bagel shop A bagel shop in London's East End, May 2007. Photo: Flickr/ Drew Leavy

While mainstream ideology repackages its old myths and lies, Kevin Ovenden argues for a radical re-assertion of class-based anti-racism 

When people express “concerns” about immigration, the actual issue is never immigration.

It is either:

1) A displacement of concerns arising from real issues of economic hardship, lack of public services, jobs, houses and so on, or

2) A code – a choice of apparently more acceptable language – for the acceptance to some degree of real racist ideology about people.

The test for the second used to be obvious. People would say things about Black and Asian newcomers to Britain (or Irish people, when the war was raging in the north and anti-Irish racism more widespread) which they would not repeat about, say, white Americans or the young white Australians who would have their year hanging out in Europe doing bar jobs in places like London.

Of course, the false explanation in 1) can, and historically has been, the basis for the formation of actual racist ideology in 2).

But it is not a spontaneous and direct process. It requires the permeation of racialised, false explanations, of racist arguments and stereotyping, and of direct racist agitation and political propaganda.

It is also fuelled by the segmentation of newcomers into the workforce and into residential areas becoming artificially fixed and demarcated. Employers historically did that in Britain. They pioneered the mechanism of segregation with Irish labour in the 19th century.

After the Second World War the foundries and mills that large numbers of Pakistani workers entered in the north of England segregated their workforces – with Asian men on the night shift, white men and women on the day and back shifts.

It is not just old, private sector employers who did that. Look at the hierarchy of employment in any large hospital, council or public employer. It remains the case that the further down the pyramid you go, the darker the average skin colour and the less secure the residential status of the employee. That is despite the fact that there are many overseas – EU and non-EU – doctors, for example, in the NHS. 

The biggest agency for doing this, however, has been the state across society as whole, and not just as a large employer. It is from the state that the marks of distinction between people of different origins have been imprinted.

That has been through a host of mechanisms – from the differential racial impact of immigration controls (which is why immigration controls really are racist, not just anti-newcomers of all kinds on a kind of “equal opportunity keep them out” basis), to housing policy and access to the same social goods as more settled people, to – hugely – the police and criminal justice system.

To the last factor we can now add the security state apparatus which has grown enormously in the course of the war on terror. This is one reason, incidentally, why the decision taken by the National Union of Teachers in Britain to call for the scrapping of the Islamophobic and authoritarian Prevent policy (a position now endorsed by Labour’s Andy Burnham) was such an important anti-racist step in general.

The fascist National Front in 1970s Britain had at the centre of its slogans – and as the ostensible purpose of its marches such as the one that was spectacularly smashed to pieces by anti-fascists in Lewisham – the myth of Black (African-Caribbean) male criminality, violent, and sexually violent in particular.

That certainly could draw on the creation as a concomitant of the slave trade, and then colonialism in Africa, the racist stereotype of violent “over-sexualised” Black men.

But it was far more than a hangover from the 18th and 19th centuries. The British police themselves created the apparent facts to which those older racist lies could become attached, and thus be given a renewed lease of life.

The police came up with a new category of crime – mugging. The way they policed and reported street crime was the central factor in creating the myth that white people – pensioners especially – were being robbed by “Black muggers” (mugger equalled Black in 1970s policing and the media reporting of policing).

Similarly today, police reports and the media embellishment of them are at the centre of the myths about Romanian criminality, which are often conflated with the false claims of Roma, traveller and “gypsy” criminality. We may add “Albanians”, through ubiquitous references to “Albanian drug gangs” and mafia. That is what really makes Gordon Brown’s intervention today talking about “illegal Albanians” so reactionary.

Only a few years ago there were two near simultaneous stories – one in Ireland, one in Greece – which went international. Both claimed that fair-skinned, light-haired children of Roma/”gypsies” must have been abducted because “everyone knows that such people are dark”.

It suddenly gave fresh life to an old myth about “gypsies stealing children” – a myth which has stretched over centuries from Ireland to the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

It is not just an analytical point to understand how racism is reproduced, and new racisms forged, in this matrix of migration, labour force segmentation, working class exploitation in general and the actions and ideologies of the state, at home and abroad.

It has practical and strategic consequences for anti-racists.

It is vital to stand against the false anti-immigration explanations. But that is not enough when the real issue is never, actually, immigration, but is instead the effects of the class division on the one hand, and racism – both as material disadvantage and as racist ideology and prejudice, institutionalised in the state – on the other.

Two, intersecting things are also required. First – movements which answer the real social suffering for which talk of immigration is a displacement.

Second – an actual anti-racist force in society. It has to be one which can both dispel racist myths and confront effectively the racist political forces (above all, from the state and its associated political parties and politicians). 

The systematic anti-racist political effort has to be undertaken in a popular way, dealing with the actual arguments – not timeless verities – and organically at the base of society, in working class life.

That is not easy. But, while it is true that we would all like them to be stronger, it is untrue that no efforts have been mounted. We have had and continue to have organised movements against austerity and against racism – alongside myriad more local efforts, particular strikes and other struggles or campaigns. 

