The recent construction workers’ strikes began under the slogan “British Jobs For British Workers”.
Though the events were not at all identical, the slogan brings echoes of the strikes in 1968 and 1972 around the admission to Britain of Asians holding British passports, first from Kenya and in 1972 from Uganda.
The April 1968 the Labour government revoked the right of the Kenya Asians to come to Britain; in 1972, the Tory government let the Uganda Asians in. In both cases there was uproar in the working class against the incomers.
In 1968 some of the most militant workers in Britain, London dockworkers, who had only a few months before fought and lost a ten-week strike in their own defence, went on strike on the issue.
Tory front-bencher Enoch Powell made an inflammatory speech against immigration, and when he was sacked from the Tory front bench, the dockers came out on strike and marched on a demonstration in defence of “free speech for Powell”. They struck because they agreed with Powell.
Just as Gordon Brown’s call for “British Jobs For British Workers” probably influenced the construction workers, so in 1968 the then Labour government primed the dockworkers’ response. The government brought in a scandalously racist immigration law, and barred the door to the Kenyan refugees. People remember Powell’s speech, not the foul deeds of Labour Home Secretary (and later prime minister, 1976-9) James Callaghan.
The following comments on these events were editorials (written by Rachel and Sean Matgamna) in Workers’ Fight, a distant predecessor of Solidarity. The words in the first about “not soft-pedalling the politics” were references, which readers then would have understood, to the then policy of IS (now the SWP).
When thousands of workers, including the most militant in industry, stop work in support of the calculated demagogy of a “civilized” Tory barbarian, it is a grim warning to all socialists and all thinking elements in the labour movement. A wave of reaction is creeping up on us. And it could gain greater force as the Labour Government grinds slowly, and by all appearances inevitably, to an ignominious end.
There is a general atmosphere of crisis and helplessness; an atmosphere of bitter and savage disappointment with the Government. The pressures of rising unemployment and cuts in living standards are increasing. There is widespread confusion as to causes and solutions. Socialist explanation is noticeably absent from the scene: the level of general socialist understanding of the overall picture is at its lowest ebb. Widespread cynicism with politics is like a creeping fog, and working class action in response to and in face of the treachery of the “workers’ party” [the Labour Party] has narrowed down to industrial action.
Though immensely promising, the raw material of progress and the beginning of socialist wisdom, this is not enough. Though industrial action today has unavoidable political implications, it has not brought about, for the workers as a whole, a clear consciousness of working class politics and solutions. Socialist leadership on a mass scale is non-existent. The official Labour left becomes more pathetic and more loyal to Wilson with each new day and each new Government outrage.
And the pressures become still more intense. In the absence of a socialist consciousness and an effective socialist movement to fight for it, the workers are now, more even than usually, wide open to the lying demagogy of press and politicians. We even see the Tory Party making political capital out of Labour legislation on the Trade Unions!
In this situation racialism, endemic in this country as the former colonial master of Africa and Asia, is a handy weapon; it both sets up a scapegoat for the workers’ anger and at the same time provides a means of dividing the workers at a time when capitalism finds it necessary to tighten the screws and inflict defeats on the class. And in the mad rush of politicians to use it, their leapfrogging has produced a rapid escalation of the disease.
Ten years or so ago one had to be a professional back-street racialist to harp on about the supposed “problems” created by immigrants. Now we hear it daily from the mouths of Cabinet Ministers and their shadows, and the fascists proclaim themselves vindicated, emerging into the brightly-lit highways of respectability. [Notoriosuly racist Tory MP] Peter Griffiths was able to call Callaghan a racialist over the Kenya Asians! Racialism has been sanctified in Acts of Parliament setting the seal of officialdom to the ignorant bigotry about “overcrowded island” and “strains on the social services”. Labour and Tory are quite bipartisan about it — they vie with each other in the use of it.
Labour’s reaction to Powell was that of the man outbid, and Tory leaders hastened to stress that their disagreement was with Powell’s language, not his meaning. (A source of some of the sympathy for Powell, leading to the demands for ‘free speech’).
Given all this, the pressures, the fears, the misinformation and demagogy, and the lack of any socialist leadership, we got the amalgam of militancy and racialism, on the London docks and elsewhere. It reflects the backwardness of even industrial militants, and at the same time irrefutable proof that industrial militancy doesn’t spontaneously grow into the appropriate socialist consciousness. If anything it pinpoints the chasm between these.
The militant London dockers took up first place in the shameful parade of suicidal confusion, seeing it as just another measure of self-defence.
They are facing massive redundancy as a result of their inability to defeat the Devlin [docks restructuring] scheme last autumn. ([TGWU general secretary Frank] Cousins, like a good liberal, deplores the dockers’ racialism: but as one who betrayed them last autumn he is actively responsible for their openness to the influence of Powell.) The great militancy was not sufficient to allay the threat to the industry which the coming automation poses, and the lack of a socialist alternative to Devlin in that struggle enormously contributed both to the defeat then and the confusion now.
