Socialist Worker

Why does Labour give in to the racists?

Respect candidate for London and campaigning journalist Paul Foot investigates whether previous Labour governments were any better than Tony Blair's

Issue No. 1900

TURNING ON the radio for Today in Parliament on 28 April, I hear Michael Howard mocking Blair over immigration. He points out that the prime minister's speech on the subject to the CBI that week had not been planned, but had been inspired by panic at newspaper headlines.

As proof, he produced a list of Blair's speeches sent out to Labour MPs that "for some inexplicable" reason did not include the CBI speech. While MPs laughed, Blair had no real response. He had indeed made his speech to the CBI out of panic caused in the main by the Murdoch press and the Mail, accusing him of being "weak" on the subject of immigration controls.

On the contrary, Blair told the bosses, he was going to be as tough on what he called "benefit immigrants" as he had been tough on criminals. And his only answer to Howard was that when Howard was home secretary there were even more applications from asylum seekers than there are today. It is not long ago that Labour's shadow home secretary Jack Straw was mocking Michael Howard for his tough immigration policy, reminding his audience that Howard himself is the product of immigrant parents.

Now Howard mocks the Labour government on the same issue, in the certain knowledge that once Labour can be enticed into an auction on immigration figures the Tories and their racist newspapers are certain to win it. Labour's volte face on the issue is the last in a long line. Forty two years ago the Tory government passed a Commonwealth Immigrants Act to impose controls on people coming to Britain from the British Commonwealth.

Up to that time, six hundred million people from the Commonwealth could come to Britain free from all controls. The rate of immigration had been set and controlled by capitalism. If there were jobs to come to, people came. If there were no jobs, people stopped coming. A slight recession in 1956 led to a staggering drop in uncontrolled Commonwealth immigration. These arguments were made by the right wing Labour leader at the time, Hugh Gaitskell.

If capitalism itself controlled the numbers of immigrants, Gaitskell asked, why were the Tories bringing in legislation? Were they not capitulating to racist propaganda? There was no answer from the Tories, and the Labour ranks were cheered by the principled opposition of their leaders.

But even by the third reading the Labour leaders began to lose their nerve. And as soon as Labour took office in 1964, the new ministers started to tear up their own arguments. In 1965 a white paper cut down Commonwealth immigration still further.

In 1968, when James Callaghan was home secretary, the Labour government revoked a long-standing promise to the Asian people of East Africa who had British passports. The government cut off their escape route from persecution by denying them the automatic right to come to Britain.

These shameful U-turns embarrassed Labour leaders when they lost office in 1970 and were faced almost at once with yet another Nationality Act that further cut immigration. Somehow, inspired perhaps by the most tremendous agitation around the country, Labour leaders managed to oppose the act, but it stayed on the statute book all through the Labour government of the late 1970s.

Now the super-opportunists of New Labour are seeking to distance themselves even further from the miserable principles they laid down ten years ago. What lies behind this disreputable record? Most immigrants come to this country to work, and their numbers, as we have seen, are controlled by capitalism. The essence of capitalism is the free movement of capital, and this should, logically, include the free movement of workers.

Enoch Powell, the high priest of free market capitalism, argued passionately for the free movement of capital. For a short time he expanded his argument to include the free movement of workers.

But then he suddenly became the most fervent and racist propagandist against immigrants, especially black immigrants. His position seemed illogical. But capitalism is not a logical system. The symmetry of its economic system rests on some very unsymmetrical myths and illusions, Powell, for instance, was a fervent supporter of empire, of Britain lording it over India and Africa and ruling the waves.

Central to this absurd view of the world was the view that British people were better than other people and a clear sign of their superiority was their colour. So when Powell saw black immigrants in his Wolverhampton constituency he was shocked.

His racist instincts overcame his faith in the symmetry of capitalism. However badly capitalism needed the immigrant workers, he didn't want any of them and he campaigned to throw them out. Indeed he campaigned so ferociously that even the Tory party threw him off their front bench.

Yet the racist argument did not go away. It developed several subsidiary themes all of which, unlike the overt racist hatred, seemed to make some sense. "There are not enough houses and hospitals and social services for our own people," ran the most common of these arguments.

"How can we let in more people who want houses and jobs?" This argument defined immigrants as people who needed houses, hospitals, etc, not as workers who come here only when the jobs were available and who build houses and staff hospitals.

Every single study of such matters proves that the immigrant "in-take"-their contribution to the society-is greater than their "out-take"-what they take out of it. Even today's Labour ministers have started tentatively to concede this argument. Yet still they persist in caving in to the racist hysteria of the right wing press.

Why? Because they themselves have so lamentably failed to live up to the social democratic tradition from which they pretend to come. The essence of social democracy is that it balances the needs of the workers with their contribution: that it supplies the workers with food, accommodation, healthcare, security in old age, etc, so that the working people are relieved of the basic anxieties of existence.

Labour started out as a party with social democratic obligations. These included a sense of solidarity with the poor and oppressed all over the world. Labour governments found their social democratic commitments forever clashing with the priorities of capitalism, and after several decades of token resistance they called themselves New Labour and surrendered. Their priorities became the priorities of capitalist society. They watched in wonder as bankers, industrialists and assorted spivs piled up more and more riches.

But they did not provide the houses, schools, hospitals, social services the workers needed. Faced therefore with capitalist demand for more workers, the Labour governments retreated to the racist enclave set up for them by people like Howard and Powell.

So abject is their retreat that they cannot even provide a safe haven for people fleeing from the most horrible oppression all over the world. Their response to the strangled cries of people desperately seeking sanctuary from tyranny and torture is to send them back to tyranny and torture.

The socialist answer has nothing but scorn for the racist chimera of immigration control. "You're welcome here", "Let them all come" are our slogans, and together we will seek to build a society without shortages, without insecurity and without racism.

  • 1964 Labour wins general election A Tory candidate campaigns in Smethwick on the slogan "If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour". He won the seat, terrifying Labour.

  • 1965 Labour tightened up immigration laws.

  • 1968 Enoch Powell made his notorious "rivers of blood" speech.

  • 1968 Labour rushes through new immigration bill in a day to stop Kenyan Asians with British passports entering Britain.

  • 1970 Tories win election and soon pass act ending the right of non-white commonwealth residents to settle in Britain.

  • 1974 Labour win election.

  • 1976 witch hunt against Malawi Asians trying to flee to Britain. Immigration officers at Heathrow secretly forced Asian women to undergo virginity tests.Two Asian students stabbed to death by racists in Essex. Gurdip Singh Chaggar stabbed to death by a National Front gang in Southall.

  • 1977 London Assembly elections. The Nazi National Front took 119,000 votes.

  • 1979 Labour loses general election.

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    Sat 8 May 2004, 00:00 BST
    Issue No. 1900
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