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Socialist Review, March 1994

Avtar Jouhl

Racism: an issue for us all

From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The TUC demonstration this month is an important step in uniting black and white workers through the unions against racism. Avtar Jouhl, General Secretary of the Indian Workers’ Association (GB) spoke to Gareth Jenkins and Kevin Ovenden about how to fight one of the major divisions facing us

How are preparations for the demo against racism on 19 March going?

The TUC is moving in consultation with the local community and trade unions in Tower Hamlets and with national anti-racist and anti-fascist organisations. The most important thing is moving towards mobilising people. There should be no repeat of the union demonstration in Birmingham last year where they produced 150,000 leaflets and there were only 150 people on the march out of which 100 were from the IWA.

Mobilisation is absolutely crucial: getting unions to book transport. Activists at the branch meetings should move a motion for the branch to book a coach. The Natfhe (lecturers’ union) executive has decided to actively mobilise its members and the call has gone to all branches. It is an important step for Natfhe which in the past has taken little interest in the anti-racist struggle. I would like to see other unions mobilise for the demonstration. It is crucial for organisations in Tower Hamlets like Youth Connection to mobilise the local community. The ANL has considerable influence in the area and will be building the demonstration.

The march will bring all elements of the anti-racist movement together, which is good coming after the Unity demonstration which mobilised 60,000 people.

It is a welcome initiative for the TUC to organise a march against racism for the first time. It is a new beginning of the struggle and not the end in itself.

It is very important to see racism as a working class issue, to be dealt with by the whole of the working class – black and white, men and women. It is also IWA policy that the fight against racism is also the fight against capitalism. They are inseparable because the ruling class use racism to divide the working class and weaken it.

It is therefore very important that this demonstration takes place under the banner of the TUC. I would like the TUC to continue the onslaught against racism. That does not mean that there is no place for anti-racist organisations to function. I would like to see them functioning more actively to organise people not only for this march but come the May elections.

How should the fight against racism develop beyond the demonstration?

Everyone needs to be working towards the local elections in May and the European elections in June to ensure that where the Nazis are standing they are humiliated at the polls. It is absolutely vital that Beackon loses his seat in Tower Hamlets. The only alternative in the May elections is the Labour Party – the record of the Liberals in Tower Hamlets is absolutely condemnable.

We need to build the ANL festival in April. There are also ongoing issues: the attempt to introduce ‘smart’ identity cards in Europe will be used to clamp down on black people; deportations and racist attacks take place every day. We need consistent campaigning around all of these issues.

It is also important that the Tories are defeated at the local and European elections. Although Labour Party policies are not to smash capitalism but to manage capitalism, the need to get the Tories out does mean getting a big vote for Labour. Labour should demonstrate its opposition to racism, and come out openly against all racist issues rather than hide behind electoral considerations.

Failure to do that has cost them very dearly. In 1964 Labour’s Patrick Gordon Walker was defeated by a racist campaign in Smethwick despite the pro-Labour tide in the rest of the country. Rather than repealing the Immigration Act the Labour government then capitulated and tightened immigration controls. Then Gordon Walker was defeated again in Leytonstone. Labour didn’t come out against Thatcher’s swamping speech or Major’s racist propaganda.

You’ve been fighting racism for more than 30 years in Britain. How have things changed since the days of Smethwick in the early 1960s?

The IWA was formed in 1938 in Coventry and since then has been consistently opposing racism of every type, and fascism whenever it has appeared. The fascists are not an immediate danger in Britain, but they are being used by the ruling class to create diversions.

In 1964 Peter Griffiths defeated Patrick Gordon Walker on a racist platform, and in 1993 Derek Beackon, a Nazi, defeated Labour, Liberal and Tory on a racist platform. The situation is much more serious despite all the Race Relation Acts, the equal opportunity policies, the Commission for Racial Equality. The situation on the ground is very intimidating, and racist attacks are on the increase. The working class has to respond.

Many people ask me, the TWA is a black organisation, so why do you say that leadership of the anti-racist fight should be both black and white? The IWA is against the notion or slogan of the anti-racist movement being led by blacks only. The working class must fight racism, and in this country the black working class is a minority so the slogan is not practical. Also politically it is not correct. The whole question is, why is there a need for black organisation?

It is because working class organisations have been very complacent over racism, and the call for black organisation is a response to that. I would like to see working class organisations tackle racism and fascism head on. It is important that the leadership of the movement should be non-racial. The ANC in South Africa for example has a policy of non-racial leadership.

Has anything changed in the last 30 years? In 1964, when you went to a pub, you were told, black people are not served here. Now you can get served but you can’t get a job. It has changed from overt racism to institutionalised racism, as well as the racist attacks.

Looking back at the TUC motions and resolutions of the 1950s, there was a lot of support for immigration controls. When the first Race Relations Act was passed, which was a step forward despite its limitations, it was opposed by the TUC.

The trade unions now call for the strengthening of the Race Relations Act. Many now call for the repeal of racist immigration controls (although of course all immigration controls are racist). They all have equal opportunities policies. This is an improvement. But these policies need to be implemented.

