Racism renewed

Anindya Bhattacharyya traces the roots of the current anti-migrant racism back to the contradiction at the heart of New Labour’s immigration policy. Here he argues that changed circumstances necessitate a radical popular movement against racism.

Everyone Who Is Here Is From Here, a one-day organising forum against racism and for migrant justice is taking place this Saturday (5 November) in London 

Photo: Steve Eason

Photo: Steve Eason

Racism and anti-racism are back at the forefront of political struggle in Britain. We have seen examples of both in recent months; seen a spike of racist attacks and a hardening of racist attitudes in the wake of the EU referendum, but also campaigning against the government’s racist Prevent legislation, direct action by Black Lives Matter UK, and a series of solidarity demonstrations against detention centres, UK Border Authority raids, and other state crackdowns on those it deems “illegal”.

These feats of resistance should not, of course, blind us to the problems facing the anti-racist left. In particular we need to think through how and why a pervasive fear, suspicion and hatred of immigrants has taken hold across communities in Britain, including that continue to be at the sharp end of racist oppression. The EU referendum may have brought this anti-immigrant sentiment to the surface, but the attitudes themselves have been building for a generation, at least. Ever since the 1990s politicians have been casting migrants as a problem; really, using them as a scapegoat for the failures of neoliberal capitalism.

At first the focus of this scaremongering was refugees, or “bogus asylum seekers”, as they were branded by the right wing press. New Labour’s first home secretary, David Blunkett, launched a series of punitive measures against refugees, including making them use vouchers for necessities from 2000 onwards, despite scathing criticism from charities, lawyers and civil society groups.

Today, similar schemes – “prepaid debit cards” – are being trialled for benefits claimants more generally: an object lesson in how racist measures deployed first against minorities come to be deployed against everyone.

Liberal attitudes

New Labour had a relatively liberal attitude to migration from within the EU. Workers from Poland and seven other Eastern European states – the so-called ‘A8’ countries that joined the EU in 2004 – were allowed to come to Britain to live and work. France and Germany, in contrast, introduced restrictions on migration from A8 countries, despite the EU’s rhetorical commitment to free movement within its borders as a “fundamental principle”.

This decision by Tony Blair’s government was part of a more general shift. Annual net migration to Britain – the numbers arriving each year, minus the numbers leaving – started to rise in the late 1990s, having hovered around zero for the previous three decades, stabilising again at the current rate of approximately 250,000 a year.

The backlash from the right was swift: the Tory press pushed lurid tales of “Polish plumbers” undercutting the rates of their British equivalents, while the then-leader of the Conservatives Michael Howard went into the 2005 general election with the notorious slogan: “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration. Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”

While the government painted EU migrants as “good for the British economy”, the subtext supplied by the press and opposition was that they were “bad for British workers”. New Labour could do little or nothing to counter this characterisation: it came to actively encourage it.

Channelling a previous generation of fascists’ rhetoric, in 2007 then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared his commitment to “British jobs for British workers”; soon enough, union leaders were following Brown (Unite’s Derek Simpson, say, during oil refinery strikes).

Sections of the left took up the argument that the “white working class” was under attack from “metropolitan multiculturalism”. Working class solidarity was reinvented on racialised lines: as something that occurred exclusively between white British workers, as a “tradition” that had been undermined by the presence of migrants.

Neither the “Blue Labour” nor right-wing anti-migrant bigotry went uncontested. The hard left, for the most part, stuck to its commitment to internationalism and anti-racism, and to the understanding of solidarity as something that explicitly cut across ethnic lines. Some of the Labour right also opposed this anti-migrant trend, if only in their defence of neoliberal globalisation and free markets.

End to optimism

What happened to this kind of liberal ruling class argument in favour of immigration? Why did Ed Miliband’s Labour end up “apologising” for a rise of net migration, and – farcically – producing mugs emblazoned with “Controls on immigration” during the election? Why did liberals and the soft-left encourage, or at least allow to fester, anti-migrant sentiment, such that it ended up playing a crucial role in delivering a Brexit verdict in the EU referendum – a verdict that the British ruling class absolutely did not want or expect?

We find answers at both the economic and ideological levels. In terms of the former, Brown’s entry to Number 10 coincided with the global financial meltdown of 2007-8, which in turn ushered in a massive recession, to which the ruling classes’ response was “austerity”, that is, massive cuts to services.

