards anti-racism at the same time as it prosecutes racist policies. This position as a capitalist workers’ party exposes it to contradictory pressures that have constantly plagued it throughout its history.
While the early leaders of the Labour Party, before its absorption into the British state proper, could describe themselves as internationalists, it did not take long before the Tory Party were able to set a racist, nationalist agenda which Labour felt the need to appease. As Paul Foot describes, the Tories’ use of alarmism over immigration in the 1924 election, led to Labour supporting immigration controls for the first time, and boasting that they had naturalised fewer foreigners than the Tories. Subsequent Labour and trade union leaderships would continue to take restrictionist attitudes towards immigration. In the 1950s and 60s, Labour’s opposition to immigration controls on commonwealth citizens was based on the argument that such controls would weaken the remnants of the British empire. As Barbara Castle put it, “I do not care whether or not fighting this Commonwealth Immigration Bill will lose me my seat, for I am sure that this Bill will lose this country the Commonwealth”. Tory Peter Griffith’s racist 1964 election campaign in Smethwick saw a 7.2 percent swing against Labour, convincing the party that it was vulnerable on the issue. By 1968, it had pulled up the drawbridges and restricted the immigration of Commonwealth citizens without a parent or grandparent from Britain — that is, of non-white people.
However, we do not need to go back to the 1960s for examples of the deep links between electoralism, imperialism and racism in the Labour Party. It seems that some have forgotten what the party was like in the New Labour years. There was never any doubt that Labour would win the general election of 1997. Labour had led every opinion poll since the 1992 Black Wednesday crash and John Major’s conservative government was riven with feuds and splits. Despite this, Tony Blair’s vision for New Labour was sharply authoritarian on many social issues in the interests of supposed electability. Along with systematic methods of demonising and disciplining the poor through the introduction of Anti-social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), scapegoating single mothers and council house inhabitants, and increasing the prison population, New Labour was particularly harsh in its approaches to immigration and racialisation. Immigration rose steadily under New Labour, as migrants were welcomed with the promise of work. But against this backdrop lurked the Blair government’s introduction of bills that brought about significant shifts in the model of immigration, particularly in focusing the ire of their policy from immigrants broadly defined to asylum seekers. In 1999, the Immigration and Asylum Act, bestowed upon the Home Secretary Jack Straw powers to search, arrest and detain asylum applicants, thereby creating a “new social category of asylum seeker”.
Labour’s 1998 white paper on immigration and asylum seekers stated that “[t]he Government is committed to protecting genuine refugees […] But there is no doubt that large numbers of economic migrants are abusing the system by claiming asylum”. This fuelled a hatred towards both the migrant and the asylum seeker, with the term “bogus asylum seeker” becoming an all-too-common aspect of social discourse. Furthermore, asylum seekers were placed on a voucher system as a replacement for cash benefits. These vouchers could only be used at specific retailers, which placed a restriction on where and what claimants could buy. For instance, not all stores stocked up on halal products and no change could be given, which meant the claimants paid more than others. As Nadine El-Enany writes, the result was “asylum applicants are made invisible by being removed and excluded from certain places, yet are also made hyper-visible through their forcible insertion into white-dominated spaces in which they represent diminutive minorities.”
David Blunkett was the Home Secretary who dismissed institutional racism as a mere “slogan” which “missed the point”. He claimed that the children of asylum seekers were “swamping” schools, ahead of a bill that would give the government the right to take asylum seekers’ children out of mainstream education systems to be taught in accommodation centres instead. Then a backbencher, Diane Abbott spoke against this and said that the “best place for asylum seeker children to be is in mainstream schools. It would be entirely wrong to segregate them”. According to Maya Goodfellow, Blunkett said in 2003 that there was “no obvious limit to immigration” while overseeing around 235 immigration raids in public spaces in London in the space of a little over a year.
New Labour’s racism had repercussions beyond the immediate policy outcomes. As Richard Seymour argues, a normalisation of racism was unsurprisingly accompanied by a rise in racial harassment and violence: “racial incidents…more than quadrupled in England and Wales from 13,151 in 1996–7 to 52,694 in 2003–4. Of the latter figure, more than 35,000 were characterised as ‘serious’ and included wounding, assault and harassment”. Standout incidents included the 2001 riots, which swept the northern towns of Oldham, Burnley and Bradford. The riots were provoked by racist gangs and the actions of the police, who instead of protecting the victims put on riot gear and arrested Asians. Asian youths retaliated by burning cars, throwing stones and petrol bombs. Arun Kundani writes that “[a] generation of Asians, discarded for their class, excluded for their race, stigmatised for their religion, ghettoised and forgotten, has found its voice — but is yet to be heard.” As Maya Goodfellow notes, not a single party leader visited Oldham after the violence broke out. In the wake of the riots, Blunkett proposed a British test for immigrants, attacked the tradition of arranged marriages and wrote an essay where he stated British Asians should speak English in their homes, arguing that it helps “overcome the schizophrenia which bedevils generational relationships”.
New Labour also vilified Roma Gypsies as law breakers. Jack Straw referred to them as ones to “cause mayhem in an area, to go burgling, thieving, breaking into vehicles, causing all kinds of other trouble including defecating in the doorways of firms and so on”. Towards the end of Tony Blair’s time in office, he blamed “black culture” for knife crime in London and said that the violence would not stop “by pretending it isn’t young black kids doing it”. His successor, Gordon Brown, told the TUC conference in 2007 that he wanted, “a British job on offer for every British worker.” He repeated the phrase again at the Labour Party conference, and followed it up with: “But let me be clear any newcomer to Britain who is caught selling drugs or using guns will be thrown out. No-one who sells drugs to our children or uses guns has the right to stay in our country.”