Whether I’m working in the trade union movement or the IWA or during the 1970s and 1980s on the steering committee of the ANL, I work with the movement. Without the grassroots movement, any type of lobbying will not be effective – any motion passed cannot be effective unless there is a movement on the streets. So we have been consistent in the IWA using both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggle: lobbying MPs and trade union leaders, organising petitions and so on, at the same time building the movement on the streets.

Many people ask me whether racism has got worse. What did the IWA and the anti-racist movement achieve? The answer is we resisted. If not just think what would have happened. Repatriation would have started, possibly; there would have been more attacks. We have a resistance movement, which resists racism and fascism on the ground.

The Campaign Against Racist Laws organised two demonstrations – one in 1979 against the White Paper and the second in 1981 against the Nationality Bill, with something like 50,000 to 60,000 people.

The Tories’ onslaught on working class organisation, and also the trade union and Labour Party responses to it, blunted the willpower to fight to a certain extent, for a time and even affects it now. People say, ‘People don’t want to’. I say give them leadership, people are not bad.

On 21 October 1992 the NUM called for a march over the pits. There were nearly 50,000 people on the march through London. The TUC demonstration on the Sunday was a quarter of a million strong. People did respond but the leadership didn’t take them any further. So the problem is not participation. Given the call and the leadership, people respond. The only way to stop the recent Blood And Honour gig was to mobilise.

You mentioned earlier the contrast between less open racism but greater institutional racism. Is there less overt racism because of greater integration through work and education?

Let me clarify: overt racism, like not being served in a restaurant or public house, has gone down. But racial attacks and racial harassment have increased and are overt. I often hear ‘Paki go home’ where I live, which is quite serious harassment. So there is a different kind of overt racism. Employment legislation makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone on the basis of their race, colour or nationality. So employers tend not to say they don’t want to employ you because you are black. But they do not employ as many black people as white people. The census analysis done by the GMB union last year showed that a black graduate finds it ten times more difficult to get a job than a white graduate.

Integration is taking place when we focus on the issues, for instance the miners’ struggle or any other industrial struggle, or the Natfhe strike on 1 March. There is an integration of interest. Also on humanitarian grounds there are better responses to deportation campaigns than in the past. But the humanitarian grounds stop short of linking up with the working class. They reflect the notion that racism is outside the working class, racism is something where there should be a cosy relationship with Liberals, Tories or anyone against racism. I’d like anybody against racism to come together irrespective of their politics but I would say when it comes to the Tories, they should go to the Conservative Association and move a motion that racist immigration controls should be repealed.

There were a lot of young people on the Unity march. People can relate to opposing the BNP. We should link the struggle with unemployment, cuts in pay and other working class issues. In the 1950s we didn’t have the support of the trade union movement. Now the trade union movement is calling the demonstration.

What you say suggests a minority with hardened racist ideas and a majority who oppose racism at one level or another. How do you see us being able to isolate the hardened racist element inside the working class?

I agree with the way you put that. It is not an embarrassment for very many white workers to say, ‘I’m an anti-racist or an anti-fascist.’ That is different from 20 or 30 years ago. In the 1960s the Immigration Control Committee campaigned in Smethwick to stop Asians buying houses because their curries smell. Now there are thousands of very popular Asian restaurants and you can get samosas in Asda. Cultural changes are taking place. But there is still very large prejudice inside the white working class. That prejudice has to be fought against.

The Tories are consistently playing the race card. Calling for stricter immigration controls is one example. It has played a role, to some extent even in the last election. It is up to us to defeat that racist card.

The discontinuation of the ANL in the 1980s was a mistake. The fight now will go on longer and I think we will need the ANL for some time to come.

The threat is much more potent now. The potential for the fascists to grow is greater because the crisis is deeper.

I agree, but unless the working class movement becomes stronger and is seen by the ruling class as threatening to overthrow it there is no need for them to turn to fascism.

However the IWA is affiliated to the ANL. The IWA is the largest organisation of black people both in absolute size and in our ability to mobilise. The slogan ‘Black and white unite and fight’ is central. I’m not looking to the anti-fascist fight as a small scale thing compared with the anti-racist fight. The anti-racist and anti-fascist movement needs to focus against racism, especially the physical racial attacks taking place in East London. The movement also needs to focus against the BNP and National Front.

In the 1970s the mass ANL acted as a kind of political disinfectant which then allowed lots of other anti-racist struggles to emerge. Would you see – in the wake of the Welling demonstration – the same kind of thing happening?

The decision to organise workers against the Nazis is a good way forward in terms of linking local people with the wider movement. The Welling demonstration was historic, bringing people from all over the country. And people saw how determined the police were to smash the demonstration so that they would be frightened off. It is very important that local ANL groups are developed and there is a national ANL meeting so that the organisational networks are in place.

It is very important that the argument about black separatism – the idea that black led organisation is the only way forward – is taken up.

The IWA consistently said that the anti-fascist or anti-racist struggle has to be a struggle of both black and white. The Unity demonstration addressed this issue. I would urge all Socialist Review readers and sponsors to work for the 19 March demonstration and the ANL carnival and deliver the largest possible contingents.

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