New Labour’s new racism

October 6, 2004 — Comment

Written by Jonny Burnett, Dave Whyte

The government’s asylum and citizenship policies have resulted in an upsurge in racially motivated violence and police harassment.

We are now faced with the end of asylum as we know it in this country. Asylum seekers’ rights and protections have been gradually abolished and are being replaced by a system of managed migration. At the same time, after taking some early tentative steps towards tackling institutional racism following the Macpherson report in 1999, the government has turned full circle to cultivate a virulent institutional racism of its own.

Until recently, at the heart of the debate about asylum there was an artificial distinction between politically oppressed asylum seekers and ‘economic migrants’. The former were deserving of our protection, while the latter, according to the government and the press, were ‘bogus’. In reality, it is the way the government has framed the debate that is bogus.

Last year Britain granted 175,000 migrant workers temporary work permits. These permits afford the people who possess them very few rights. Their number is due to expand under the Home Office’s managed-migration strategy. Arun Kundnani, of the Institute for Race Relations (IRR), says: ‘Figures for the number of people applying for and… being granted asylum have been halved over the past two years. At the same time, the number of people brought in as workers has increased dramatically.’ Migrants are being invited here at the behest of British business. The parallels with the Windrush era are obvious. Those workers are imported either because they are desperately needed to fill understaffed professions such as nursing, or because the agriculture, construction and catering industries need them to do the dirtiest, most dangerous and lowest paid jobs. Often they are virtually indentured and forced to work on poverty wages.

In public debate, however, government anti-asylum policies are rarely discussed in the context of a restructured labour market. On the contrary, the ‘asylum crisis’ has somehow come to symbolise a disintegrating social order. And so we have a new enemy within. In typically indiscriminate fashion, Muslims and those who look like Muslims are the principal targets of a new racism. But since we are being ‘swamped’ or submerged by a refugee ‘tidal wave’, this is a discourse that enables all non-Western foreigners to be drawn into a great big racist melting pot. The new racism reserves its most poisonous venom for Muslims, but is, as IRR director A. Sivanandan has pointed out, also a more widely targeted ‘xeno-racism’.

In July figures released by the Home Office showed a 300 per cent rise in the number of Asians stopped and searched under anti-terrorism legislation. This was despite the fact that the 609 arrests made under the Terrorist Act 2000 led to the conviction of just three Muslims. In the meantime, racist attacks on asylum seekers and on British Asians are universally being reported as exhibiting a sharp increase. The Crown Prosecution Service recently reported a 20 per cent surge in racially motivated attacks. And all the indications are that Black people in the UK are more economically excluded than they were 30 years ago: the unemployment rate for British Bangladeshis is more than four times that for Whites; British Africans and Caribbeans are around three times as likely to be unemployed.

This is Britain little more than five years after the Macpherson report was published. Remember the Macpherson report? Published in 1999, and commissioned by Blunkett’s predecessor as home secretary, Jack Straw, it was supposed to be a watershed for race relations in the UK. It was, indeed, a landmark moment, as it forced an official acknowledgment that the institutional pillars of the British state were infected with systematically racist attitudes and practice.

At first New Labour enthusiastically and unquestioningly accepted Macpherson. Yet less than four years later, in January 2003, David Blunkett declared: ‘I think the slogan created a year or two ago about institutional racism missed the point. It’s not the structures created in the past; it’s the processes to change structures in the future, and it is individuals at all levels who do that.’

Blunkett may have been right to highlight the fact that racism at an individual level can be obscured by pointing a finger in the general direction of ‘the system’ or ‘the powers that be’. But a very different rationale lay behind his attempt at a summary execution of the concept of institutional racism. His version of the ‘bad apples’ theory – that racism in institutions like the police is the fault of a few errant individuals, and is, therefore, best solved by dealing with that minority of bad apples – was a convenient position for the government to take. It shifts responsibility and blame for the production of racist ideas and practice away from those who direct and formulate policy. Denial of institutional racism also rejects the idea that policy-makers and politicians have a direct impact upon the social conditions that encourage or discourage racist ideas and practice.

The home secretary’s denial came at a crucial moment: at a time when the political assault on asylum seekers was at its height. Instead of providing a political lead against tabloid race hate, the government responded by launching a state clampdown on the rights of refugees. Perhaps we should have seen the writing on the wall. For when the major piece of post-Macpherson legislation, the Race Relations Act 2000, was passed, immigration officers were exempt form it and were to be allowed to discriminate against ‘undesirable aliens’ identified by the Home Office. Since then Blunkett has licensed the targeting of Roma Gypsies, Kurds, Albanians, Tamils, Pontic Greeks, Somalis and Afghans.

Since 1997 three major pieces of legislation on asylum and immigration have passed through Parliament. Those acts have created 28 new offences that apply exclusively to immigrants or those seeking asylum. That figure more than quadruples if we add in the number of new offences that are also aimed at those seeking to employ, aid or assist those who are designated ‘illegal’. Tough new powers to enforce these laws have been introduced: new powers to detain and imprison; the separation of children from their families; and the denial of benefits. The insistence that failed asylum seekers will be made to work without pay while they await deportation should be read as a harbinger of the more extreme excesses of New Labour’s ‘workfare state’. It is this kind of explicitly xeno-racist reform that has prompted Amnesty to accuse the British government of ignoring its responsibilities under the Geneva Convention.

This year the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality Trevor Phillips came out to declare ‘community cohesion’ (a phrase that Blunkett had been touting since 2001) as the solution to increasingly fractious race relations in the UK. Multiculturalism, we were told, was dead. Following its demise, Phillips argued, we were to pay our respects to a ‘core of Britishness’, even though no one in the country seems to know what that core might look like.

Like so much of New Labour’s double-speak, the term ‘community cohesion’ masks a double-edged sword. The rhetoric proposes an agenda for revitalising community and improving social and economic opportunities for all. The sharp edge of the sword explicitly seeks to rid the country of difference. Blunkett’s obsession with English language classes as a means of coercive assimilation for those who do not ‘integrate’ makes Norman Tebbit’s racist cricket test seem rather quaint and benign. Citizenship ceremonies, those most bizarre and archaic of rituals imposed from above, require prospective citizens to pledge allegiance to the Queen, the national anthem and the Union flag. Even Tebbit couldn’t have dreamt that one up. And much of the community-cohesion agenda is not optional, but compulsory. Witness the recent pledge by the government that imams who fail to project a positive image of Britain will be removed from mosques. We should, therefore, not lose sight of the umbilical link between New Labour’s nationalism and good old-fashioned British imperialism. As Lee Jasper, the secretary of the National Assembly Against Racism, has observed: ‘The English in Gibraltar do not speak Spanish. The English in India did not learn to speak Hindi. The British descendants living in Australia have not adopted the native tongue of the Aboriginal people.’

A UN Human Rights Commission report last year quoted a British National Party official on asylum: ‘There’s an old saying that you need a bit of luck in politics. Well, we’ve had quite a bit of luck in that newspapers have become obsessed with the asylum issue. I have not been able to believe the Daily Express. Issue after issue, day after day, asylum this, asylum that. So we now have the luxury of banging on people’s doors with the mainstream issue of the day.’ New Labour has actively colluded in this process.

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Red Pepper

This article appears in the October issue of Red Pepper magazine.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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