When Tory MP Enoch Powell was sacked over his racist “Rivers of Blood” speech, thousands of dockers and meat packers marched and struck in his defence.
It meant there was a major struggle to be had against racist ideas in the working class movement.
“Back Britain, not Black Britain,” read one placard on the march on 22 April 1968. It claimed that “65,000 dockers back Powell”.
The march was a dangerous development, but it didn’t mean that the working class in Britain had been swept by a wave of reaction. The vast majority of workers did not strike for Powell. And the dockers’ demonstration took place against the backdrop of a nine-week strike that had ended in bitter defeat.
When there’s a lack of successful working class struggle, it can be easier for bigoted ideas to take hold.
And while there was only a handful of fascists on the docks, they had taken confidence from Powell’s speech.
Micky Fenn, a docker in the Communist Party at the time, described how demoralisation opened space for the right in an interview published in Race and Class journal.
“We had a long strike in 1967 which went on for nine weeks and in the end we lost,” he said.
“And then … Powell happened, it just blew up. Certain individuals who weren’t stewards in the docks started going out with leaflets on behalf of the Anti-Immigration League.”
The right had more of a base at Smithfield meat market in central London.
Eddie Prevost, a Communist Party militant, worked at the Royal Group of Docks. “The whole thing began in the meat market,” he told Socialist Worker.
“Some of the dockers were in general union branches with the meat porters. And the Smithfield drivers used to come to the dock to pick up meat so there was a kind of connection.”
The working class was becoming more multicultural, with immigration from Britain’s former colonies.
The experience of working alongside migrant workers can mean it’s harder for racism to take hold when politicians scapegoat migrants.
But the workforce on the docks remained overwhelmingly white.
Eddie said, “There used to be trains running through our docks with African Caribbean migrants who had arrived in Tilbury. I think people working on the dock thought that we were being inundated with people.”
Micky said, “I’m pretty certain what happened in the dockers’ union on the Enoch Powell demonstration couldn’t have happened at Ford’s car factory. They had a large immigrant population—Asian, black and so on, and once people mix, they all make friends with different racial groups.”
This didn’t mean that racism on the docks was inevitable. It was also down to specific mistakes that the Communist Party made. There had to be conscious anti-racist agitation. But Eddie said there was “complete confusion” among Communist Party members about how to respond.
“We were totally taken by surprise, we had no policy on it, we had never analysed it.”
There was an argument among left wing activists about how to respond to the strike.
Some rightly said not to cross the picket lines—but to stay out and challenge racist ideas.
On the day docker Terry Barrett and some students tried to hand out a leaflet against the march slamming Powell as a rich Tory.
Terry was a member of the International Socialists, forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party, which Eddie and Micky later joined.
According to the Port of London Authority 4,402 dockers struck, but that didn’t mean they all automatically supported Powell.
The dockers’ strike didn’t mean they were irredeemably racist. It showed that there’s always a battle of ideas in the working class—and that it requires socialist and anti?racist politics to win them.