Brick Lane residents confront the Nazis, 1978. Photo: Syd Shelton Brick Lane residents confront the Nazis, 1978. Photo: Syd Shelton

Kevin Ovenden looks at the history of race and class in London’s east end and the current battle to beat back the Tory attack on Tower Hamlets

Official anti-Semitism

1905 – The dying Tory-Unionist government pushes through the Aliens Act directed at stopping poor Jewish immigration from Tsarist Russia amid a torrent of officially orchestrated anti-Semitism.

The centre of the agitation is in the East End of London as local Tories and patricians deploy the race card. The London County Council – run by the “Progressives” (a Liberal and labour amalgam) – goes along with the Act of Parliament and the wider Tory anti-semitism.

Principled socialists stand with the Jewish East End. But the labour movement in its political expression is in effect divided on the question of race even as it is born. 

The Battle of Cable Street

1936, October – A Tory-led National Government, which is fraying as the labour movement recovers from the disaster of the early 1930s, unexpectedly makes a turn towards Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and declares that the police will force a path for his Blackshirts to storm through the East End.

The Labour Party, as a party, calls on people to stay away from the East End. The Communist Party, deeply embedded in the Jewish working class, together with the broad left of the ILP, Jewish socialist groups such as the Bund, the industrial trade unionists among the (often Irish) dockers and others, issues an appeal to stop Mosley. On 4 October hundreds of thousands do exactly that.

After the Second World War

1945 – A wave of reaction against the Tories, the Hungry Thirties, fascism and a world of war brings a massive Labour victory at the general election. The Labour Party in the East End, through a combination of anti-Communist Party sectarianism, narrow-mindedness and accommodation (or worse) to racism, behaves like an imperial bureaucrat lording over working class Jewish voters.

The voters elect Communist fighter Phil Piratin against the established party machines.

1970s – Bangladeshis increasingly become the biggest ethnic minority in the East End. They are, like virtually every immigrant group, solidly and loyally pro-Labour.

Labour in east London – Tower Hamlets and Newham – does not reward the loyalty. The first Black and Asian councillors (Labour) are elected in other parts of London, but not in the East End – where the local population and anti-fascists mobilised by the Anti Nazi League break the advance of the fascist National Front in two decisive moments that reverberate nationally in 1977 and 1978.

1980s – The first Bangladeshi councillors are elected with the backing of the left of the labour movement. The right of the Labour Party defects, scabs and hands the East End to a bunch of racists standing under the banner of the Liberal Party.

New Labour era

1990s – Tower Hamlets is at the centre of the renewed attempts by British fascism, fed by the scapegoating of the Tory central government, to gain a foothold. The British National Party wins a councillor in September 1993. A tremendous campaign – including a demonstration of 40,000 people in March 1994 – kicks him out the following May.

Labour returns to the Town Hall. Bangladeshi faces are there – but to get on you have to be “house-trained” as Kumar Murshid, one of the brightest, best and most principled of the councillors puts it.

A tight-knit group of politically motivated (right wing and largely white) men run the area like an outpost of empire: as if they were the East India Company fostering communal division as they rob an entire sub-continent blind.

Despite promises and hopes, there is to be no Bangladeshi MP. And certainly no MP of the left with values shared by the core working class – disproportionately Muslim – loyal Labour voters.

2000s – George Galloway and Respect, following in the footsteps of Phil Piratin and the Communist Party in 1945, overturn the old corruption, beat the clapped out, warmongering parties and win Bethnal Green and Bow at the 2005 general election. Five years later, George makes way – as promised – for a Bangladeshi Respect candidate.

Labour is forced to select a Bangladeshi candidate. But Rushanara Ali is thoroughly part of the machine, as Kumar had warned us years ago, and not of the left. She wins in 2010.

Lutfur Rahman

The Tories again turn to the vicious politics of class war and racial division. Labour – like the Bourbon royal family – learns nothing and forgets none of its sordid habits. They de-select an independent-minded, principled candidate for directly elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman. He stands and wins on an independent ticket in 2010. He wins again this year.

Local Labour potentates collaborate with the racist media and Tories to try to undermine the progressive council. Some national Labour figures go along with it. (In the small world of the radical left there are those who in the false name of “class politics” turn a blind eye to an attack on a Muslim political leader because he is in eyes “a communalist”.)

The progressive left – from the trade unionists of the Unite union through socialists to the politically engaged Muslim organisations which have been central to the anti-imperialist and anti-racist movements – rallies in support.

The labour movement faces a question that can no more be dodged than the Aliens act, a barrier that can no more be straddled than barricades of Cable Street in 1936: which side are you on?

Race, class and a struggle for us all

What these points inscribe is a political field which is way beyond the intense history and reality of east London. It is the field of struggle formed by the twin axes of race and class.

And it traces out a vivid political lesson. There will be no rising of the working people without the elevation of its most dispossessed.

Conversely, when sections of the working masses who face also additional discrimination and oppression stand up and fight for political representation the result is not “communalism”, as the Raj-style right wing bureaucrats of the labour movement claim (and some on the left who really should know better).

The result is a more general rising of the working class movement: more militant, more global in ambition and in composition, more of a threat to the other side – which is why the other side attacks it so ferociously.

That is why all hands should now turn in defence of the East End of London.

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.