Millwall and After

First published in New Statesman. 15 October 1993.

On 13 September 1993, the fascist British National Party ( BNP) won its first ever election victory, when Derek Beackon was elected as a local councillor for the Millwall ward of Tower Hamlets, in the East End of London.

The BNP did not give rise to racism. Racism gave rise to the BNP– the racism of expediency of the Liberal Democrats in Tower Hamlets, the racism of poverty generated by the Tories in fourteen years of power, and the racism of failed vision engendered by Labour. All of which, of course, has been compounded by a media, both local and national, which increasingly see themselves as opinion makers, not investigators. The more recent exploits of the Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats have surfaced in the wake of Beackon’s victory on the Isle of Dogs. But even as far back as 1986, when the Liberals first gained control of Tower Hamlets, the mould of future policy was set in the proposal that homeless families (mainly Bengali) should be removed to a boat moored on the river Thames. The public outcry that followed scuppered those plans. But a year later, the council devised another solution to its homeless problem: it held that the Housing Act’s ‘intentionally homeless’ clause, which debarred applicants from priority accommodation, applied also to Bangladeshis who, by bringing their families over to join them in Britain, made themselves intentionally homeless – in Bangladesh! And, on that basis, it proceeded to evict over forty Bengali families, whose heads of house­ hold had lived and worked in Britain from between sixteen and twenty­ eight years. Subsequent investigations by the Commission for Racial Equality found that Tower Hamlets council, which had the highest number of homeless families living in overcrowded and temporary accommodation, 69 per cent of them black (mostly Bangladeshis), had violated the Race Relations Act on four counts. Since then, the council seems to have voided its culpability by yet another sleight of policy: giving housing priority to the sons and daughters of existing (mostly white) tenants.

If expediency rather than principle set the tenor of Tower Hamlets’ policy in housing, as in other areas, and gave a fillip to popular racist beliefs, it is Tory policy that has systematically savaged local govern­ment and driven it to such a pass. In the two-thirds, one-third society that Thatcherism created, it is the local authorities in the poorest areas that have been landed with the problems of the one-third society. It is they who have the worst housing, the worst schools, the most unem­ployed, the most people on benefit, the biggest social problems, the most indifferent, if not brutal, policing. The money, the resources, the power to do anything about these conditions have been taken away from them. The functions that gave local authorities their authority – raising revenue, building houses, providing education – have been vested in central government and/or private enterprise. There is no local government any more which is answerable to the people who elect it. It is answerable instead to a central government that caps it at will or merely legislates it out of existence. In the event, local authori­ties have lost the will to fulfil even those functions that they can fulfil. Conversely, people have lost their hold on local government – and lost the art of claiming their rights. They have lost the practice of demo­cracy, of having some say over their own lives. That a vote for the BNP is a vote for democracy is the tragic claim of that decline.

But then Labour offers no redress. The areas in which the fascists have set up their stalls are precisely those which have been blighted by Thatcherism and abandoned by Labour. Once the industries had gone from these areas, and the unions with them, Labour was at a loss how to mobilise the energies and resourcefulness of local communities in their fight against increasing social deprivation, unemployment and poverty. In the East End of London, where the docks had died, these conditions were further aggravated by development schemes which took away vast tracts of land from the docklands boroughs and handed them over to private developers to build houses for sale, way out of the price range of most local people. And, although there were organised struggles on the part of the local communities, such as the People’s Plan, to contest the inroads the London Docks Development Corpora­tion was making into their lives, Labour could not bring itself to recognise that such community struggles were now central to its socialist remit. Instead, it remained anchored in old-style machine politics and power-mongering.

In the event, white working-class communities, which in some parts of the East End are virtual enclaves, bounded by the river on one side and arterial roads on the other, have developed a siege mentality and turned to the easier belief that their last belonging is being taken by the Bengalis. The only thing that holds them together now is their race and space. Hence the slogans, ‘Rights for Whites’ and ‘The Island for the Islanders’. Their communities are dying, and what the BNP has offered them is the chance to found an imagined community out of their blood­ stock racism. Racism is the comfort of last resort.

The Bangladeshis were the last ‘wave’ of immigrants to enter Britain and they came at a time (the late ’60s and ’70s) when the boom was over, the big industries were in decline, and cheap labour was needed, if at all, only in the service industries, in small-scale factory production and the finishing trades, in the sweat-shops of London’s East  End. That is what the Bengalis came into, and  that is where  they settled  – in the most derelict areas of the capital, in the breeding grounds of fascism.

Not that the Afro-Caribbeans and Asians who came in the ’50s and ’60s were not also forced to settle in decaying inner-city areas. Nor that they, too, did not have to put up with a vicious and undifferentiating racism that colour-barred them from public places and denied them the meanest housing. But these were boom times. Britain needed all the labour it could lay its hands on. And black workers, and they were mostly workers then, were able to mitigate their exclusion from the housing market and welfare services by self-organisation, creating alter­ native infrastructures and fighting for their rights – as a people and as a class, and as a people for a class. That was how ‘black’ emerged to denote the colour of one’s politics, irrespective of whether one was Afro­ Caribbean, Asian or African – an experience unique to Britain.

