Fighting racism in Britain today

The forms may have changed but racism is still deeply embedded in Britain’s capitalist society. Which is why, argues ISAI MARIJELA, the call for system change – socialism – is central to the struggle against it.

Racism remains a part of everyday life for Britain’s Black and Asian people. Shocking figures and statistics reveal the conditions facing people of colour. They are more likely to be in insecure jobs, live in the worst housing and health situations, and suffer disproportionately as a result of the cost-of-living crisis. They are two and a half times more likely to be in poverty than white people.

On top of that, they also face racial discrimination at the hands of the police and other capitalist institutions. The latest government figures on police stop and search show that, in the year to March 2022, there were 27.2 stop and searches carried out for every 1,000 black people, compared with 5.6 for every 1,000 white people.

Report after report reveals the unjust and unequal treatment of Black and Asian workers in workplaces. A 2020 Trades Union Congress report, Dying on the Job, painted a shocking picture of how Black and Asian workers were treated while working through the pandemic.

Fighting racism is an immediate issue that must be addressed in Britain, and a serious discussion and debate needs to take place on what tactics, approach and programme are required to smash it.

Our starting point is to understand the origins of racism and why and how it has been used in society. Racism is not a concept that just came out of someone’s head or is inherent in certain people: no one is born racist. It is a specific development rooted in capitalist society. It’s true that prejudice towards different ethnic groups is not peculiar to capitalist society, but it was only during the early stages of capitalism that race was used to promote the agenda of the ruling class, and then later incorporated into their ideology. In particular, it was developed as an ideology to justify the industrial trafficking of ten million people across the Atlantic by the slave trade.

After the abolition of slavery, racism was adapted to justify colonial rule by British imperialism over much of the planet. After direct colonial rule ended, as a result of mass uprisings, racism has continued. It is still used to justify the huge gulf between the richest countries of the world and the poorest in the post-colonial countries, in particular Africa and Asia. In addition, racism was and is used as a tool to divide and rule the working-class majority in Britain and other countries.

Modern-day racism is not as overt as it was, and some changes have taken place, mainly due to workers’ struggles and anti-racist movements. The civil rights movements in the US of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s had a profound effect on increasing the consciousness of Black and Asian people, and this was also reflected in the anti-racist struggles that took place in Britain.

In Britain, the capitalist class encouraged migration from the ‘Commonwealth’ after the second world war as a form of cheap labour that involved shift work and unpleasant conditions. In the following decades, those workers were involved in struggles both against racism and as part of the working class in trade union action.

Black workers

During this period of struggle, a sense of unity emerged among Black workers. This struggle against racism brought together workers of diverse backgrounds who shared a common experience of discrimination. Most Black workers, even those from middle or ruling-class backgrounds in their countries of origin, were part of the working class in Britain because of the colour of their skin. They were often pushed into factory jobs in manufacturing and distribution, regardless of their qualifications or previous work experience. The term ‘Black’ became seen by many as a political label for all those who experienced racism and played a role in uniting workers of different backgrounds.

It is not a coincidence that Black workers were more likely to get involved in the struggle than their white counterparts. The double oppression they faced pushed them in that direction. It is also not an accident that, as a result of their experiences and the barriers they faced from the system to fundamental change, many Black anti-racist activists who travelled on the road of struggle came towards socialist ideas, drawing the conclusion that you can’t have capitalism without racism – like the Black leaders in the US civil rights movement.

Generally, their position in society pushed Black workers to look to the workers’ organisations – primarily the trade unions but also workers’ parties – to fight for their rights, despite the obstacles that they often faced. On the one hand Black workers had to fight the bosses and the ruling class, and on the other hand the trade union bureaucracies. Black workers had to fight within the trade unions to become members and for the anti-racist struggle to be taken seriously.

Some unions on a local level also operated a colour bar. This was the case on the buses in Bristol in 1963, where the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) had passed a motion at their bus branch to exclude Black workers. However, a four-week organised boycott of the buses resulted in the colour bar being overturned. Another key dispute was the two-year strike from 1976 to 1978 for union recognition, waged by mainly Asian women workers at the Grunwick film-processing lab. Although ultimately ending in defeat, it nevertheless gathered huge support across the working class and showed the determination of these workers to take action.

