The crisis of black leadership

Issue: 136

Esme Choonara and Yuri Prasad

Nothing illustrates the weakness of black political leadership today more starkly than a comparison between responses to the Tottenham riots of 1985 and the wave of rioting that began in Tottenham in 2011. On both occasions it was the death of a black person unfortunate enough to have had contact with the police that was the spark for major disturbances.

Before the smoke had cleared in 1985, Bernie Grant, the then Labour leader of Haringey council, spoke out, saying, “The youths around here believe the police were to blame for what happened on Sunday and what they got was a bloody good hiding”.1 The press and politicians went ballistic, labelling him “Barmy Bernie”, but to many young people in the inner city he became a hero, someone who despite being of their parents’ generation, had the guts to stand up for them. Two years later Grant was elected MP for Tottenham, one of just four black parliamentarians at the time.

The response of the current MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, to the riots that began after the police shot and killed Mark Duggan could not have been more different. Those who pelted the police with rocks were “mindless, mindless people”, he cried, before explaining that the rebellion was the result of too much social liberalism: “Many of my constituents came up to me after the riots and blamed the Labour government, saying, ‘You guys stopped us being able to smack our children’”.2

Lammy’s speedy intervention helped the political class and the media create a narrative for the disturbances. This wasn’t political, they insisted-this was “criminality, pure and simple”.3 Diane Abbott, the veteran black Labour MP for Hackney North, where the riots had quickly spread, joined the chorus. “Looting is theft and the people who came out to loot last night were thieves,” she said. “You are trashing your own communities… Who is going to invest; who is going to give jobs to communities where this sort of lawlessness occurs?”4

Such was the unanimity that in the weeks following, few black and Asian people in positions of influence-local councillors, writers, commentators, lawyers, religious leaders, community workers, academics, musicians, etc-were willing to speak up for those who had rebelled. Despite the most draconian of crackdowns, and an outpouring of racism in the media directed primarily at young African-Caribbeans, rioters stood almost entirely on their own.

The response to the riots proved that both black and Asian politicians, and the social layer of black and Asian authority figures around them, are utterly disconnected from the most oppressed sections of society. How did this come to be? To understand why it is important to grasp the circumstances that produced previous generations of black leadership, the way in which the state moved to either marginalise or co-opt them in the wake of the riots of 1981, and the political consequences of the move into the Labour Party that much of the left and many black activists made subsequently.

Beginning in 1962, when the government passed the first of many immigration laws that specifically targeted black and Asian workers from the Commonwealth, Britain saw rising opposition to racism. There were movements to repeal racist laws, defence campaigns for the victims of racist policing and the justice system, support for those threatened by fascist violence, protests against the rampant discrimination in the education system, and all manner of local and national groups that sought to channel the anger of black workers and black young people.

The new groups produced newspapers, magazines and journals and a plethora of organisations. Many of the key organisers were influenced by black nationalist politics and drew inspiration from struggles in the US and from the Pan-Africanist movements that followed the end of colonial rule. But there was also a strong strain of Marxism running through the movements that led to a focus on the working class and socialism as the means to achieve liberation. The term “black”, as a political category that could unite all those who faced racism because of the colour of their skin, emerged from the needs of these struggles. It was an attempt to give concrete expression to the ad hoc unity that often emerged when different minority ethnic communities came under attack from racism.

All this took place against a background of rising working class militancy and the growing threat of the new Nazis of the National Front. Resisting racist attacks and racist policing became crucial organising points for black and Asian communities, with a feeling that the state was at best incapable and at worst unwilling to defend them. Most of the campaigns were of a temporary nature but nevertheless could be a powerful instrument. An illustration of the potential of this form of resistance can be seen in the protest that followed the New Cross fire in 1981. The blaze had killed 13 young black people and was widely suspected to have been the result of a fascist attack but the police refused a serious investigation. The demonstration that followed saw up to 20,000 people march from south east London to Hyde Park to demand action from an indifferent Metropolitan Police. It was an extremely militant affair, drawing in many who had never taken action before and combining them with others who had already cut their teeth in the fight against the police and the fascists. The protest was repeatedly attacked by the police and then demonised by the press.

