Socialist Worker

Labour's surrender to racism

Simon Basketter traces the history of the Labour Party’s attitude to immigration and argues their leadership have always opted for a filthy compromise with the system

Issue No. 2404

Labour’s Euro election leaflet is happy to announce a crackdown on migrants

Labour’s Euro election leaflet is happy to announce a crackdown on migrants

When the Labour Party produc ed a leaflet against the hard right Ukip in the run-up to the European elections many activists thought, “About time”. 

But when they read it they discovered the reason to vote Labour over Ukip was that Labour would be “tough” on immigration. 

There is a long history of Labour capitulating to racist ideas over immigration. Labour has also evolved its views—for the worse.

The party was created in 1900 as a compromise between individual socialists, trade union leaders and politicians from the upper middle class. 

The allegiance of workers went to Labour. But its structure meant its politics were pragmatic and chameleon-like.

The long traditions of anti-racism in the working class movement are reflected in the Labour Party. 

Many workers still see support for Labour as a way of standing up against right wing ideas such as racism—despite Labour’s record.

In the first years of the 20th century the Tories pushed for a series of immigration controls in the Aliens Acts. 

The Labour Party did nothing to counter the overtly antisemitic agitation in which Tory MPs indulged. 


Labour MPs at first split over the Aliens Bill in 1904, three opposing and three abstaining. But in 1905 all six voted against. Labour leader Keir Hardie described it as “fraudulent, deceitful and dishonourable”. 

The outbreak of war in 1914 saw the Aliens Restriction Act rushed through parliament. 

In 1919 an updated Act restricted the employment of “alien” workers and was renewed every year until 1971.

Labour MP Josiah Wedgwood argued against the Bill. 

He said, “We believe that the interests of the working classes everywhere are the same, and these gentlemen will find it difficult to spread a spirit of racial hatred.”

But these moral arguments would not last. 

In the 1924 election, in which the first Labour government was flung from office, there were two main issues. 

The first was the fake “Zinoviev Letter” purporting to show Labour was in the pay of the Bolshevik Russian government. 

The second was immigration. Tory candidates argued that Labour policy was to “let them all come”. Labour responded that they had naturalised fewer foreigners than the Tories. 

Labour no longer opposed immigration controls but was against “harsh” measures.

The Second World War brought some contradictions to a head. The British wartime government recruited migrant labour through state sponsored schemes, but also had internment and the deportation of “enemy aliens”. 

That sort of dual thinking has clung grimly onto the Labour Party.

The 1945 Labour government expanded the schemes. It recruited about 250,000 displaced workers from Europe, including about 100,000 Poles. 

This was for the benefit of industry, not the migrants. If they were too ill to work they were deported.

Labour now opposed attempts to tighten immigration to defend the Commonwealth and British business.

Right wing Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell argued against the racism of a Tory immigration bill on the grounds that the West Indies, “are still our Colonies. We are responsible for them.”

The Labour leadership then moved from a no vote to abstaining. Paternalism was dropped as the climate of racism rose. 

By November 1963, Labour opposed continuing the Act because loopholes—many put in by Labour—meant too many immigrants could get in. 

The new Labour leader Harold Wilson bemoaned that Tories had not “consulted” the Commonwealth governments enough. 

As revolutionary journalist Paul Foot put it, “Keeping out the blacks seemed to Labour in 1963 a perfectly reasonable proposition, provided the blacks were told about it in advance.”

Quantitative decline became a qualitative shift at the 1964 general election. 


In its manifesto Labour argued, “We do not contest the need for control of Commonwealth Immigration into this county.” It argued for effective “health checks and extended powers of deportation”.

Twice as many Labour candidates as Tory mentioned immigration in their leaflets—and almost all opposed increased immigration. 

The crunch came in Smethwick. Here the slogan, “If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour” appeared. 

Tory Peter Griffiths taunted his opponent in Smethwick with favouring free immigration. Labour MP Patrick Gordon Walker furiously denied it. 

Accused at a public meeting of being a “nigger lover” Walker was offended at the suggestion, not the racism. 

He wrote to his constituents, “This is a British country with British standards of behaviour. The British should come first.”

Other Labour candidates responded in kind. One leaflet in Wandsworth  argued, “Large-scale immigration has occurred only under this Tory government. The Tory Immigration Act has failed to control it—immigrants of all colours and races continue to arrive here.”

Important Labour figure Richard Crossman’s diaries recounted a now familiar reasoning: “Since the Smethwick election it has been quite clear that immigration can be the greatest potential vote-loser for the Labour party if we are seen to be permitting a flood of immigrants in to blight the central areas of our cities.” 

He added, “We felt we had to out trump the Tories by doing what they would have done and so transforming their policy into a bipartisan policy.”

That has been the problem ever since. The Labour Party lost the seat but won the general election. On immigration they turned the retreat at Smethwick into surrender.  

Again and again the party responded to racist scares from the right and rushed through ever more restrictions—which made racists bolder.

Dividing workers with racism was more important to bosses after the end of the post-war boom than getting migrant labour.

In 1968 Tory MP Enoch Powell made his infamous speech predicting that “rivers of blood” would flow in the streets unless immigrants were repatriated. 

Labour’s response was to rush through a new immigration bill to stop Kenyan Asians with British passports from entering Britain. 

It justified each new immigration control by saying the only way to stop racial tension was to pass racist legislation to keep out foreigners.

In 1976 there was a hue and cry over Asian immigrants coming from Malawi.

Bob Mellish, Labour’s chief whip, said, “This nation has done all it should have done. 

“Its record is one of great honour and integrity, but I say enough is enough.” 

The slogan was picked up as the front page of the Sun the following day.

Labour had buried its conscience for good. In 1978 Labour home secretary Merlyn Rees admitted that all immigration controls were aimed at stopping “coloured” immigration. 

Many Labour voters and some of its politicians are principled anti-racists. But the repeated capitulations have an effect. 


Labour accepts the logic of capitalism and the nasty ideas that go with it. That’s why the party will always capitulate to racism. 

Every Labour government decides whether to confront the rich or back British capitalism. 

They always treat “national interests” as more important.

By the time of 1997-2010 New Labour governments the leadership no longer believed it was desirable to control the economy. Others in the party thought it desirable, but impossible. But the bosses again needed migrant workers. 

So the most pro-business parts of the party were pro-immigration—but for brutal treatment of asylum seekers to prove how tough they were. 

The justification was not to be “outflanked” on the right. 

As the economy turned to recession they changed tack. 

Gordon Brown introduced the poisonous slogan of “British jobs for British workers”.

But to play with revivalist nationalism is to play with political fire. That is as true for Ed Miliband’s “One Nation Labour” rhetoric as it was for Brown’s. 

Labour accepts the right wing tabloid view of what workers are like at face value. 

So engaging with “the grassroots” has become code for pandering to right wing ideas.

Each grubby capitulation encourages a rotten, racist consensus. The beneficiaries of this will not be the Labour Party. 

More importantly, it encourages the brutal divide and rule of racism yet again, rather than fighting it.

Read more

The Labour Party: A Marxist History

by Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, £5

Immigration and the British Labour Movement

by Paul Foot. Read it online at

Immigration: The Myths Spread to Divide Us

A Socialist Worker pamphlet 

by Charlie Kimber, £2

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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