This brought an end to the broad economic optimism that accompanied Blair’s premiership, despite the unpopularity of his policies of privatisation and war. The mid-1990s notion that “things can only get better” has today been replaced with “things can only get worse”. And the middle class, in particular, is no longer enthused by the centrist politics that once attracted them to Blair. Instead they are fearful and resentful: fearful of plummeting down the social hierarchy as economic polarisation increases, and resentful of anyone that can plausibly play the role of a scapegoat: benefit claimants, migrants, and Muslims.

But while economic conditions set the scene for anti-migrant racism, it is ideology that writes the script. When the crash came in 2007, New Labour went with the tide of anti-immigrant bigotry coming from the right. How could it resist? It had largely failed to deliver any significant improvement of working class living conditions, as masked with ‘Cool Britannia’ chintz and increasingly authoritarian policies against migrants and, after 2001, Muslims.

It was New Labour that oversaw the demonisation and criminalisation of Muslim communities in the wake of the “war on terror”. It was New Labour that responded to the initial rise in net migration in the late 1990s by “getting tough” on asylum seekers. And it was New Labour that launched the attack on multiculturalism – accusing anti-racists of promoting separation, fragmentation and conflict, while hawking “British values” as the glue that would put our broken society back together again. There is a direct line connecting the supposedly “progressive patriotism” of the absurdist citizenship ceremonies of New Labour, and the nakedly vicious nationalism and racism being used by today’s Tories to justify their lethally hostile attitude towards refugees coming to Europe from or through the Middle East and North Africa.

Chasing the right

The ruling class in Britain has been hoisted on its own petard over immigration, populism and racism. Having argued for years that there was nothing racist in the demand for “tough controls” on immigration, they were powerless when those braying the loudest for “tough controls” turned out to be unreconstructed racists. Having framed refugees and Muslim communities as an “enemy within”, they could do nothing when right wing populists turned their ire against the “economically useful” migrant workers that had come to Britain from southern and Eastern Europe. Having partially rehabilitated “British values” from the disrepute it was once rightly held in, they could scarcely be surprised when the forces of Very Uncool Britannia presented a nastier, stupider, more exclusionary and more effective version of their own nationalist propaganda.

We can see a similar political pattern in almost every Western democracy; across Europe, and in America too, established centrist parties have found the ground collapsing beneath their feet. They either plummet into the depths (see the Liberal Democrats or the once hegemonic Labour right) or lurch right (see the Tories under Cameron and now May). And populist “disrupters” of the business-as-usual politics start to emerge, most with fairly blatantly racist rhetoric and policies, as usually blended with variously specious anti-elitism (Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Wilders, etc.)

Where does this leave us, the anti-capitalist and anti-racist socialist left? What can we do to resist and reverse the spiral of anti-migrant bigotry that the dominant form of politics enables, encourages and authorises? The failures of liberal anti-racism hold lessons for us; what do they tell us about the present’s possibilities?

Race, class and immigration

Tentatively, I draw three conclusions. First, we need to turn our backs firmly on ruling class approaches to immigration that treat it as an issue to be “managed”. The notion that immigration can or should be controlled – “fairly but firmly” – is very much part of the problem.

We have to argue from principle: against all immigration controls, all detention centres, all borders and all border cops. That means more than simply stating these principles as slogans: we need to make them concrete during each struggle we become involved with. Part of this is arguing against the distinctions and divisions that official immigration discourse is based on: refugee versus economic migrant, EU versus non-EU, skilled versus unskilled, established communities versus new immigrants. Instead we have to affirm, as the French leftist philosopher Alain Badiou puts it, that “everyone who is here is from here”, that there is no political sense for our side in classifying the people on the basis of when, how or why they arrived where they now are.

The second conclusion concerns what we need to reinstate: anti-racist insights from revolutionary socialist traditions that have become lost or muddled after four decades of neoliberalism. We need to insist that racism and anti-immigration politics are inextricable. Today’s common sense – that “there’s nothing racist about opposing immigration” – must be challenged everywhere, always. This means arguing against the current, without collapsing into moralism or, just as dangerous, evasion.

We also need to insist on the link between race and class. We have to infuse every working class struggle with an anti-racist understanding, and every anti-racist struggle with a class-based understanding.

Third and finally, we urgently need a radical popular movement that can broadcast opposition to status quo assumptions over immigration and racism. That movement has to stick firmly to its principles, no matter how “utopian” they may seem. But it also has to address itself to the mass of people, black and white, rather than appealing to enlightened technocrats or engaging only the few who already consider themselves activists. Such broad, radical grassroots movements have been built in the past: the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism are notable examples from the 1970s. We have to work out how we can pull off the same trick in today’s very different circumstances. That means learning from the past, but also learning from the present.


This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of the rs21 magazine

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