Jeremy Corbyn’s first act as leader of the Labour Party was to address a huge anti-racism demonstration in parliament square, called by Stand Up to Racism. This symbolic action, and the elevation of life-long anti-racist MPs to the shadow cabinet prompted a mass influx of enthusiastic members who saw the chance for Labour to break with decades of pro-imperialist policies and record of ambivalence intermixed with outright hostility to migrants and asylum seekers.
In the ensuing three years, despite a shift in rhetoric, the struggle against racism took a back seat to so-called ‘bread and butter’ issues: the NHS, housing, and jobs. With the vote for Brexit giving legitimacy to a growing nationalist and xenophobic backlash, Muslims and black people, along with Eastern Europeans were subjected to an unprecedented rise in racist violence. Diane Abbott and Sadiq Khan endured horrendous racist abuse on social media, in the press, and from prominent Tories during the 2016 Mayoral and 2017 General Election campaigns. In 2018 a report published on the back of the Windrush scandal highlighted the extent to which Black British people continue to face systemic discrimination in all areas of life.
But Jeremy Corbyn’s immediate acceptance of the vote for Brexit as expressing ‘the will of the people’ put an end to any prospect of Labour’s leadership waging a vigorous campaign against the racism that motivated most of the Brexit vote. The fact that this decision was motivated by a mixture of Corbyn’s desire to leave the EU, electoral opportunism towards the supposed xenophobia of voters in Labour’s heartlands, and a defensive stance faced with the permanent rebellion of the PLP, relegated the fight against racism to a pawn on Seamus Milne’s chessboard. The demand for Labour’s leadership to mobilise in the here and now against racism is inseparably bound up with the party’s paralysis over Brexit. With Black and Asian people voting overwhelmingly for Remain (along with most Labour members) this remains an unavoidable fault line; clever “statecraft” can put off the day of reckoning but not avoid it.
The right of European workers to live and work here was summarily dumped. Labour committed to the token closure of some detention centres, while pledging to “speed up” detention and deportation. Labour’s London Mayor has resurrected the racist Stop and Search harassment of Black and Asian youth. Labour councils collaborate with the Tory Home Office to persecute migrant workers and deny them access to public funds they are entitled to. The 2017 manifesto pledged that migrants would be barred from accessing public funds until they had worked for a certain amount of time – a gift to exploiting bosses and an attack on the rights of women and children. In 2017 then-shadow minister Sarah Champion MP wrote for the Sun saying “Britain has a problem with Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls”.
Following the Manchester Arena terrorist attack, a new far right street movement emerged; under the pretext of opposing ‘extremism’ and ‘grooming gangs’, it capitalised on the newfound respectability of racism offered by the Brexit vote to stage the largest racist marches in London for decades – a menace completely unopposed by the Labour Party and Momentum, despite the politically motivated murder of Jo Cox MP by a supporter of Britain First. Eventually, after socialist bookshop Bookmarks was attacked by far right activists, John McDonnell finally acknowledged that something had to be done about this threat. He suggested it might be, “time for an Anti-Nazi League-type cultural and political campaign” because “we can no longer ignore the rise of far-right politics in our time.” It soon became clear that Labour’s leadership had no intention of mobilising its profile or resources to encourage the party’s half a million members to seize the moment and rally Britain’s multi-national and multi-racial working class to a Labour-led fight against the racist tsunami.
This record of complacency mixed with outright capitulation to racism was the context in which Labour Party activists and trade unionists decided to take the initiative themselves and establish Labour Against Racism and Fascism as a democratic, grassroots initiative, able to be a critical voice in the struggle for an uncompromising anti-racist programme in the streets, in the workplaces – and in the party.
In summary, a campaign established by rank and file members was subjected to a cynical takeover by parliamentary and Momentum apparatchiks who are inveterately opposed to any leftwing grassroots organising not subject to their control. They fear independent activity like the plague because their petty influence and prestige in the movement depends on loyalty to their employers – not democratic accountability.
The slate for the incoming steering committee drawn up in the Momentum office (but not circulated to members of Momentum) was almost entirely composed of paid officials in positions of some influence, who are exactly the people responsible for failing to do anything serious to mobilise Labour’s members in the fight against racism, because their function is to act as a praetorian guard insulating Corbyn’s leadership from criticism by the members who elected him.
A significant number of people in the room were associated with the Red London clique, whose last engagement with the anti-racist movement was to turn up with a large contingent waving the St George’s flag in a bigoted and reactionary provocation. These shameless English nationalists don’t care what destination the train is going to – as long as they can sit in the first class carriage.
The trivial attitude such people take towards attempts to establish in good faith the basis for Labour to participate in a mass anti racist movement was succinctly expressed by a tweet from an attendee boasting about “clearing out the trots”. Red-faced Momentum officers promptly got it deleted because it exposes the dirt at the bottom of the of the barrel they will scrape.
The meeting heard a proposal to discuss a ‘mission statement’ proposed by a member of the original steering committee. It voted not to discuss the political basis or priority of the campaign and moved on to elect a steering committee that is not subject to the most cursory formal accountability. A proposal for a full conference or AGM was summarily voted down. After all, when your clique can run the campaign from a WhatsApp group, why go to the trouble of organising a meeting where people might hear and be persuaded by each other views rather than an echo chamber for prejudices.
The sight of Momentum’s bureaucrats mobilising Red London tankies to crush grassroots democracy is an unedifying spectacle. Nevertheless, the dangers that spurred the creation of Laraf are the same that motivate thousands of Labour activists up and down the country at the coalface in the fight against racism, in spite of the conflicting messages emanating from the leader’s office. They remain the same now, and they are only going to get worse. The recognition of this need is another factor motivating Momentum’s decision to move in, paying lip service to various campaigns mentioned in the meeting, none of which are new, none of which Momentum has done anything to support, and none of which address the central question of using the campaign’s resources and relationship with the leadership to galvanise a radical turn away from the focus-grouped sound bites calibrated for the electoral terrain to the streets in the fight against racism.
John McDonnell was right to appeal for the emergence of a new mass anti-racist movement that can revitalise the fight against racist discrimination, the demonisation of migrants, the hostile environment, and far right violence.
Labour’s left wing leaders could play a positive and important role to play in drawing mass forces into such a campaign and helping to draw other campaigns and organisations into a genuine united front that unequivocally defends the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, and supports a militant and zero-tolerance attitude to racism, whether it comes from Town Halls or Whitehall. But for as long as the impulse to conservatism and “loyalty to the leadership right or wrong” remains the overriding guiding principle, Momentum will not be able to play a role in activating and organising the potential social movement dormant in Labour’s membership. It kept silent over Brexit, it kept silent over free movement, it kept silent over the anti-Palestinian antisemitism witch hunt.
Ultimately, where Corbyn’s calculations about the unity of the PLP or party have led to compromises, it is incumbent on Labour’s members to take the lead themselves – but that means being willing to be independent and critical, and take up the torch of the many radical and progressive policies which Corbyn was elected on in 2015. If we want the ‘Corbyn revolution’ to go on we need to revitalise the momentum that drove it to it’s initial victory; a mass movement of millions working together to debate, reshape, and revolutionise politics and the struggle for socialism.