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Issue 47, May 2000

Racist upsurge in Britain

THE LAST THREE months have seen a vitriolic outpouring of racism and hysteria against asylum seekers, both in the press and from the Tories and New Labour. This is the most serious attempt to whip up racism in Britain since the 1970s.

New Labour, who in opposition opposed the Tories asylum legislation as racist, have now introduced laws far more brutal than the Tories ever implemented.

The Immigration and Asylum Act came into force on April 1 this year. The Act includes a whole number of barbaric measures. Asylum seekers will be forced to disperse across the country. Without any justification, they can be put under house curfew for over seven days. If they break the curfew all state benefits will be stopped. Benefits, at just £35 a week for a single adult, are being paid in the form of vouchers. The government has even written to supermarkets telling them to refuse to give asylum seekers change, just to make sure that they don't get any cash in their pockets.

New Labour is presiding over the highest number of removals and deportations in the history of Britain. In January, a record 3,675 refugees were kicked out - five people an hour. Simultaneously, the government has drawn up plans to airlift 20,000 wealthy whites out of Zimbabwe, a graphic description of the racist nature of the asylum laws.

This vicious legislation has been accompanying by a barrage of racist propaganda from the government. The Tories have attempted to outdo New Labour - demanding that all asylum seekers (instead of just some) should be locked up in 'boot camps'. The UN has condemned the Tories stance as racist but New Labour only dismissed this idea, not because it is inhumane, but because it would be too expensive!


The tabloid press is full of stories about asylum seekers living in luxury. However, it is not only the tabloids that have whipped up this issue. The Guardian and The Independent, supposedly liberal newspapers, have both carried articles about 'intimidating' beggars, who have the temerity to hold children while they ask for money.

Inevitably, all this has had an effect. Racism is on the increase in society. All the anti-racist monitoring projects report an increase in racist attacks - not only against asylum seekers but also against ethnic minorities in general. The far-right neo-nazi parties, the British National Party and the National Front, while still minuscule, are becoming more confident to organise activity and to openly campaign on a racist programme. It is likely that we will also see their vote beginning to increase in some areas.

The majority of working-class people, however, see themselves as anti-racist. Nonetheless the government propaganda on asylum is having an effect on a wide layer. This is no surprise given that people experience shortages and cuts in housing, education and health care and, at the same time, face a barrage of publicity blaming asylum-seekers for the lack of resources. This is particularly the case in those areas where, in addition to Labour's national campaign, local authorities have blatantly blamed asylum-seekers for increases in council tax and lack of housing.

Despite the bile in the media, anti-asylum seeker feelings are still very shallow in most working-class communities. In most cases it is possible to shift peoples attention to where the blame really lies, to explain that New Labour have given £14 billion a year in tax cuts to big business since they came to power, while the number of people living in poverty has increased by a million. And that the interests of working-class people lie in fighting alongside each other, not by letting New Labour divide us.


In fact, important sections of the working class, and especially young people, have been repelled by the racism of the government. Many people grasp the horrific circumstances that force families to flee their home countries and seek asylum. It is this mood for unity that Bill Morris, the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, expressed when he attacked the government for their 'inflammatory' language. The Liberal Party, and the broad sheet newspapers, have also belatedly criticised the government for racism. They have realised that among some sections of the population anti-racism is a vote winner. (This pressure has led to New Labour abandoning their proposals to force visitors from India and Pakistan to hand over a bond, of up to £10,000, to be redeemed when they leave the country.)

Unfortunately, racist ideas will continue to get an echo. This is especially the case given that there is still a low level of class struggle in Britain. Bill Morris would cut across racism far more effectively if he were prepared to unite workers in a struggle against the destruction of manufacturing industry. However, despite the refusal of the trade union leaders to lead a fight back, the overwhelmingly mood is still one of unity. The growth of racist ideas in Britain will be met by mass anti-racist movements such as we saw at the beginning of the 1990s. The Socialist Party played a key role in those movements - we have to do the same again in the next few years. At the same time the united struggles of the working class that will develop, which we saw a glimpse of on the Longbridge demonstration, while not eliminating racism, will do much to cut across it.


Hannah Sell

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