Longstanding Race Today Collective activist John La Rose, who chaired the action committee that organised the march, explained what motivated him: “The organisation to which I belong makes its position absolutely clear. We are part of the perspective of struggle to change British society-it is part of the working class, the black working class and unemployed perspective in Britain, and we are in opposition to the black middle classes whose function is to police that black working class-and act as intermediaries for the state”.5

La Rose’s scathing attack on the black middle class reflected growing anger among radicals at the way the state sought to buy off a minority with jobs in what was becoming known as the “race relations industry”6 while leaving the majority to suffer. His views were echoed among many grassroots activists who viewed the state as an enemy, not a potential ally, in the fight against racism. Dub reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson even wrote a song about it, which he entitled “Di Black Petty Booshwah”.7

Like the New Cross Action Committee, every anti-racist campaign developed organisation, however limited, and threw up spokespeople and leaders. Those who successfully articulated the rage of one group were often eagerly sought after by others. The attitude of the state to the emerging leaders was contradictory. On the one hand it viewed them as threats who must be first criminalised and then neutralised. This was particularly true as the question of defending black communities under threat of racist violence came to the fore. But on the other hand the state also found community leaders useful-they were people you could negotiate with. The need for such “intermediaries” became paramount after riots exploded across Britain later in 1981.

Major disturbances in Brixton, Handsworth, Toxteth and Chapeltown were joined by smaller ones in scores of towns and cities, creating the most serious civil disturbances since the end of the Second World War.8 The combination of deep political alienation with vicious police racism and rocketing youth unemployment was a lethal cocktail, leading to firebombing, looting and widespread attacks on the police, shops and offices, and any visible symbol of authority. The Tories feared the inner city rebellion could feed into growing working class anger at cuts and job losses and moved quickly to appoint a high court judge, Lord Scarman, to investigate the riots’ causes and what could be done to prevent their recurrence.

Scarman’s report provided the liberal whitewash that the establishment had expected of him. It refused to accept there was such thing as institutional racism and instead chose to highlight the so-called deficiencies of Caribbean and Asian families. Nevertheless, Scarman did acknowledge that the police’s use of sus laws (which allowed police to stop and search on grounds of suspicion alone) were the spark that ignited the disorder in Brixton, and concluded that economic disadvantage and racism had created a ready fuel for the uprising. His report called for a carrot and stick approach, where heavy policing would be accompanied by a new approach to law and order, dubbed “community policing”. He also advocated a massive programme of investment in the inner cities. These new strategies marked an acceleration of the state’s attempts to create a buffer between itself and working class black communities.

Kalbir Shukra summarises it this way:

Scarman accepted that “hard” policing (such as stop and search operations) would still be necessary in the future in areas characterised by severe social problems. The question for Scarman was how policing could be enforced without provoking further outbreaks of disorder… Some of the report’s recommendations were implemented through a new dual state strategy of repression and containment. This meant that running concurrently with increasing repression in the form of hard policing measures were new state interventions which were designed to create greater public trust and confidence in official institutions.9

The Tories approved over 200 new “ethnic projects” in the year after the riots, while traditional spending on similar “ethnic schemes” more than tripled.10 In London, Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council (GLC) set up the Ethnic Minorities Committee in 1982. It received more than 300 requests for project funding in its first year and subsequently had its budget tripled.11 For the Tories in central government, the aim of such funding was to create a range of self-help organisations and businesses in which black entrepreneurs would play a key role. This new black middle class would have a stake in the system and could be encouraged to neutralise threats to its stability.

For Labour left wingers, now in charge of (as well as the GLC) most London boroughs and many metropolitan and city councils, the reasoning was different. They argued that drawing community groups into a closer relationship with the local authority through grant funding and more open decision making was a way of extending democracy and giving black people political power. It was also a way of developing a channel of communication with black activists so that their views could shape policy in local government. The rhetoric was radical even if the reality was somewhat different.

