Hope that the “New” in New Labour meant a turning point against racist treatment saw up to 90 percent of black and Asian people vote for Tony Blair in 1997.
It was not difficult to understand why. Under the Tories there had been naked racism and the scapegoating of asylum seekers. Many people hoped that would come to an end with the election of a Labour government.
We seem to have come so far since then – but not in the direction that the black and Asian population, and Labour supporters and voters, had hoped for.
Racism, state sanctioned discrimination and bigotry are as present now as they were under the Tories.
The most profound difference is that issues of race and racism are no longer a domestic issue, but have been played out since 9/11 on the global stage.
One of the myths swallowed by some people is that New Labour was (and is) dragged by public opinion down the path of being hard on issues of race, immigration, multiculturalism and security.
But that path was chosen by New Labour from its beginning. The home secretary Jack Straw, who now berates Muslims for not signing up to “civilised” values, was the first to decide that one of the most important issues for the new government was to get “asylum seeking” under control.
Straw introduced the despised food voucher system, which separated asylum seekers out at supermarket tills and encouraged people to see them as scroungers.
He expanded detention centres along with harsh anti-asylum laws to make sure they were filled.
Despite this, many people saw Straw’s 1997 decision to have a public inquiry into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence as a commitment that set the Blair government apart from the Tories.
The hearings were extraordinary, with police officer after police officer grilled in public. A lid was lifted off the workings of the Metropolitan Police and the public recoiled from what they saw.
The racism that black people had been complaining about and organising against was now public knowledge.
Lord Macpherson’s 1999 report introduced a concept into law that up to that point had only been used by black radicals and the left – “institutional racism”. This acknowledgeed that racism was lodged in the structures of society and perpetuated by its institutions.
The police fought a rearguard action against this – and Jack Straw came to their rescue. The discredited Met commissioner Paul Condon kept his job. Many of the sharper recommendations of the inquiry report were effectively kicked into the long grass.
The police read the signs – more or less business as usual.
The Race Relations Amendment Act that came out of the inquiry has proved to be pretty toothless. There is widespread monitoring of the effects of racism in areas such as employment and education, but with little done to tackle it at root.
Reports were recently published that showed that minority ethnic groups still have higher rates of poverty than the average for the population.
One report said, “Rates of poverty were highest for Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and black Africans, reaching nearly two thirds for Bangladeshis.
“Rates of poverty were also higher for those living in Indian, Chinese and other minority ethnic group households.”
Minister Jim Murphy’s response was little more than handwringing.
As the Macpherson report faded from the front pages, the home office distanced itself from its pledges.
In 2003 the then home secretary David Blunkett let slip his opinion that “the slogan created a year or two ago about institutional racism missed the point”. This trashed the Macpherson report and put paid to its legacy.
The response of Blunkett and his colleagues to the riots in the northern towns of Oldham, Burnley and Bradford in the summer of 2001 helped produce a rapid step-change in racism. This combined with the rise in racism towards Asians, especially Muslims, as a result of 9/11.
Blunkett demanded that Muslims should “accept British norms of acceptability” and demonstrate their “Englishness”.
Blunkett energised the far right and helped a grateful British National Party on its road to electoral success. It has taken the anti-fascist movement four hard years to start to peg it back.
However, the spirit of anti-racism that was around in 1997 has been hard to extinguish. The mass participatory nature of the anti-war movement in Britain provided bonds of solidarity that have been remarkably resilient.
This is despite the barrage of pressure on people to think of all Muslims as having a faith based on terror, and the pressure for Muslims to believe that all non-Muslims are against them.
After a decade of New Labour there has also been a shift in political formations. In 1997 the vast majority of black and Asian voters sided with Labour, way above the figure for the general population.
That is no longer the case. Now Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi voters are less likely to vote Labour than the rest of the population. And when it comes to Bangladeshi voters the 2005 general election results show that their second party of choice after Labour was Respect.