To fix its problems now, Labour must face the racism in its past

Maya Goodfellow

It takes work to eradicate racism – and that work starts by accepting the truth, not propagating simplistic fantasies

It would come to be known as one of the UK’s most racist pieces of legislation. But when the then Labour home secretary, James Callaghan, rushed the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act through parliament in the space of three days, he was adamant it had nothing to do with race. A series of cabinet papers released years later proved what everyone already knew at the time: Callaghan wasn’t telling the truth.

Asian people were facing expulsion from Kenya, and under the existing laws they would have been able to come safely and securely to the UK. But the 1968 act rewrote the UK government’s previous guarantees, stripping them of their right to come here almost overnight. The reason for these frantic changes was race. The intentional aim was to stop “coloured immigrants” from entering this country.

I’ve spent the past few years researching and writing about the history of the UK’s immigration debates and policy; the rationale behind the 1968 act was not an anomaly, and the policy had a devastating impact on those affected by it. People were stuck in airports for days and weeks. Others, desperate to join family in the UK whom they were now indefinitely separated from, were shuttled between countries that kept refusing them entry. One group of people were so distressed by the government’s sudden decision to change the law that they camped outside the British High Commission in Kenya in protest. Years later, some of them were still waiting to come to the UK.

These people, whose lives were fundamentally shaped by a Labour government determined to keep them out of the UK because of the colour of their skin, might be surprised to hear the claims in recent weeks, from different quarters, that Labour always has been or was an anti-racist party.

This is a label people in Labour have long claimed. And to prove it, there are particular facts they point to. The introduction of the UK’s various Race Relations Acts all happened under Labour governments. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry was established in the early years of the Blair government – crucially, though, after years of campaigning by Lawrence’s family. And even though it was often met with a frosty reception, there is a rich tradition of anti-racist and anti-colonial organising within Labour; leftwing activists and politicians, including shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, have helped drive some of the party’s positive changes.

 

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are the party of Islamophobia, Go Home vans, the hostile environment, the deeply racist campaign in Smethwick and the still-revered former prime minister Margaret Thatcher who refused to enforce sanctions against South Africa during apartheid while deepening racial inequality at home. Surveying these pieces of British history and comparing these two wildly different parties against one another, how could you arrive at any conclusion other than that Labour has been the party of anti-racism? Labour and the Conservatives are so obviously not the same.

 

But the 1968 act was not some one-off aberration sullying Labour’s otherwise pristine record on anti-racism. The slightest glance at the party’s past demonstrates that any simple account of what it “has always been” is pure fantasy. All through Labour history you find a more complicated story, which can’t be explained away as a few “bad apples”. There have been labourers who resented organising with Jewish workers in the early 1900s and trade unionists who played a part in attacking people of colour in 1919’s so-called “race riots”.

A little over 10 years ago, New Labour politicians were describing children whose parents were seeking asylum as “swamping” UK schools, running a campaign that declared Labour as on “your side” and the Lib Dems as “on the side of failed asylum seekers”, treating people of colour as not belonging to the nation, defending colonialism and overseeing policies that made asylum seekers destitute. And then there was the post-New Labour “controls on immigration” mug under Ed Miliband.

The nature of racism and discrimination has shifted over the years: the ties between immigration and race have become more complicated and Labour has changed shape as different people have taken charge of the party machinery. These changes mean there isn’t one Labour party or left, evidenced by the concerted organising against racism within the party’s ranks from people committed to particular leftwing strands of political tradition. The racism that has existed has come from different places, for different reasons and should be understood for its specificity. It is messy; but it’s still there.

 

The point is not to unearth or retread these histories to make excuses about the present, including the specific, serious nature of the antisemitism crisis. But neither should arguments about now be made by rewriting UK history.

If we allow people to misrepresent the past by erasing the racist politics that have caused pain, economic degradation and treated people as “other” because of their skin colour, religion, immigration status or “culture”, then we won’t see racism – including anti-immigration racism – as structurally embedded and systemic. These fraught histories are ones the left, within and outside the Labour party, can learn from. Declaring yourself something doesn’t mean you are that; it takes work.

 

  • Maya Goodfellow is a writer and researcher. She is a regular columnist for Media Diversified and LabourList