Nor have they even the most minimal political outlet. In the past they would have placed their hopes in the Labour Party, voting for it as the political action to back up militancy: fight on the job — vote Labour. Now they are disoriented because of the lack of an alternative socialist programme and organisation, and have blundered into the first blind alley: one consciously constructed to make them less effective.
The vile white racialism has as its driving force the current pressures on the workers — hardening consciousness of differences into ignorant prejudice. But we should not forget that it is usually easier to move workers in line with official ideology and propaganda rather than against it. The habit of demonstrating politically must be developed and channelled in the right direction, against the real culprits. (The possibility of this happening has not escaped certain sections of the ruling class.) This is the ever more urgent job of socialists.
Some lessons are clear: don’t soft-pedal on the politics. Don’t tail-end after simple syndicalism. There are no vacuums. It will be either working-class politics, or Powell’s and the Daily Express or even, in a crisis, worse.
There is an enormous gap between the pressures and the consciousness of the workers involved. Only the socialist movement can bridge that gap, and it now lags enormously behind what has to be done as the pressures increase and the gap widens further. The fear of politics as “sectarianism” only helps perpetuate this, as just one example shows.
The “Communist” Party, which has some influence on the London docks, violently opposed including the necessary politics in the fight against Devlin. As a result, [CP dockers’ leader Jack] Dash didn’t dare show his face for the two weeks that the dockers went mad. The picture presented in the papers of the CP executive member [Danny] Lyons standing forlornly at the dock gates flanked on either side by a Catholic and Protestant priest as the workers streamed contemptuously past is one that socialists should not forget in a hurry. If this is the only answer to Powell, we have lost before we start. Thus it can be a short road from denouncing as “sectarian” the politicising of the strike, to playing the altar-boy at the dock gates.
After the Notting Hill [racist] riots [of 1958], and in face of the mounting campaign of prejudice-fostering propaganda and misinformation, the left should have launched a massive campaign to counteract this, and to integrate the immigrants in the labour movement. That this wasn’t done is one measure of the feebleness of the left. If we don’t do it now, we will surely be pushed aside by the bandwagon which Wilson and Callaghan set going for Powell.
• Workers’ Fight, May 1968
To the list of this rotten government’s crimes... it has now added a piece of the most blatant and frank racialist legislation this country has known... The political of the crank right-wing groups and of such Tories as [Enoch] Powell and the sometime pro-Nazi [Duncan] Sandys were taken up and rushed through Parliament by [Home Secretary] Callaghan with the full backing of the Cabinet. As usual, there was only a token backbench opposition from a tiny handful.
This was panic legislation in servile and automatic response to the widespread alarm which the Tory right fringe and the hyena press had whipped up. The Kenya Asians had been given the option of British citizenship in order to smooth the reorganisation of the old Empire in East Africa. On trying to use it, they now find the door to the “motherland” locked and barred against them.
The Tories made the promises — and Labour, under pressure of the very same Tories, has disgraced itself in breaking them: disgraced itself even by their standards, let along the traditions and principles of the working-class movement...
Back in 1962 the Labour leaders promised to repeal the Tories’ Immigration Bill. Now they are falling over themselves, plugging up the loopholes and stiffening the penalties. This Government is so reactionary than [Tory MP] Iain Macleod and the Archbishop of Canterbury must seem enlightened by contrast.
The Government’s motive was to gain a cheap popularity amongst the more backward sections of the electorate: there is no other explanation for their actions...
The “Socialist” Callaghan... set a quota of 1500 per year, and at first resisted even the demand for an appeals mechanism...
The treatment of the Kenya Asians was not just a passive reflection of the racialism whipped up by the press and the Right Tories. It is the sanctification of racialism as official government policy — and therefore the nurturing of the seeds of racialist poison directed against the immigrant workers already living in this country...
The Government’s motive is to distract attention from its own and the system’s sorry failures. The effect is to create and widen divisions in the working class by injecting racialist poison to do its work in conjunction with the social pressures of the system...
This can only enfeeble the working class in the struggle against the Government attacks on our standards. Either way the Government benefits — and we lose. Racialism is nothing other than a virulent cancer cell in the labour movement. In certain conditions it could destroy it altogether by turning it against itself.
For its own defence — if for no other reason — the labour movement must repudiate this racialism and denounce its perpetrators: the Government, the Judas “left” in the Cabinet, the MPs who voted for it - and those who hadn’t the guts to stand up and fight it. Socialists in the Labour Party must agitate and organise in opposition to this latest demonstration of the deep capitalist decadence of the Labour leaders. The first steps to cleansing the atmosphere must be the repeal of all the racialist Immigration Acts.
We can only combat racialism by organising the rank and file of the labour movement against it, utilising the strength of the working class. We cannot expect to look to the organs of the capitalist state to abolish what is essentially in its interests...
• Workers’ Fight, March-April 1968