Newham, the borough which encompasses West Ham, is now one of the most ethnically mixed areas of Britain. Black and Asian people who arrived from the 1950s onwards have added to the area’s battling tradition by facing down racists and Nazis.
Unjum Mirza, a tube worker and political officer for the London region of the RMT union, grew up in the Newham area in the 1970s and early 1980s. His dad was a factory worker in Plaistow, while his mum worked as a dress machinist from home.
Because of the cost of housing, Unjum’s nine member family was forced to share with his uncle’s family who were mixed race — something people at his school, Little Ilford, found “a bit curious”.
But the Nazis of the National Front (NF) organised in the area too. “There was a lot of racism. We used to be fighting with the NF after school. In 1980 there was the murder of a young Asian lad, Akhtar Ali Baig. He came out of East Ham station and skinheads beat him up and killed him. It was done on the basis of a £5 bet.
“A few of the older lads started to walk the young kids home from school to protect them. That was how the Newham Eight case started. The big slogan was ‘Self defence is no offence’.
“One time after school, the cops turned up. The NF turned up but were turned away, and the Asian lads were arrested.”
The campaign to defend the ‘Newham Eight’ and later the ‘Newham Seven’ — arrested after they took on skinheads outside a pub — brought demonstrations and protests by Asian, black and white people, including local trade unionists.
Unjum remembers how, despite the racism, white teachers at his school openly backed their students and handed out Ant Nazi League stickers. That solidarity and the willingness to stand up and fight put down another marker in the area’s radical history.
Today Unjum explains “for me Respect stands in a tradition stretching from Eleanor Marx to the school students in the area who struck and marched against the Iraq war”. Next year, come what may, Respect will be out to win seats on Newham council.