Multiculturalism shorn of anti-racism

The damage done in the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years to the capacity of the labour movement to launch those necessary efforts, however, was huge.

Under them, there was immigration. There was also a surge in deportations of asylum-seekers and other non-Europeans. But there was no anti-racist defence of migration by the Labour governments. Instead, migration was linked to the idea of an increasingly business-friendly and deregulated labour market in Britain and in Europe.

The argument “for immigration” was what was good for big business and the City of London. That is not the basis for convincing working class people, who are the victims of the bankers and big business, of a pro-immigration position. 

Worse, it went hand in hand with new forms of racial distinction – introduced from above, and from the government especially. Most obvious, and most powerful, was Islamophobia, the necessary ideology of the war on terror.

It was not just that. Blair and then Brown spoke of “British values”. In doing so, they took the popular understanding of multiculturalism – as in getting along with people of all sorts of “cultures” – robbed it of any anti-racist content, and repackaged it as a new, racialised hierarchy.

The argument went that we are “tolerant” of other people’s cultures. They are entitled to express them – within limits, which meant largely at home and in the private sphere. But we insist that all people coming to Britain adopt a common body of “British values”. A national test was set to enforce this fiction. 

But the “British values” were things like democracy, respect for the other, fairness and so on. They were values or political virtues which are far from uniquely British (they exist around the world). Also, British history is far from universally characterised by them. There is the British Empire, which both Blair, Brown and those who still look to them have tried to rehabilitate.

So universal, good human values became defined as British. And things which are peculiarly British – such as apparently loving an hereditary head of state and harking back to Empire – became redefined as marks of universal goodness and civilisation.

What was then left over were other people’s “cultural values” which were, by definition, not good things like the British ones, both the universal ones that had been nationalised as British and the features of British imperial history that had been universalised as moral goods.

In this way, we could have under those years greater immigration into Britain, but alongside the reproduction of the idea that newcomers, and Muslims of any sort, were inferior – different in a bad way.

The official image – supported by most of the middle class, liberal intelligentsia – was of a highly limited cosmopolitanism. In it, we were all supposed to be enjoying the financial benefits of getting our house done up by cheap Polish plumbers or having a cheap Baltic au pair. Most people did not “enjoy that benefit”.

And while we were all enjoying the smorgasbord of varied international cuisine (more working class people did have access to that, and it thus remains a powerful image of what is good about multiculturalism) the newly refurbished hierarchy of “cultural values” restated that there was a steep curve upwards.

At the bottom was eating with your hands (Bangladeshis eating naan and saag), then with chopsticks, up to the pinnacle of a knife and fork: from primitive to civilised.

There was one great principle, upon which the labour movement was founded and is defined, that offered an alternative to this kind of hierarchical, thin, cosmopolitan veneer upon the ugly subordination of people to the market and big business. It was class.

The basic sense of “them and us” has historically been a powerful counterweight to racism and scapegoating ideologies of all kinds. At least, a potential counterweight. Realising it has meant two things.

First, real struggles by working class people in which that community of interest has been forged. Second, a deliberately internationalist conception of what we mean by “the working class”. It has embraced not only recent arrivals into the domestic labour force, but has argued for a common class interest and identity across the globe.

Crucially, it has meant overcoming any narrow conception of “us” and any sectional organisation of working people which is either hostile to or actually excludes minority or migrant workers. How that has been done, and the role of newly arrived workers at the cutting edge of periods of working class militancy and advance, is beyond the scope of this piece.

The issue of the last 20 years is that the whole New Labour drive was predicated upon the further abandonment of class as the central defining feature of the Labour Party and the key axis around which society and politics is organised. It was more than just a response to the changes under the force of chaotic and destructive economic reorganisation of earlier working class communities.

The very idea of a politics based on class, and of a community of interests of the working class – old and new, was discarded. Indeed, it was extirpated, with a huge political and ideological effort put in to coming up with an alternative grounding of what Labour was. No longer a party of working people, but of Middle England, or whatever the adman’s slogan of the day was.

With class out the window, but with real class divisions widening, a new sense of “communitarian identity”, as the fashionable theory put it, had to be found. The imagined community was – Britishness.

That Britishness, like everything else under the Blair and Brown governments, was meant to be new. It was meant to be “non-racial”, non-chauvinist and cosmopolitan.

The cumulative impact of struggles against racism – as well as other forms of oppression, such as homophobia (only latterly transphobia) – did lead to considerable social changes. There was an increasing “lived multicultural” reality. That was attested to by all the census data, despite attempts by various people to claim we were “sleepwalking” into a segregated Britain. But the “New Britishness” was only ever a pale, and distorted reflection of that.

And the New Britishness very soon came to assume fully the reactionary features of the Old Britishness. That was for reasons to do with the fundamental nature of the British state, of which Britishness is an ideological articulation, not the other way around.

The wars came. That meant Islamophobia. It also meant the renewed identification of Britain as part of the civilised West, of Britishness and British values as a variant of, or perhaps the apogee of, Western or European values (and by extension, American). For all the talk of newness, Britishness re-assumed the characteristics it had at the time of the British Empire, as an expression of European superiority against The Other. The Other was brown or black. The superior, European Britishness was white.