Trade union issue

Today it is widely accepted that there is no room for racism within the trade union movement. This is the direct result of Black workers fighting alongside white workers. However, in the decades after the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe from the end of the 1980s we saw a general retreat in the confidence of working-class people to fight back collectively, as most of the trade union and Labour leaders accepted there was no alternative to capitalism. That has now begun to change, but those experiences still cast their shadow over all spheres of struggle, including the struggle against racism.

Because of the crisis of capitalism, all establishment parties and institutions have a shallow support base and are broadly seen by large sections of the working class as not representing their interests. While overall overt levels of racism have been pushed back, we are also seeing right-wing politicians and governments increasingly playing off of one section of workers against another and whipping up racism as one means of trying to gain support. Anti-migrant and racist comments are on the rise, particularly from right-wing politicians.

Today, amongst people of colour, the term Black workers is not seen as a political term as it was during the period of post-war anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles. Nonetheless, the Black Lives Matter movement has shown the potential for a struggle against racism using the term ‘Black’. But there has also been a rise in young people, particularly from an Asian background, who are describing themselves as ‘Brown’. Some Black workers are identifying themselves more as Caribbean, African, Nigerian etc.

The Black working class is not a homogenous bloc, just like the broader working class. How you identify yourselves as a group does change with consciousness and the period that you are in. Everyone should have the right to be confident and comfortable with their identity. The role of a socialist movement is not to ignore differences but rather to push for the unifying force – the working class of all backgrounds which shares more things in common than the bosses and the capitalists – and to fight for the emancipation of all.

This means understanding that a key role of racism is to separate and divide the working class, and therefore the only solution to that is to have a united working class fighting together on a programme both against racism and in the interests of the whole working class. The most militant traditions and actions from the trade unions can win Black workers quickly to such a programme. This, along with a clear and bold leadership that is putting forward an alternative, will bring more Black and Asian workers towards the organised workers’ movement.

The Socialist Party is campaigning within the unions for this. We stand in union elections for a programme of action. Our trade union activists have played a key role within the unions in making the Windrush scandal a trade union issue. During the peak of the scandal, two Socialist Party members representing Black members on Unison’s national executive council were campaigning within Unison and the TUC for justice for the Windrush generation. Also, Socialist Party members in Unite the Union moved a motion at the 2018 TUC conference for jobs and homes not racism. Since 2018 this has been TUC policy, with the task for trade unionists now being to act on the TUC to implement it.

Fighting racism is a trade union issue and the workers’ movement in Britain and internationally has to be the backbone for the programme to combat it. With more than six million members, the TUC is still the biggest voluntary organisation in Britain. However, it is not only the size of the working class that gives it its weight in society but the relationship that workers have with the means of producing wealth and profits. It is the organised working class that is the force in society with the potential power to get rid of capitalism and all the rotten oppressions within it.

In Britain, in 2022 and 2023 we saw a level of strike action higher than at any time since the collapse of Stalinism. More than 2.4 million days were lost to strike action between June and December 2022. And during the strike wave there were a higher proportion of Black and Asian workers taking part. The double, and sometimes multiple oppressions they face push them more towards struggle and towards workers’ action.

Political strategy

As well as an industrial strategy, the anti-racist struggle also needs a political one. These are not separate, and one will help with the other. The biggest crisis faced by the working class in Britain and internationally is the lack of a mass party that represents their interests. In Britain what are the choices available to an anti-racist campaigner?

The oldest capitalist party, the Conservatives, are mistrusted and have always been seen as more racist than the Labour Party. Racism is endemic within the Tory party. Their Black and Asian politicians, Rishi Sunak, Suella Braverman, Priti Patel, Sajid Javid and Kemi Badenoch have shown ordinary people that it is not the colour of your skin that is decisive but which class you are representing. Kemi Badenoch recently said that Britain’s wealth wasn’t created by colonial plunder and imperialist exploitation. Yet it has been estimated that the UK alone would have to pay $24 trillion as reparations for its involvement in the transatlantic slavery in 14 countries – such was the scale of exploitation that took place.

