An Everyday Challenge

01 August 2001

Amnesty International recently delivered a home truth to the government: that its asylum policies have exacerbated racism. It has bounced off ministers' heads like a rubber ball off concrete. But in discussions following events in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, organisations rooted in black communities are telling white leftists and trade unionists home truths which hopefully we can take in.

"The left and the trade unions are good at responding to an SOS, at being there in solidarity", said a friend from the Newham Monitoring Project (NMP), "but where are they when it comes to day-to-day community issues like housing, health care and mental stress?"

He wasn't trying to induce a fit of breast beating; rather to draw attention to the need for some urgent rethinking, both of the left's relation to local politics and the trade unions' thinking about their priorities.

The erosion of local government has meant the collapse of community infrastructures and the demise of focal points of public argument. Whereas in the past, anti-racists could publicly challenge local politicians over racism in, for example, policing, housing or social care, now local people face police accountable to no-one but the Home Secretary; impersonal housing associations with few social obligations; and private companies managing aspects of social care who will never submit to opening their books.

It's not that old style council services were any better from the point of view of race. On the contrary ... housing allocation practices in Oldham that meant council housing was almost entirely the preserve of whites. But on the new privatised, quangoised terrain, the forms of political lobbying and demonstrating to which the left is accustomed are blunt instruments. Everything is done behind closed doors, appearing to be purely technical and managerial.

The first priority in this situation is to work with eyes and ears close to the ground, to expose to public view the workings of the seemingly apolitical organisations that decide the fate of so many aspects of daily life - housing, health provision, dealing with crime, care of the elderly. Black community projects, in the course of their daily work, are trying to find ways of making this new officialdom accountable. But they need allies.

They need a left that is respected in local communities through being known for organising practical support at the same time as publicly campaigning over the injustices of the system.

This is the kind of trust that black community projects groups such as the NMP, the Southall Monitoring Project and many others round the country have won. White leftists could learn from these experiences to create a network of politically conscious community organisers and advocates, a bit like the old networks of workplace shop stewards.

A crucial factor behind the BNP successes was that Labour movement organisations that provided some basis for black and white co-operation have been fatally weakened.

It's not a matter of rebuilding the old structures. What is needed is a radical trade unionism that challenges rather than mirrors employers' exploitation of race.

Take, for example, all the paperwork of scattering asylum seekers to the far corners of the country. The people doing this work - perhaps doing it reluctantly - are very likely to be trade union members; similarly the people responsible for the dirty work associated with handing out to asylum seekers their miserable £10 vouchers. Trade unions could consider non-co-operation.

Likewise, teachers unions should be fighting for anti-racist education that many schools have allowed to be squeezed out by the national curriculum, and resisting the de facto segregation taking place as a result of education becoming more and more of a market place.

There are signs of some trade unions stepping into the vacuum created by the demise of any powerful progressive fighting force in the Labour Party. At this summer's UNISON Conference, the new general secretary, Dave Prentis, powerfully argued for anti-racism to be one of the union's campaigning priorities. This commitment is being used in the more radical UNISON branches as a focus for strategies against the prejudices that have grown like algae in the political pond turned stagnant by the absence of political debate.

It is the growth of independent organisations of black trade unionists, with close links to community organisations, which will drive this new agenda. But, as Tariq Mehmood argues as he reflects on 20 years since the Bradford riots of 1981, white leftists must do more than express solidarity.

Copyright 2001 Red Pepper