The second reversion to type was more associated with Brown than Blair, and more with the economic than the military face of British capitalism and imperialism. Brown drove the economic strategy of Britain as a part of the European single market, but seeking to forge a world financial centre based on the City of London. The imbalance in the economy which had long led to a disastrous rate of investment in manufacturing in Britain became worse.

It was already glaring on the eve of the great financial collapse of 2008. It was in 2007 that Brown, then prime minister, made his infamous “British Jobs for British Workers” speech. Despite The City booming whole communities were at best standing still, at worst going backwards as good paying jobs gave way to low-paid and low skilled employment, Brown did nothing seriously to reverse the growing disparity.

Instead of creating good jobs, he introduced a poisonous slogan into society and a part of the labour movement. What it did was give nothing short of prime ministerial sanction to the false idea that migrant workers were taking British jobs.

There was a genuine issue of pro-business European law – the so called Posted Workers Directive –  being a direct mechanism for employers to “post workers” from abroad and exempt them from many domestic employment standards and rights.

A part of EU law, which is today being lionised by the British TUC, was explicitly crafted to undermine trade unions in this way. Worse, it created the conditions for employers, with legal impunity, to operate a two-tier workforce. The result of that was real antagonisms between settled and posted workers.

That did not have to lead to chauvinist calls to “kick the migrants out”. But avoiding that meant either the government saying it would break the EU law, or the trade unions being able to organise and impose the higher standards and pay.

Instead, Brown stuck solidly with the big business logic. And right wing trade union leaders who sought partnership not confrontation with big business followed him down the national chauvinist route. They collaborated with a highly reactionary press in targeting not the “bad employer” but workers from other EU countries.

Forces of the left – particularly within the Unite union – were able to halt the slide towards anti-migrant agitation and chauvinism becoming a major feature of the trade union movement. But the Labour government continued down the pro-business route. Then came the introduction of austerity, which deepened the bitterness and antagonisms in society.

Anti-racism and the radical left

The last six years of first Coalition and now outright Tory government have meant savage austerity. They have also brought deepening racism of various forms.

Cameron’s response to the riots in 2011 was to reheat racist myths about young Black criminality which had largely been declining (or at least eclipsed by the rampant Islamophobia) over the previous 15 years. A number of us had warned that the advance of anti-Muslim racism at the beginning of this century would legitimise other racist, pseudo-explanations blaming other ethnic and racial groups for various social ills.

That is not the same as saying that there is a huge surge in popular racism or that racism is being generated from the mass of people. There is both the acceptance of racist ideas – most obviously against Muslims. And the rejection; London has a Muslim mayor.

But the Tory campaign in London showed that what we are seeing is not just “a lot of racism”. We are seeing the highly political use of racism, by governments and politicians across Europe – of the mainstream, and not only by the far right.

David Cameron sought to organise the Tory vote in London on the basis of anti-Muslim racism. The far right and fascists across Europe also seek to organise their political support on the basis of various forms of racism, while posing falsely as outsider, anti-establishment forces. Fascism does something else. It organises not only its electoral support through racism, it organises the actual murder gangs which racist politics gives rise to, ultimately

That is what is specific about fascism. And that’s why it is necessary to have a specific political effort to stop fascism from growing and organising.

The main problem and driving force of racism in Britain at the moment, however, is not fascism. Neither is it uniquely coming from the anti-immigration propaganda of the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. That is foul.

But it was David Cameron who called the referendum on the back of a deal with other EU leaders whose central thrust was falsely claiming that other EU nationals are milking the British welfare system. That, and a “guarantee” that the City of London would continue to be the loosely regulated centre of the European financial markets.

That deal creates a further, legal segmentation of the labour force in Britain with another category, intra-EU migrant workers, stripped of some rights (claiming benefits for four years). That is a recipe for more super-exploitation of groups of workers, upon which “concern about immigration” can lead not only to out and out racist ideas, but to racist actions against foreign workers. It is also exactly what a race to the bottom looks like.

Cameron has done this. The official Labour campaign – as evidenced by the deployment of Gordon Brown today – is conjoined with Cameron. Not one Labour figure is saying that Labour will rescind the anti-migrant deal that Cameron negotiated.

There is no way that either an anti-racist or pro-migration argument can be advanced seriously inside the working class on that basis.

The issues go way beyond the referendum, upon which the radical left is divided.

Immigration remains both a cypher for real issues of economic hardship and inequality and also a code for racism.

That is going to be met only through the development of popular and militant movements both against austerity and against racism, in all its forms.

Building those requires a radical left which is wholly independent from the establishment politics, which is being seen in the referendum campaign to be so out of touch with vast numbers of people.

It means also seeking to organise those movements and those ideas within the working class, at work, in communities, in unions and elsewhere. That cannot happen if the arguments are connected with “what is good for business” or “what is good for Britain”.

We need a complete break in the labour movement with the disastrous politics of Blair and Brown. Nowhere more so than in reasserting militant, class-based anti-racism – where it is the common struggle of migrant and non-migrant workers which redefines how people think about “immigration”.

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.

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