Mohamed Elmaazi examines how the Labour Party Conference’s historic pledges on immigration mark a significant departure from the racism and xenophobia which was deeply entrenched in parts of the UK labour movement over the past century.

This article is published jointly by The Interregnum and Pressenza.

I attended the UK Labour Party conference in Brighton on behalf of The Canary and was witness to one of the most significant votes in Labour’s history. From 21 to 25 September delegates representing dozens of trade unions and Constituent Labour Parties (CLPs) across the UK, discussed, debated, and voted upon matters ranging from global warming, to recognising the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees, to bailing-out[pdf, p13] the travel agent Thomas Cook.

One of the most historic votes pertained to immigration and the treatment of foreign born persons. As I wrote previously in The Canary, among the proposals[pdf, p9/10] adopted unanimously, were pledges to commit the Labour Party to: “close all detention centres”, “extend equal rights to vote to all UK residents”, bring an end to all “Hostile Environment measures” (which resulted in terrorising non-White peoples in particular, exemplified by the outrageous Windrush debacle), and “ensure unconditional right to family reunion”.

A sea change for the UK Labour movement

It can be difficult to appreciate what a radical departure these policies are. Not simply from mainstream immigrant bashing policies over the last two decades, but even for the UK Labour Party and the Labour movement over the past century.

As Jorge Martin of Socialist Appeal told me:

“Within the Labour Party and the labour movement there have always been two traditions, a socialist one and a reformist one and on matters like immigration, racism, imperialist wars, etc, they have always been on opposite sides of the fence. The motion on immigration is part of the transformation of the Labour Party under Corbyn and a move away from Ed Milliband’s mugs, from Gordon Brown’s “we must celebrate the Empire”, from Blair’s imperialist wars.”

Stephen Agnew, a delegate for Bethnal Green and Bow CLP, agreed that “Unions have been previously poor on this issue. And so has the party leadership…”. Like every other delegate I spoke to, Agnew considered the immigration vote to be “a real positive development”, which by his mind was: “brought about by community organising and winning people over politically.”

Understanding our anti-immigrant, anti-black history

To understand how significant a sea change this vote was, and the significance of unanimous support from both constituent and union delegates, it is worth examining the UK labour movement’s historic attitude toward foreign born workers.

John Wrench, formerly a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, University of Warwick, detailed this very issue in 1986. In his policy paper “Unequal Comrades: Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism“, Wrench described how [pdf, p6]:

…history shows the record of the trade union movement to be characterized at worst by appalling racism and often by an indefensible neglect of the issues of race and equal opportunity. Between the two world wars, there was an effective colour bar in British industry, supported openly by individual unions. Apparently the greater ‘tolerance’ which operated towards black workers during both wars was clearly understood by white workers and their unions to be temporary.

He gives as an example the sacking[pdf, p6 – 7] of 120 black workers, “who had been employed for years in Liverpool sugar refineries and oil and cake mills” in 1918, “because white workers refused to work with them”. Other examples from that era include how “the seamen’s unions formally and openly opposed the employment of black seamen when white crews were available”.

Wrench notes that[pdf, p7] while the history of racism and xenophobia in the Labour movement is often “written off” as being part of the “bad old days”:

“The uncomfortable fact remains that some of the most notorious cases of union hypocrisy and racism have occurred since the Second World War.”

From the Top-down

Despite the post-war labour shortages, “it was trade unionists and Labour Party members who were the first to voice objections to ‘coloured immigration’ “. This realty was exacerbated by a Labour Party leadership which:

“was washing its hands of any responsibility or guidance on the reception of immigrants. The Labour government was ‘blind’ to racism – it was seen to be the concern of those involved with colonial affairs, “something external, not germane, to the main-stream of the labour movement” “

Wrench describes how [pdf, p7]:

“The [Labour] government’s laissez-faire attitude was to set the pattern for later Trades Union Congress [TUC] inaction. The Labour government’s view was that to make any special welfare or housing provision would be to discriminate against the indigenous population; this view was echoed by the TUC in the 1950’s and 1960’s.”

While it is worth reviewing Wrench’s analysis in full [especially pdf, p7 – 12], the post-WWII failings in the UK trade union movement to tackle racism and xenophobia include cases of both passive and active “collusion of local shop stewards and officials” in discrimination. As well as a:

“general lack of awareness of the issues of race and equal opportunity and the particular circumstances of ethnic minority members, which may not manifest itself as racism but in effect lessens the participation of black members in the union”.

A microcosm of the wider society

It is also worth noting that historically speaking Black and Asian workers were statistically[pdf, pg 6] even more likely to join a labour union than their White/indigenous counterparts, notwithstanding the rather dismissive attitude of the union leadership towards their concerns.

But bigotries and attitudes of many of parts of the UK labour movement was reflective of wider societal attitudes as well.

Activist, artist and playwright Jackie Walker, who is of mixed Jamaican, Portuguese, and Russian origin, arrived in the UK in the 1959. She told me that when she was a child it was the Labour Party council in Bristol which had an “unofficial ban” on providing public accommodation to the Black population. She also described how her English teacher refused to accept that, as a Black five-year-old child, she could read and write, so after a while she simply stopped doing so. And that she had “learned to run” because otherwise she would “get beaten up”.

An attitudinal change in the younger generation

On the train back from Brighton, after the end of the conference, Walker told me that the significance of the immigration vote was also discussed among the Labour Left Alliance in Brighton. She agreed that “community organising and winning people over politically” was part of it. But she also noted that by and large the younger generation were more tolerant and accepting than the older generations.

Owen Lloyd-Jones, a young-ish North Somerset CLP delegate, called detention centres a “cruel and inhuman way to manage people who are just trying to live their lives”. When I asked him why he supported the right of all UK residents to vote, he said:

“It seems a clear and obvious point of basic democracy that people should vote on the services that affect them, on the government that they are living under. It’s not a question of where you started out, its where you are now that affects the services you need.”

That way of thinking was common among delegates I spoke to.

How these policies are “explained” will make all the difference

Whilst the younger UK generation may be more enlightened and democratic in their outlook, it is certainly also true that elements of the UK remain entrenched in their conservative, intolerant, and even reactionary attitudes towards foreign residents generally and the non-White population more specifically.

I asked Jorge Martin whether he was concerned that the pledges might be a “too radical” for the wider UK population, and may end up ‘backfiring’ against the Labour Party. He told me:

“[T]hat depends on how they are explained. The ruling class wants to push the idea that there is a problem of lack of resources and that this is affecting health care, education, housing, jobs, etc. The response, which Corbyn has been putting forward skillfully is; ‘No, there is no lack of resources, and problems in health care, education, housing are caused by the Tory policies of austerity’; this combined with the rest of the Labour policies regarding housing, abolition of tuition fees, abolition of prescription charges, reduction of the working week, full employment rights from day one, restoration of trade union rights, a living wage, etc should make a program that can win a general election with a big majority.”