Today, precisely because of the factory-floor and community struggles of that era and the youth rebellions of the ’80s, there is an emerging black middle class, whose preoccupation is with social and economic mobility. In the process, blacks have allowed themselves to be broken down into their cultural or ethnic constituents. And culture itself has become, according to the black intelligentsia, the arena in which race politics are played out. Hence the fight against racism is a fight for culture, and the terrain on which it is fought is the terrain of discourse and representation. Which, of course, does not speak to the condition of poor blacks, for whom fighting racism means fighting for their lives.

In effect, there are two racisms in Britain today, stratified along class lines: the racism that affects middle-class blacks and the racism that affects the working-class and workless blacks – the racism that discri­minates and the racism that kills. The solution to the one is no solution to the other. But it is racial discrimination that gets addressed, and the terms in which it is addressed are those set by Scarman: ‘racial disadvantage’ and ‘positive action’. Hence the solutions are equal opportunities and ethnic monitoring and a visible ‘black and Asian’ presence in the media. And underpinning them all is a (weak and ineffectual) Race Relations Act.

Yet, these are the solutions, and the Race Relations Act in parti­cular, that have been held up as an example to the rest of Europe. And by that same token, it has even been argued that Britain is less racist than Germany or France, that it has no politicians of any stature or clout spouting racist ideologies, no Schonhuber or Le Pen.

But last year alone, twelve black people were murdered on the streets of Britain for no other reason than their colour. On the govern­ ment’s own showing, there are now over 140,000 racial attacks every year. The researches of the Institute of Race Relations reveal that, every other month, a young black person dies in suspicious circum­stances in the custody of our prisons, police and psychiatric hospitals. These are horrendous figures in themselves. But behind them lies a whole fabric of official racism, institutional racism, promoted by Thatcherite free-market policies and validated by its Social Darwinist philosophy. The former, by removing the notion of accountability from the public sphere has, for example, allowed the deaths in custody mentioned above to go unaccounted for. The latter, by segregating pupils on the basis of achievement and excluding them from education on the basis of behaviour, which in this society is invariably construed in cultural or racial terms, has compounded class disability with racial disadvantage in a process of social cleansing. Literally thousands of children are denied education each day on the basis of their behaviour. And all this has affected the poorest and most defenceless sections of the black communities and rendered them even more eligible to fascist attack.

Institutionalised racism, in sum, informs the culture of popular racism which, in turn, provides the recruiting ground for fascism. Under successive Tory governments, though, institutionalised racism has come to be woven into institutionalised poverty and set working­ class communities at each other’s throats.

Labour has been unwilling or unable (or unable to the point of unwilling) to take on the fight against racism or lead a crusade against poverty. Its capitulation to the Tories over the Asylum Act, which views as criminals those who so much as seek asylum in this country, smelt of collusion. Its silence over the laws and policies being hatched in secret by ministers and officials and police chiefs in the Trevi group and at Schengen and Dublin, while boding ill for democracy. smells also of collaboration with pan-European racism – the one international movement that Labour has finally succeeded in evolving. And as for the racism on the streets, Labour has allowed its black MPs to deal with it as best as they individually can, as though racism were a black problem.

To look to the government to outlaw racism or  to the Opposition for a principled leadership is a futile exercise. To expect even the avowedly more serious media to investigate racism, instead of mouthing opinions, is even more futile. A case in point was BBC television’s East Special on the BNP victory at Millwall, which did not bother to investigate the main plank of the BNP propaganda –  i.e.,  that all the housing on the Isle of Dogs was going to Bengalis. If it had, it would have found that of 135 families housed between April and August this year, less than a fifth were Bengalis. The figures were publicly available, but the BBC presented instead a poll of local opinion which, passing for factual information, left the BNP’s claim unchallenged, if not justified.

What is even more calamitous, though, is that national anti-racist and anti-fascist organisations have not been able to come together in a common cause. The Left continues to see the fight against racism as subsidiary to the anti-fascist struggle, and itself as the historical repository of that struggle. It ignores state racism and continues to  view working-class racism as an aberration. Racial violence, therefore, is a by-product of fascism. Get rid of the fascists and racial violence will disappear too. Hence its programme of action tends to be reactive and follows a pre-set formula, organising around a specific threat or  for a particular eventuality. But such floating anti-fascism renders local communities mere venues for disconnected actions and leaves them prey to the fascist backlash once the anti-Nazi marchers have gone.

Black-led national organisations, on the other hand, although relating to community struggles, tend to use them as a means of gaining legitimacy and publicity for their own organisation – instead of putting themselves at the service of the community and making available to it the expertise and the access to politicians and the media which it lacks. Instead, that is, of telling a campaign: you are the movement, how can we help you to organise, they are more likely to say: we are the national organisation and, therefore, the movement.

What emerges from the Tower Hamlets experience is that there is little to choose between the national Black and Left organisations. They neither sustain and support the new protest movements that are springing up in the Bengali community nor work with the white com­munities to counter the Rights for Whites movements in areas like the Isle of Dogs. And not till such time as they base themselves in these communities and help them to organise on their own behalf, con­necting the fight against racism with the fight against social deprivation, can there be a unified movement or an organic struggle.

The fight against racism cannot be divorced from the fight for resources, the fight against fascism cannot be divorced from the fight against racism, the fight against racism and fascism cannot be divorced from the fight against the Tories. And the only way we can connect these on the ground is by turning (local) cases into issues, issues into causes, causes into a movement.