A minority of black activists smelt a rat and ridiculed the incorporation policy as little more than an attempt at divide and rule.12 But the increasingly black nationalist alternative advanced by groups such as the Race Today Collective offered little. Attempts to persuade black workers to organise their own workplace struggles separate from whites came to nothing, while black-only community defence campaigns tended to be short-lived affairs that did not reflect the multi-racial reality of the struggles.13 Even those who refused to accept the state’s embrace began to narrow their horizons, no longer believing their struggles could end racism once and for all, and instead accepting that only small-scale reforms of the system were possible now.

The use of state funding as a means of incorporation was given a further twist as local authorities started to move against the use of “black” as a political category in favour of a series of ethnicities. The logic of combining all those affected by racism was broken down as councils insisted that black was divided into first black and Asian, and then ever small units until Asian became Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Chinese and Other Asian. Community groups bidding for council funding now had to prove they represented particular ethnicities and then join the fierce competition for ever-declining resources.

The changes were embraced enthusiastically by proponents of identity politics, a fashionable spin-off from the postmodernism that had begun to grip the academic left. Breaking down the unity of the term “black” was essential, they argued, because all forms of collective struggle were simply a mask that covered “differing realities”. Over the course of the 1980s identity politics swept through the left that ran the Labour councils and pretty soon it had inspired such a wave of delinking that even specific ethnicities had to be further compartmentalised by their gender and sexuality. By encouraging the notion of multiple competing identities, the postmodernists and their allies derided the notions of solidarity that underlined the use of the term “black” and so aided those in the state who wanted to incorporate black struggle.

There were other strong factors acting in favour of the strategy of co-option. With working class struggle on a sharply downward trajectory from the late 1970s onwards, many on the radical left had drawn the conclusion that independent socialist organisation was doomed and that they would be more influential inside the Labour Party where they could help shift the party to the left. Tony Benn’s battle for the party’s deputy leadership in 1981 accelerated the process and drew in many who were sharply critical of Labour, particularly over questions of race and immigration.14

For those activists now working within the state or as part of state-funded community or anti-racist groups the logic of joining the Labour Party Black Section (LPBS) was even stronger. If the state could now be considered a vehicle for anti-racism, and Labour in government could be considered its director, then being in the party and seeking elected office made sense. But over time the struggle to shift Labour to this agenda became an end in itself and those who had set out to change Labour found that they had only succeeded in changing themselves. As Kalbir Shukra puts it:

LPBS’s electorally orientated politics turned political issues and black anger into a question of black faces in office. Whereas “mobilisation” had once signified the gathering of forces in readiness for confrontational activity, LPBS’s usage of it turned it into a term which denoted bureaucratic activity… The success in electing hundreds of black councillors and four black MPs in 1987 reinforced the view that black representation, rather than mobilisation, could achieve change for black people.15

And once inside the party black activists found themselves prisoners of the Labour leadership which forced them to toe an increasingly right wing line. When Bernie Grant spoke out in 1985 he already cut a somewhat isolated figure in the party nationally. Other black party members who refused to obey the top of their party found themselves subject to harsh disciplinary measures.16 The emergence of Tony Blair and New Labour in the mid-1990s accelerated the process to the point where Labour’s black MPs, previously known for being on the radical left of the party, increasingly found themselves lured to the centre by offers of cabinet and committee posts.

Once there, they defended the New Labour line that talked of balancing “rights” with “responsibilities” but in reality meant absolving the state of the responsibility of what were now considered to be the failings of individuals.17 Issues that had once galvanised anti-racists into action-such as the way schools continue to fail black children, the lack of black people in good jobs and in public life, and even the criminalisation of young black people-were now seen, not as the consequence of institutional racism, but of nihilistic black youth cultures and “the failure of the black family”.18

That New Labour cast such a long shadow over anti-racist struggle did not prevent new battles over racism, but it did mean that the public figures that many people looked to for a lead-the black MPs, councillors, community organisers, etc-increasingly sought to neutralise any potential threat to the establishment by limiting the aims of the struggle to small-scale reforms, while urging black people to look to themselves for explanations as to why they suffered. 19

In this sense, black MPs’ unanimous condemnation of the riots, and the silence of so many other black and Asian figures, does not itself mark a watershed-it merely showed us how far they have travelled on the road to being part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

Bradford: a tale of two crackdowns

If the tale of the responses to the two Tottenham riots illustrates the current weakness of black African-Caribbean politics, the tale of two crackdowns in Bradford starkly reveals the decline of Asian militancy and organisation over the past few decades.