Rishi Sunak is the first non-white prime minister, yet his main propaganda has been to ‘stop small boat crossings’ and send refugees to Rwanda. An expensive, unpopular and unrealisable policy which has now been shelved.

Between 1929 and 1987, despite post-war immigration, no British party had had a Black or Asian MP. The only Black and Asian MP in the 1920s was the Communist Party’s Shapurji Saklatvala. Nevertheless, Black and Asian people tended to support the Labour Party, which was seen as, at least, ‘less racist’. During the period of Thatcher, we saw huge support for Labour amongst Black workers. In the 1987 election, 85% of Blacks voted Labour, and 67% of Blacks were members of trade unions. Fundamentally, this was loyalty to a party that was seen as the party for workers. The Labour Party then had a working-class base, which was able to put pressure on the leadership via the party’s democratic structures, even though it was a capitalist workers’ party, with a leadership which ultimately defended the interests of British capitalism.

The election of the first four Black and Asian MPs in 1987, all Labour, came about as a result of different processes. First and foremost it was a result of the growing struggle against racism, and its connection to the labour movement. However, another factor was the response of the capitalist class, which included attempts to foster a Black middle class, via the development of the race relations industry. While Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz were all elected in 1987 as the first four non-white Labour MPs, their politics were very different.

From the beginning Bernie Grant and Diane Abbott identified themselves with the Labour left and were attacked by the establishment for their views. The other two, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz, were initially elected as radical lefts but then supported Tony Blair’s government. Paul Boateng was praised for his loyalty to Blairism – in other words the transformation of Labour into an out-and-out capitalist party – and as a result was appointed as Britain’s first Black cabinet minister and then as a member of the House of Lords in 2010.

Keith Vaz was an MP for Leicester East for 32 years before resigning after a sexual harassment and male prostitution claim. Although from a Catholic background, he has given support to Hindu nationalists and the BJP, leaning on divisions between the communities in Leicester. Under him, the communal tension between the two communities rose. Fundamentally, the only programme that’s going to unite the different communities is a programme in the interests of the whole working class.

During the period of Corbynism, we saw a glimpse of the potential for Labour to be transformed into a real workers’ party when Corbyn was the leader. Jeremy Corbyn – a white person in his 70s – galvanised the energy and enthusiasm of Black and Asian people more than any of the politicians of colour. It was the programme that he stood on that got many Black and Asian people to support him. This programme also cut across the support for UKIP. It is estimated that during the 2017 general election one million UKIP voters switched to supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s programme of cutting tuition fees, secure homes, security at work, and more funding for the NHS and other vital services.

The Socialist Party supported Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto but also campaigned for more. We are fighting for genuine political representatives of the working class – who will fight on an anti-racist, anti-war, anti-austerity programme that unites the working class of all backgrounds. And only a socialist programme can bring all these struggles together.

Starmer’s Labour

The election of Sir Keir Starmer as the leader of the Labour Party has once again secured the party as a reliable tool for the interests of capitalism. It is now becoming difficult to pick out any real differences between the Tory and Labour parties.

The way Diane Abbott has been treated has added to the questioning of the traditional support for the Labour Party among Black and Asian communities. But, fundamentally, this questioning is due to the continued support of Starmer’s Labour for austerity measures and the disproportionate impact these have on Black and Asian people.

The genocidal war against Gaza has taken the distrust and anger at Labour politicians to another level. At the time of the May elections, in wards where more than 10% of people identify as Muslim one estimate was that the party’s support went down on average by eight points compared to the year before.

Starmer is also echoing the anti-migrant rhetoric coming from the Tories. Their silence and opposition to taking the knee even during the Black Lives Matter movement also shows that the Labour right-wing politicians are not the champions of an anti-racist struggle.

Despite everything, many people of colour will still vote for the Labour Party at the coming general election, but it will be to oust the racist, anti-working class policies of the Tories, rather than due to any genuine enthusiasm for Labour. The previous levels of loyalty to the Labour Party no longer exist, especially among younger Black and Asian people.