The most visible form of racism promulgated by the New Labour government was its pivot towards a virulent Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11. Islamophobia at home served as a legitimising factor in Britain’s involvement in the “war on terror” and in particular the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. This racism took a number of forms. One was the denigration of some Muslim practices, with Blair and Straw both expressing their discomfort at talking to women wearing a veil. Much more damaging was the racial profiling of Muslims, defended by the then minister for counter-terrorism Hazel Blears, as a “reality” that British Muslims had to live with, in particular the implementation of the Prevent strategy which targeted those seen as at risk of radicalisation — in practice, young British Muslims.
In 2007, London mayor Ken Livingstone commissioned a survey which found that 91% of articles in national newspapers about Muslims were negative. The report also showed that Muslims in Britain were portrayed as a threat to traditional British values and as Richard Seymour highlighted “tended to depict Muslims as being inherently at odds with a desirable norm”. Often, “Enlightenment” or “British” values of civil liberties, human rights and feminism were suggested to be in conflict with the Muslim way of life. Yet, a strategy like Prevent, undermines precisely those civil liberties by building data and policing people from school and all throughout their adult life.
New Labour’s anti-migrant positions and Islamophobia fuelled the growth of the fascist British National Party. Already in 2002, Labour advisor Phillip Gould had urged the party to adapt to anti-migrant concerns to stave off the threat of the BNP. In 2007, Margaret Hodge followed this advice and spoke of “the legitimate sense of entitlement felt by the indigenous family”, in questions of housing. The BNP sent her flowers to thank her for her comments. By 2009, Andy Burnham was recommending the government respond to concerns about immigration, saying they needed to “understand and connect with people as to why they voted BNP and never just dismiss why they’ve done that”. However, BNP voters were not simply motivated by “concerns” — Islamophobia and racism were major factors determining the BNP vote. As Anindya Bhattacharyya pointed out at the time, “Islamophobia is also rampant among BNP voters — 70 percent say that Muslims benefit from unfair privileges and 79 percent say Islam is a serious danger to Western civilisation even in its milder forms.” New Labour had opened a Pandora’s box of racism in its pursuit of electoral gain and imperialist legitimation, and both served to radicalise right wing voters and push its own policy further rightwards.
When considering the centrality of electoralism and imperialism to the Labourist project, the massive anger directed by the Labour establishment at Jeremy Corbyn after his election to the leadership is no mystery. From their perspective, Corbyn was a threat to both these factors. However, fundamentally, Corbyn himself was susceptible to these same pressures. He allowed his policy on migration and defence to be muddied, conceding much ground on freedom of movement, NATO and Trident under the pressure of both the Labour right and parts of the trade union bureaucracy. Of course, this was never enough to satisfy his enemies in the party, in part because he did attempt to tackle some of New Labour’s harsh record on racism.
Labour under Corbyn pledged to ensure schools taught pupils about British imperialism while Gordon Brown said of the empire in 2005 that Britain “should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it”. Four days after the Manchester Arena bombing and during an election campaign, Corbyn delivered a speech which diagnosed the causes of the attack, criticising Britain’s foreign policy and making a link between wars the British government has supported and the terror attacks. Such a perspective was inexcusable for the second party of British capitalism; thus, even after the 2017 election had proved the tangibility of Corbyn’s electoral success, his detractors would much rather lose an election than win with Corbyn at the helm.
A year after Labour’s electoral routing, Corbyn’s successor Starmer has already shown himself to be adept at making rhetorical noises in support of antiracism while remaining silent or worse on substantive matters of policy. In response to the eruption of the Black Lives Matter protest, Keir Starmer and Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner sent a message of support by “taking a knee”. However, within weeks, Starmer decided to downgrade the BLM movement to a “moment” live on air (which he later apologised for) while denigrating the slogan to “Defund the Police” as “nonsense”.
More recently, he failed to speak out against the forced removal of the “Jamaica 50” on a deportation flight, despite calls from Labour NEC members to do so. Starmer was simultaneously being called out by Tory MPs and newspapers demanding he support the deportation of “criminals” on the flight. Unsurprisingly, Starmer took the easy option of saying nothing — abstention has become a theme of his leadership already. A recent exclusive in the Tory magazine the Spectator, suggested that Labour will pivot in 2021 to a politics of pride in place and people, signalling an end to Labour’s supposed negativity and a renewed focus on violent crime. This is more than just burying Corbynism; it is a wholesale shift towards the kind of reactionary politics that sees electoral success in towns that turned to the Tories as dependent on adopting Tory policies. This is a turn we have seen again and again over Labour’s history.
Anti-racists will need to oppose these shifts not primarily through inter-party motion mongering but through building on the power and urgency of this summer’s BLM movements, which in a flash went lightyears beyond anything that Starmer’s Labour could bring itself to support. Mobilisations against police violence and deportations, as well as campaigning for migrant solidarity and racial justice will likely be the central aspect of anti-racism in Britain for the foreseeable future. Socialists will need to be at the heart of these movements while developing an analysis that goes beyond Labourism and seeks to win participants to a vision of a different politics and a different world.