In the summer of 1981, 12 young Asian men were arrested in dawn raids across Bradford after police found a crate of home-made petrol bombs. They were charged with conspiracy to cause an explosion and endanger lives, crimes that carried a potential life sentence. Instead of denying their involvement, the accused argued that they had a right to defend their community from fascist attack-that self-defence is no offence. After a huge national campaign, they were acquitted and made legal history, enshrining the right to community self-defence in law.

Skip forward 20 years almost to the day to Bradford in 2001 where hundreds of Asians were caught up in riots provoked by fascists and the police. The crackdown that followed saw the courts throw more than 200 young people in jail, with sentences totalling more than 604 years, for defending their community with sticks and stones.20 Rather than turning out to support their youngsters as happened 20 years earlier, many of the older generation encouraged their children to hand themselves in, wrongly believing they would be dealt with more leniently. Although some of the left took up the issue of the punitive sentences, the campaign on the ground was weak and defensive.21 So what happened in those intervening 20 years to create such a contrast?

The campaign for the Bradford 12 was part of a larger wave of struggles against racism, including confrontations with the National Front, some significant strikes involving Asian workers and in particular the Asian youth movements of the 1970s and 1980s. These youth movements were made up of a new generation who were unwilling to put up with the racism they saw their parents endure and determined to defend themselves from the growing harassment by fascist thugs and the police. Like other black activists of the time, they were informed by international struggles-by Vietnam, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Palestine and by the legacy of the US Black Power movement. They were also influenced by the left-several of those involved in founding the Asian youth movements had been members or were close to organisations such as the International Socialists (forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party).22

The first of the youth movements was formed in Southall after the racist murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in June 1976. New groups followed in many towns and cities including Bradford, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Luton, Burnley and east London.23 Although many of the groups called themselves Asian movements, they saw themselves as part of a wider struggle by all black people. Balraj Purewal, one of the founders of the Southall Youth Movement, explains: “In terms of the Afro-Caribbean youth, the link…was very close, and they were part of the Southall Youth Movement”.24

Groups took on the characteristics of their locality and often worked alongside or in cooperation with other left organisations. They were part of a wider campaign of direct action against the NF, which included, for example, the historic confrontation in Lewisham in August 1977 and subsequent mass mobilisations by the Anti Nazi League. Groups also took up the fight to support families torn apart by racist immigration laws along with other issues such as the increasing tuition fees for overseas students. The Asian youth movements were seen as more radical than the organisations of their parents’ generation. While many of the young activists’ parents would have harboured dreams of returning home, this was a generation that had grown up in Britain and was “Here to stay-Here to fight!” as one of the most prominent slogans put it.

The campaign for the Bradford 12 was a key moment for the Asian youth movements.25 Those arrested and charged were members of the United Black Youth League, a split from the Bradford Asian Youth Movement. The campaign to support the Bradford 12 grew with mass meetings, demonstrations and pickets of the court every day during the nine-week trial.26 It drew in support from all sections of the local community, as campaign solicitor Ruth Bundy recalls:

I remember going to one very, very early meeting when all the defendants…were locked up in Armley prison, and there were Sikhs in their seventies and eighties and elderly Muslim parents, a whole range of support saying, in a sense, these are our children, support them, defend them, and that’s something that over the years I have never quite seen again.27

The youth movements were one of the high points of a long history of Asian struggles in Britain but went into decline in the 1980s as part of the general downturn. The success in driving the NF back also partly removed a focus that had united those involved. Like the black African-Caribbean groups, the Asian youth movements had organisational and political weaknesses that the state was keen to exploit. Despite cooperation between different groups, they mostly remained local in organisation and were also subject to splits and arguments over the question of state funding.28 Some members of the movements turned their attentions to setting up community centres in Bradford and Manchester, moving away from political confrontation with the state to competing with rivals for funding while devoting their energies to organising official community and youth groups. This “scramble for government favours and government grants”29 helped to fragment the groups.

