By Isabel Ringrose
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Why Labour props up the racist system

An analysis of Labour examines how it has constantly encouraged, reflected and propagated racism throughout its history despite being seen as anti-racist
Issue 2898
Starmer and Sunak walking together in Parliament, amid Labour racism

Starmer and Sunak are competing over who can be more racist (Picture: UK Parliament)

Keir Starmer parades around with a Union Jack flag promising to be better at deporting refugees than the Tories. He wants Labour to be a party of “law and order” and has done nothing to challenge the racism entrenched in his party. He backed Rishi Sunak’s demonisation of the Palestine movement and the painting of protesters as extremists. And he slammed the Black Lives Matter movement as a “moment”.

Why is Labour, the supposed opposition, trying to outflank the Tories when it comes to racism? Labour encourages, reflects and propagates racism. But there are contradictions to this. Labour opportunistically pushes racism because it falsely claims this is what ordinary people want. It is also systematically tied to a capitalist system that perpetuates racism at every level.

But it is seen by many as an anti-racist force and a party to bring together the “class vote”. Without rooted support from workers and trade unions, Labour wouldn’t be the party that it is now. It relies on a sense of workers’ and left wing unity to rally people behind its programme.

That’s why Labour is generally seen as “better” over issues of racism than the Tories. In 2019, according to an Ipsos poll, Labour won 64 percent of black and minority ethnic voters, while 20 percent voted for the Conservatives and 12 percent for the Lib Dems.

In 2010 this was 60 percent for Labour and 16 percent for the Tories. In 1997, 70 percent of black voters voted for Labour, and 18 percent for the Tories. Everyone knows the Tories are dripping in racism—its donors get away with saying black women like Diane Abbott “should be shot”. While Labour’s racism is less aggressive, it is still there.

The 2022 Forde report that investigated antisemitism and racism concluded that Labour was indeed a racist party. The report found “serious problems of discrimination in the operations of the party” with a “racist, sexist and otherwise discriminatory behaviour and culture” in party workplaces. That’s not to say everyone in Labour is racist. Plenty of Labour members and supporters are disgusted by the party’s support for racism—and some are leaving because of it.

But the party’s priority, both at the top and bottom, is geared towards winning elections—even if that means betraying its loyal voting base. For Labour, it starts with a dim view of the working class. It sees workers as a reactionary mass and believes that to win votes it means pandering to bigotry. Of course, many working class people hold racist views. But there’s nothing inherent about workers that makes them more racist than the rest of society.

Labour wrongly says that the Red Wall, which it is desperate to win back from the Tories, has to be won through racist, anti-migrant policies. But the Red Wall is no more socially conservative than Britain as a whole. “People in Red Wall areas are very much supportive of things like multiculturalism, with 50 percent agreeing that ‘having a wide variety of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures is part of British culture’,” said Patrick Walker, research manager of YouGov.

“Just 31 percent suggested that this undermined British culture. Some 40 percent agree that immigration has ‘generally been good for the country’, although 33 percent believe that it has on the whole been a bad thing.” It suits Labour to stir-up racism and patriotism to avoid talking about how the capitalist system causes many of the hardships faced by ordinary people.

And when trying to get into power, Labour knows it has to appeal to both the left and the right. But Labour’s priority has never been, nor will it ever be, to unite ordinary people and rise above racial divides in society. Labour has always seen being “tough” on migration as a vote winner. Labour, like the Tories, encourages migration when capitalism requires it. Yet those who are deemed “not useful” are the first scapegoats in an economic crisis.

Across Labour’s history, it has pushed racism when competing for the keys to Downing Street. It then faces even greater pressures to uphold the needs of the system when in office. And Labour’s pandering to racist beliefs gives legitimacy to such beliefs. This in turn encourages more racism that Labour then claims to react to.

For example, in the 1964 general election an extreme Tory racist won in Smethwick, West Midlands, with a swing against the national trend. Harold Wilson, Labour prime minister, and the rest of the Labour government decided to cave to the racist pressure. Labour cabinet member Richard Crossman said the election showed “it has been quite clear that immigration can be the greatest potential vote-loser for the Labour Party”.

This fed the racists, with Enoch Powell shortly after making his rivers of blood speech. Rather than deciding to fight racism, Labour cut work vouchers for Commonwealth migrants and tightened immigration controls. And Labour did nothing to quell the threat of the National Front in the 1970s. Mass unemployment and government cuts provided fertile ground for the fascists and attacks on Asians migrants.

While the National Front made electoral gains, Labour once again pandered. In May 1976 Bob Mellish, Labour’s chief whip, spoke of the “influx” of Asian migrants. Under Tony Blair New Labour ramped up the narrative of the good and bad migrants. Those who were useful to the economy were in and anyone else was a problem. It’s why in 2003 the then-home secretary David Blunkett was happy to admit that without legal migration “growth would stall, economic flexibility and productivity would reduce”. 

Yet at the same time the Home Office also brought in “tough reforms to reduce asylum claims” including 14 years in jail for bringing in anyone labelled “illegal”. In 1997 immigration didn’t reach the top 12 election issues. But to compete with the Tories, Labour kept it on the agenda. By 2001 it was in ninth place and by 2010 immigration was the second most important issue. Blair bragged about falling asylum claims and said in 2005, “Concern about asylum and immigration is not about racism. It is about fairness.”

In reality, pandering to racism only creates more and nastier racism. Nazi British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin said that putting immigration in the spotlight “legitimises us”. BNP votes went from 45,000 in 2001 to 192,000 in 2005.

And when Labour prime minister Gordon Brown adopted the slogan “British jobs for British workers” in 2007 the BNP used it as their campaign slogan that year. Even Jeremy Corbyn conceded on immigration controls. But Labour does more than just pander to racism.

Labour adopts racism, from immigration controls to policing, because it is wedded to the system. The party that claims to represent the working class with ties to the trade unions is still a party of capitalism. And so Labour sounds as it opposes the racism weaved into the system.

It’s crucial to see racism as a deliberate construction that divides workers and stops them from coming together to fight for a better society. Capitalism is also dependent on racism because of the way it serves imperialism by dehumanising others.  Blair painted Britain as morally and intellectually superior when he invaded the Middle East and tarred Muslims at home as “backward”, sparking an era of vicious Islamophobia.

Labour buys into a system with economic and strategic rivalry at its core. It justifies wars by vilifying the enemy and ­presenting Britain as righteous. Labour has never represented a break from the system. It’s why it has backed Zionism for over 100 years and supports the existence of Israel. It’s also why Starmer flies the British flag, harps on about “national interests” and forbade his MPs from joining workers’ picket lines.

And Labour’s failures when in office, from not providing housing or raising the standard of living, sometimes pushes people further rightwards. Ordinary people who are fed up with the Tories and are angry and disenfranchised with Labour’s false promises look for alternatives.

Historically, this has meant looking towards the far right—which only leads to worsening racism. The nazi National Front had huge growth in the 1970s in the backdrop of a Labour government that had let working class people down. The way to fight back against this vicious cycle cannot be found in the halls of parliament. Working class people uniting and fighting back—whether for pay or against the government—creates the best grounds for overcoming division.

Class unity has always been the key to overcoming racism—and other forms of oppression—and shows ordinary people won’t give ground to division in society that benefits the top. Meanwhile the Labour Party isn’t, and never has been, a beacon of anti-racism. If Starmer reaches government, the racism at the heart of Labour will seep out yet again as he meets the needs of the system.

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