Diane Abbott said that for her the Labour Party is both a hostile environment and home. In reality, the Labour Party has stopped being a home for most of the Black and Asian population. Ironically, the term ‘hostile environment’ was first introduced by a New Labour government. Blairite Alan Johnson was the first to use the phrase back in 2010 when he was home secretary in Gordon Brown’s government! New Labour under Tony Blair introduced a series of laws progressively restricting the right for those fleeing repression and war to claim asylum. It also introduced a racist points-based immigration system for non-EU workers.

In 2007, Blair’s successor Gordon Brown called for ‘British jobs for British workers’. In 2013, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper spoke in favour of the Tory bill which became the ‘hostile environment’ Immigration Act. While stating that the bill “claims to tackle illegal immigration but does nothing of the sort”, she nonetheless said that “we will not oppose the bill” because “some of its measures are sensible”. In 2015, Blairite Labour leader Ed Miliband’s general election campaign included producing mugs demanding stronger controls over migrants, and the Blairites backed Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ measures.

The Labour Party is fundamentally supporting the same anti-migrant, anti-working class policies as the Tory party. Yes, they have differences of emphasis, but ultimately there is no real difference between the establishment parties. Even on the question of restrictions on the Spouse visa, Labour has not made any commitment to reverse them. The minimum income needed to sponsor a partner rose to £29,000 on 11 April 2024, with plans to increase it to around £34,500 at an unspecified point later in 2024, and finally to around £38,700 by early 2025. This in effect would mean that migrant workers will not be united with their immediate family, including children.

Mass workers’ party

The little hope that exists amongst some within the Black and Asian communities that under a Labour government things will get better is quickly going to be shattered. All the working class, whatever their background, need political representation and a party that fights for an anti-racist and socialist programme.

The Socialist Party fights for a new mass workers’ party and we will engage positively with any development in that direction. We had also been calling on people like Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott to stand independently as part of a broader workers’ list in the general election as well as calling on the trade union movement to take steps in that direction. The starting point for that would have been for the unions to stand or support anti-cuts, anti-war, anti-racist. trade union and socialist candidates.

In the aftermath of the general election and as the failure of an incoming Labour government to defend the working class becomes ever clearer, the question of a new party for the working class will be sharply posed. We will also see the crises and divisions within the Tory party accelerate the likelihood of a stronger right-wing populist force developing is posed, with either a section of the Tories joining Reform or a similar party or breaking away to form a new party; or the moderate wing joining another establishment party, including some to Labour, and leaving the Tory party even more right-wing.

It is difficult to predict the exact outcome of these developments, but it’s clear that without an authorative working-class alternative and a fighting strategy from the trade union movement we are likely to see attempts at blaming certain groups for the problems workers’ face and using racism as a tool to win support. We also can’t rule out anger being expressed through civil unrest or riots. A racist attack or another event could be the spark for the anger in society to find an expression. This is why it’s particularly urgent to for the anti-racist struggle to have an industrial and a political strategy.

The only way to successfully cut across far-right ideas getting a platform is for the workers’ movement to fight for a working-class programme that is anti-racist and socialist to the core: one that unites workers against the bosses. In the coming period, workers of all backgrounds need to get organised within workplaces and communities to fight for jobs, homes and services for all.

The Socialist Party’s Black and Asian caucus has produced a Black workers’ charter with a list of demands to aid the discussion on how we can build a mass movement against racism (see The solidarity and strength of workers action was felt by Black and Asian workers in the strike wave. These lessons will not be lost. To quote Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, “If you dare to struggle, you dare to win” and we can win. As the pandemic has shown it is the working class who are the real force and power in society – the force that can get rid of capitalism.

Ultimately, there are no shortcuts. As long as capitalism exists so must the fight against racism. The hundreds of thousands of mainly working-class youth that took part in the global Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 eagerly took the Socialist Party placard quoting Malcolm X, that you can’t have capitalism without racism. Capitalism in crisis is further exposing its rotten nature. It offers no decent standard of living for the working-class of any background. We need a mass movement armed with a socialist programme that meets the needs of all, so that we can ultimately end racism and all oppressions and exploitation.