As with other black activists, there was also a pull towards the Labour Party. As collective struggle declined, the lure of reformism grew. Many Asian activists joined the Labour Party. For example, Marsha Singh, a former member of the Bradford Asian Youth Movement, went on to become the Labour MP for Bradford West.30

The period of the 1990s and the 2000s saw both similarities and differences between Asian and African-Caribbean organisations. The striking similarities were the state’s continued dual strategy of repression and co-option. The differences were in the way they were employed and the specific impact of the “war on terror” on Britain’s Muslims.

Muslims and the “war on terror”

Although there have been Muslims in Britain for centuries, the creation of a specific Muslim identity-by either the state or by Muslims themselves-is a fairly recent phenomenon.31 The impact of imperialism, in particular the New World Order of the early 1990s, the arguments around the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the more recent “war on terror”, along with the growing racism against Muslims worldwide have all played a part in the creation of a distinct category and identity.

The British Muslim identity has also been strengthened in a more positive way. As Parveen Akhtar puts it, “There is doubtless at present growing anti-Muslim sentiment in many quarters of Britain…many youths consequently take up a publicly expressed ‘Muslim’ identity purposefully, to fly in the face of this growing racism”.32 Nevertheless, Muslims in Britain do not form a single homogeneous group: they are divided by ethnic origin, class, age, politics and many other features.

Over the past two decades Muslims have been subject to an onslaught of accusations of self-segregation and harbouring a disloyal “alien” culture, as British politicians have bolstered a very exclusive version of nationalism. The terms of this onslaught have shifted from attacking “Asian” culture to specifically targeting “Muslims”. This campaign has been more than simply rhetorical.

In the summer of 2001 fascist provocation and racist policing sparked rioting not just in Bradford but in Oldham, Burnley and Leeds. Arun Kundnani describes the sentences handed out in Bradford as an attempt to “discipline an entire community”.33 The crackdown was combined with a continued ideological offensive from New Labour that painted the community’s lack of integration as the cause of the riots. The Cantle report into the riots said that Muslim communities had deliberately segregated themselves from the rest of society, and this was the cause of racism. Among other recommendations it argued that immigrants should take an oath of allegiance that establishes “a clear primary loyalty to this Nation”,34 a proposal enthusiastically embraced by then home secretary David Blunkett. It also argued that funding of community groups should be “rebalanced” towards those that promote “citizenship” and “community cohesion”. So the response to the northern riots was both stick (brutal sentences) and carrot (the promise of funding for groups promoting the government’s agenda).

Arun Kundnani also points out the failure of so-called “community leaders” to defend the 2001 rioters: “Following in the government’s path, a hundred other voices rushed to condemn the rioters, while little was heard from young mill-town Asians themselves. The community leaders blamed a lack of discipline, a decline in Muslim values and the undue influence of Western values which, to them, was a threat to their own authority. The Asian middle class in the rest of Britain, forgetting that their own secure place in society came about because of those who had taken to the streets in the 1970s and 80s, blamed the ‘village mentality’ of Asian communities not as lucky as their own”.35 It seems that in the 20 years following the Bradford 12 victory the state had succeeded in dividing, intimidating and co-opting away effective opposition to their brutal treatment of young Muslims.

