Sir Keir Starmer at Davos, January 2023. Photo: World Economic Forum/Ciaran McCrickard Sir Keir Starmer at Davos, January 2023. Photo: World Economic Forum/Ciaran McCrickard

Lindsey German on the plight of low-level politics and the royal event

So much has been written about racism in the past week – much of it in relation to Diane Abbott’s letter in the Observer where she wrongly said that Jews, Irish people and Gypsies, Roma and Travellers did not suffer racism as black people do. The issue has been very well covered here and while I think her assertion is patently false both historically and in the present day, I also think it was wrong for Keir Starmer to suspend the Labour whip from Diane. In doing so he showed a complete disregard for her immediate apology, for her very long record in fighting racism, and for the racist and sexist abuse she has suffered including from those in her own party.

While Starmer’s mantra in recent days has been that there’s no hierarchy of racism – a statement with which I happen to agree – it’s not at all clear that he practises what he preaches here. Labour activists have long criticised the failure to respond to the Forde report into sexism and racism within the Labour party, which was published nearly a year ago. Diane Abbott was among those subject to abuse by Labour staff on leaked WhatsApp messages. The sclerotic approach to this, even commented on by the report’s author himself, stands in strong contrast to the immediate response to the letter last week. That response also increasingly focussed on antisemitism alone, rather than on the remarks about Irish or GRT communities (who suffer very bad treatment from local authorities, many of them Labour).   

Racism is a major feature of life under capitalism. It takes on many different forms and manifestations in particular countries. There are also historical periods where it manifests itself differently. That needs to be taken into account when analysing various forms of racism, but it should not minimise our opposition to it whatever the manifestation.

It is wrong to believe that there can be no racism against white people – levels of racism against the Irish were high as recently as the 1970s and 80s when they were often branded as terrorists (and wrongly imprisoned in major miscarriages of justice). Today the claim that Albanians flooding to Britain illegally in small boats is certainly racist, as has been the frequent treatment of Poles, Bulgarians and Romanians in recent years. Jewish people have the horrific experience of the Holocaust still within living memory, but that of course followed generations of persecution across Europe, of pogroms in Russia and Poland, and of forced migration as a result. Even in the post-war world, antisemitism resurfaced and the levels of ‘everyday’ racism and prejudice against Jews continued. The Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community face some of the worst racism and discrimination of any group in Britain today, with the highest number of racist attacks recorded of any minority group.

However there are two more factors which need considering: class has a major part to play in the impact of racism in different groups – so helps to explain for example the different educational outcomes of different ethnic Asian groups. And institutional racism disproportionately affects those who are also working class, especially black and Asian people. This is particularly clear in relation to policing, where repeatedly black people are subject to much higher levels of harassment, arrest, stop and search, and targeting.  

And in both main political parties, this level of racism is underplayed, ignored or minimised. Meanwhile the policies of both parties are helping to exacerbate racism, despite the moral outrage at individual statements. The Tories are pursuing the most appalling laws to scapegoat refugees, implying that they are responsible for many problems of crime and that, according to the Tory immigration minister, they don’t share the ‘values and lifestyles’ of British people. This is dog whistle far right politics, but Labour does nothing to challenge the premise of ‘stopping the boats’. Starmer’s patriotic flag waving may pick him up a few votes in the former ‘red wall’ seats but in the process he is subscribing to a sullying of politics which helps create an opening for more racism.

Racism is a product of capitalism and is constantly reinvented or reinforced by the system itself because it is a central tool in dividing working-class people against one another. That’s why the fight against it must be indivisible, and why it must involve black and white workers – and Jewish, Irish, GRT and all other groups – uniting and fighting against it based on class interests. That view has only ever been a minority, and today the dominance of identity politics has weakened the fight against racism. It allows the Tories – a party which has resisted even an EHRC investigation into its Islamophobia – to pose as diverse, with most of the main offices of state held by members of ethnic minorities. It also allows Suella Braverman, the architect of the worst and most inhumane immigration laws ever seen in Britain, to use anti-racism against her opponents.

If we’re not careful, identity just becomes another means to divide us. It’s time to unite to fight racism and oppression in all its forms. Otherwise we all lose.   

The only oath I’ll be swearing on coronation day

Who thought this one was a great idea? Let’s get people to publicly swear an oath of allegiance to the king and his heirs during the coronation. Will this be ‘encouraged’ in pubs and parks, will people working have to join in, or schoolchildren encouraged to this Friday? Isn’t this a bit like one of those dictatorships to which British democracy is allegedly so superior?

If this doesn’t backfire spectacularly, I will be surprised. Already we know that millions of people are indifferent to the coronation, and that anti monarchy sentiment is growing, especially among the young. Charles and Camilla are two of the least prepossessing and warm people imaginable, and head up a family whose immense wealth is only matched by its dysfunctionality and obsession with petty process. Despite the best efforts of the government, the loyal opposition (who, guess what, fully support the oath), the BBC, employers, major retailers, and the rest, millions of people will not join in.

It’s well past time to abolish the monarchy and all the idiotic and expensive trappings that surround it, including the House of Lords and the honours system. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to Australia for ‘swearing oaths’ – to join the union for agricultural workers, which was illegal at the time. I suggest that on 6th May we all swear oaths to support the unions and the strikers who are a far more deserving cause. And the only other oath I’ll be swearing is probably unprintable.    

This week: I hope to be on the teachers’ demo in London on Tuesday, and I will do my best all week to agitate against the royalfest. I will be reading Montagu Slater’s Englishmen with Swords, a novel about the English civil war and revolution, which cut off the king’s head and established a republic. And I’ll be going with some of my oldest friends to see The Good Person of Szechwan because Brecht is a great antidote to the royalists and racists.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.