The “war on terror” has built on the agenda of depicting Britain’s Muslims as a self-segregating insular community hostile to “British values”.36 The anti-war movement which culminated in the huge demonstrations of 2003 brought many thousands of Muslims into political activity alongside left and peace activists. As Salma Yaqoob points out, the participation of so many Muslims was not an automatic outcome, but required argument, organisation and standing up to sections of the left who were hostile to working with Muslims.37

Tony Blair’s New Labour government responded to the terror attacks of 9/11 and London’s 7/7 by pushing the onus onto all Muslims to tackle the “evil ideology” in their midst.38 The state’s strategy was to divide Muslims and their organisations into “moderates” and “extremists”. This policy was institutionalised through funding attached to the Preventing Violent Extremism programme, commonly known as Prevent.

From its inception in April 2007 to its recent revamping by the Tories, Prevent embodies the view that all Muslims are part of a “suspect community”.39 With a cross-departmental annual budget that has run into the millions, Prevent has continued to use funding for local authority and voluntary projects to bolster groups that fit in with the government’s agenda.

The state uses Prevent to foster compliant Muslims groups and reliable “community leaders” while those in disagreement with the government are isolated and designated as extremists. The strategy has also been used to promote particular theological strands that the government favours. It has embedded security services in the provision of local services and attempted to turn teachers, lecturers and other state employees into government spies. Alongside the bribery of funding and official sponsorship, the state has continued the repression against Muslims, with a huge rise in stop and search of young Asian men and numerous high-profile “terror raids” that often amount to nothing. This is part of an attempt to stoke up fear and isolate Muslims from other working class communities.

This mixture of co-option, blackmail, bribery and repression provides the context to responses by Muslims to provocations by the English Defence League (EDL) in recent years. The state has tried a number of approaches to counter-protests against the EDL-including ignoring them, heavy repression, banning marches, courting, intimidating or pressurising community and mosque leaders to discipline their young people, and attempting to divide Muslims from the rest of the anti-fascist movement.40

In some areas their strategy has been effective in limiting anti-EDL protests. In other areas, most notably Tower Hamlets in 2011 and Waltham Forest in 2012, there have been large united demonstrations.41 The balance of forces varies, but the factors determining the level of Muslim participation include the political leadership of the mosques in the area, the growing pressure from young Muslims who want to confront the EDL and the role of the left and wider anti-fascist movement. How these factors will continue to play out will be seen in practice in future flashpoints.

The Bradford backlash

The racist notion of almost timeless British Muslim communities with official leadership handed down from one generation to another was delivered a massive blow by the election of George Galloway to the Bradford West seat in 2012. Labour wrongly thought it could rest its election campaign upon longstanding self-proclaimed figures of authority in the city. Even Labour MP Sadiq Khan admitted the party had been arrogant to take Muslim votes for granted and had wrongly relied on the patronage of community elders and mosque leaders to mobilise votes.42

Galloway’s campaign tapped into another form of leadership-that based, even in a small way, on struggle rather than accommodation. The support for Galloway did not come just from Muslims, but the campaign’s energetic appeal to class anger over austerity and attacks on education as well as the issues of war and imperialism chimed with a generation of young working class Muslims angry at a lack of opportunity and lacking a mainstream voice.

For many years Labour felt able to count on Muslim votes despite delivering precious little. Its handpicked Muslim local councillors and occasional prospective parliamentary candidates were the beneficiaries of previous waves of black and Asian struggle. There is now more Muslim representation than ever before. The last election saw the first three Muslim women elected to parliament. Yet, as with black African-Caribbean MPs, the gap between them and the people they represent has never been greater.


In addressing today’s crisis of black leadership, it is important not to collapse into nostalgia for the past. The 1960s and 1970s were difficult times for black and Asian people with brutal racism and fascists organising on the streets. The struggles of those decades were inspirational, but they were a product of their time. Every generation has thrown up struggles against racism and as part of wider class struggle.43 The important thing is to learn from the past in order to avoid the pitfalls and political mistakes of previous generations-including the danger of collaboration with the state and the pull of reformism.

As we have seen, state strategies of co-option and repression have attempted, with some success, to fragment struggles, criminalise black and Asian youth, and isolate Muslims and other black people from wider forces. The question for the left is how to overcome this.

The key to solving the problem is the use of united front campaigns that can reach out to wider forces. Even in the political climate of the 1990s such strategies were sometimes possible-most notably the Stephen Lawrence campaign led by his parents, Doreen and Neville. The long battle mobilised thousands of activists-black, white and Asian-into petitioning, protesting, holding meetings and attempting to hold the police accountable. It involved the trade union movement, which provided much of the funding for the campaign, as well as a militant 60,000-strong march on the Nazi BNP’s headquarters in Welling, very close to where Stephen was murdered. The Lawrence campaign had the spirit of a united front campaign-though it remained an informal one. It succeeded in shifting both the Labour Party and the police, famously establishing the recognition of institutionalised police racism through the Macpherson inquiry.

Today there is a new generation of justice campaigns, led by families of black people who have died in police custody. An interesting feature of these is their ready interaction with the wider left, for example through the Defend the Right to Protest campaign. Many black justice campaigners have made common cause with victimised student protesters and with the struggles of the family of Ian Tomlinson, a white working class man who died after being struck by a police officer at the 2009 G20 protests in London. These signs of ready cooperation reflect the way in which the weakness of black separatist politics today throws up a chance to generalise and widen the struggles that would once have been seen as more narrowly focused black self-defence campaigns.

At their best, united front campaigns involve the revolutionary left working alongside reformists, black and Asian organisations and many other individuals to overcome the attempts to isolate and divide us. They do this by mobilising wider social forces and revealing the scale of potential allies. They are also arenas in which various strategies informed by different political outlooks can be put to the test in practice. United multi-racial campaigns can also lay the basis for militant class-based struggle instead of identity-based politics.

The Stop the War Coalition that reached its height with the huge marches of 2003 involved thousands of Muslims alongside the revolutionary left, many Labour supporters, trade unionists and others. It showed that it was possible to break down some of the isolation of Muslims under attack by the state, media and wider racist ideology.

The most dramatic recent struggles against racism have involved united fronts against the EDL, where revolutionaries have reached out to those to their right politically-to Labour MPs, trade union leaders, and community and religious organisations-in order to mobilise wider social forces. This is not an accommodation to reformism, but a serious attempt to draw in wider numbers to a radical and effective struggle against fascism.

The movement has broken down some of the isolation of Muslims. As Dilowar Khan put it after the 5,000-strong protest against the EDL in Tower Hamlets, “I get a sense recently that the spirit of united resistance that was there in the 1970s is coming back. People, including many non-Muslims, are saying that they will not leave us to stand alone. You can see that in the way people came together to defend the community, and the East London Mosque in particular, from attack by the English Defence League”.44

The global economic crisis and shift to austerity have seen a return of both crisis at the top of society and a resurgence of the question of class. This, combined with the weakness of black nationalism and black reformism as credible frameworks for resistance, offers new chances to build alliances and a multi-racial grassroots leadership that emerges from the real struggles of our times.

The fate of the fight against racism is ultimately tied to the dynamics of wider class struggle. That is not to say that rising struggle automatically deals with racism-in many of the strikes of the 1970s, for example, Asian workers had to battle against racism in the trade union movement as well as from their employers and the state. But class confrontation creates a culture of resistance-and opportunities for solidarity and a chance to overcome racist divisions.

The anger against racism and the system that exploded in the riots in 2011 is not just confined to those who took part. The growing bitterness at austerity is spread across the whole working class. Despite the success of a number of black and Asian individuals who have joined the ranks of the middle class or the political or business establishments, the vast majority of black and Asian people remain concentrated among the working class and often among the poorest sections of the population. Among the millions of people who have taken strike action, campaigned for justice, protested, demonstrated or confronted the EDL, there is a potential new generation of black leadership who can form part of a vibrant and combative multi-racial left. Only such a combined working class force is capable of not just challenging, but defeating, both racism and the capitalist system that breeds it.


1: BBC, 8 April 2000,

2: Interview with LBC Radio, 29 January 2012.

3: David Cameron, press statement, 9 August 2011.

4: Interview with Sky News, 9 August 2011.

5: Quoted in John, 2011.

6: The Commission for Racial Equality was established by the 1976 Race Relations Act and sought to resolve issues of discrimination through a legalistic framework. It spawned an array of local race equality councils which mixed community activists with local councillors. Many black activists who participated were later employed by local council race equality departments and became increasingly detached from black communities.

7: Linton Kwesi Johnson was a member of the Race Today Collective and his work from this period paints a brilliant picture of black Britain. In particular listen to Sonny’s “Lettah”, “Di Great Insohreckshan”, “New Crass Massahkah” and “Reggae Fi Peach”.

8: See Harman, 1981.

9: Shukra, 1998, p54.

10: Sivanandan, 1990, p94.

11: Gilroy, 1987, p138.

12: A Sivanandan even spoke to the GLC’s Ethnic Minority Unit in 1983 only to denounce them, saying he was a “disbeliever in the efficacy of ethnic policies and programmes to alter, by one iota, the monumental and endemic racism of this society”-Sivanandan, 1990, p63.

13: Far from being race riots, the uprisings of 1981 were multi-racial and around half of all those arrested were white. See Harman, 1981.

14: See, for example, Tariq Ali’s “Why I’m Joining the Labour Party”, and replies-Ali, 1981.

15: Shukra, 1998, p73.

16: For some examples of black Labour candidates who were barred by the party machine, see Holloway, 2012.

17: Paul Boateng became Britain’s first black cabinet minister in 2002. He had once been known as the firebrand young lawyer of the Scrap Sus Campaign but made no further mention of sus after being elected to the Commons in 1987. Keith Vaz, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee and Labour’s Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic group advanced the cause of anti-Muslim racism by voting in favour of 42-day detention without charge of suspected terrorists.

18: All of Labour’s black and Asian MPs have made statements to this effect, but David Lammy’s book on the riots explicitly links hip hop and grime to criminality and delinquency-see Lammy, 2011.

19: For a balance sheet of racism under New Labour, see Mahamdallie, 2002.

20: Prasad, 2010.

21: For example, the campaign set up in 2002 to try to get the Bradford defendants’ sentences reduced includes the assurance that “all those convicted of their involvement have shown remorse for their activities”

22: Ramamurthy, 2006, p43.

23: Ramamurthy, 2006, p44.

24: Balraj Purewal in Ramamurthy, 2007, p15. The website carries a digitised archive of Asian Youth Movement leaflets, posters and other political ephemera.

25: For a sense of the times, it is well worth reading the excellent novel While There Is Light by Tariq Mehmood, one of the Bradford 12.

26: Shahnaz Ali, who was arrested with the Bradford 12 but later released without charge, reflects on growing up in Bradford, the impact of the youth movements and the contrast with Bradford 2001 in a very interesting podcast at

27: Ruth Bundy in Ramamurthy, 2007, p24.

28: Ramamurthy, 2006, p56.

29: Sivanandan, 1990, p94.

30: Ramamurthy, 2006, p56. Interestingly, it was Marsha Singh’s resignation due to ill health in March 2012 that prompted the by-election that George Galloway won so decisively.

31: Mahamdallie, 2007.

32: Akhtar, 2005, p169.

33: Kundnani, 2002. See also Amy Leather’s review article on the Bradford riots elsewhere in this issue.

34: Cantle, 2001, p16. See also the BBC summary of the northern 2001 riots at Note that the BBC insisted on calling these disturbances “race riots”, even though they could more accurately be described as anti-racist riots (quite apart from the other social issues that fuelled the disturbances).

35: Kundnani, 2001.

36: For a demolition of the myths of self-segregation see Finney and Simpson, 2009.

37: Yaqoob, 2003.

38: Guardian, 14 July 2005.

39: Kundnani, 2009, p8.

40: Socialist Worker has an archive collecting reports of the different struggles against the EDL in recent years at

41: Khan, 2011.

42: Independent, 3 June 2012.

43: The best account of these struggles remains Fryer, 1984.

44: Khan, 2011, p198.


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