Easter rising

JVL Introduction

On his Rebel Notes blog this week David Rosenberg reflects on racism in Britain, past and present.

In it he remembers a Runnymede publication he worked on thirty years ago, On the Verge: the Gypsies of England and the sticky reception it got.

“In the very week when the Tories are sneering at their opponents and critics, and celebrating a report that flies in the face of all evidence, and clears them of the institutional racism that is a daily reality, we are reminded of other longstanding racism and discrimination within the Labour Party too…”

This article was originally published by davesrebellion on Fri 2 Apr 2021. Read the original here.

What is rising to the surface this Easter?

YouGov email me (and many thousands of others) every week because I once signed up to give my opinion on issues of the day on their “chats”. Yesterday they asked whether we thought levels of racism in the UK had got better or worse over the last 50 years, and several related questions. I didn’t get around to answering until today. By then full-on anti-GRT (Gypsy/Roma/Traveller) racism had reared its ugly head again in the form of Labour local elections leaflets in Warrington.

In the 1980s when I worked for the Runnymede Trust, I thought things were worse than the 1970s, even though that decade had lots of fascist violence and racist murders. Since then things may have improved for some segments within minority communities, but racism is still deeply entrenched in the system.

Now, in hindsight, I look back at the 1980s/1990s as a period of much more hope in the fight against different kinds of racism. There was a great deal of grassroots self-organisation happening and resistance among minorities on the streets was strong. Innovative challenges on race and other inequalities were made by the GLC and a number of left-wing councils

Education initiatives created by progressive teachers and youth workers mushroomed in different settings. The far-right were there still, but, unlike in the 1970s, they were kept to the fringes. At Runnymede our materials were mostly about negative impacts of policy or neglect on Caribbean and Asian minorities, but the targets of racism and racists were already widening.

In my last year at Runnymede I proposed that we produced a report on Gypsies. It met some resistance at first, but eventually it got published in May 1990. it was called On the Verge: the Gypsies of England (by the late Donald Kenrick and Sian Bakewell.) Looking back at it this evening, in the light of the last 24 hours, it really is quite chilling.

In one section it describes Tory officials in Bradford before the 1987 election handing out car stickers which said “KEEP THE GYPSIES OUT – VOTE CONSERVATIVE”

That year, another Tory, Christopher Murphy MP tried to get a bill through Parliament that would have designated the whole of England and Wales as areas where Gypsies could not stop – Priti Patel’s fantasy today. I wondered what happened to Murphy. He actually stood down in 1987 though nearly 20 years later he re-emerged to fight a seat unsuccessfully for UKIP.

The next paragraph of the 1990 report continued: “However, at local level there has been little difference between Labour and Conservative Councillors in their attitude to providing sites for Gypsies.” In the de Beauviour area of Hackney, in 1988, a Labour official praised two Labour councillors for how they had ensured “the eviction of Travellers.”

In the very week when the Tories are sneering at their opponents and critics, and celebrating a report that flies in the face of all evidence, and clears them of the institutional racism that is a daily reality, we are reminded of other longstanding racism and discrimination within the Labour Party too.

We had an all too brief period of nearly five years from 2015 in which many Labour voters expressed a feeling that for the first time on their lives they could be proud to vote Labour as a party unashamed to be anti-racist and pro-migrant and refugee.

Is it indeed a coincidence that on the very weekend that Keir Starmer celebrates one year of his leadership, one year in which he has tried to bury the idealism that Corbyn represented under a thick layer of centrism overlaid with Union Jacks, that the longstanding racism that Corbyn had sought to remove once and for all from Labour has risen to the surface again? What, if anything, will Starmer do about it?

Comments (10)

  • Starmer will do exactly nothing because Starmer has little interest in any form of racism unless it can be connected, no matter how remotely, with what he decides can possibly be described as “antisemitism” So Gypsies, Muslims, Christians, Blacks, trans, gays etc can be insulted with impunity as these groups do not actively support him. Had Nichol used the same language about Israelis she would be sacked as fast as R.B.L.

  • Mark SMITHSON says:

    It looks like the Tories have gotten hold of John Mann’s illegal book on anti social behaviour and a chapter in it regarding how to rid the area of Roma gypsies and travellers. They were supposed to have been withdrawn however they have recently made a resergence on the internet and not a word from the now Lord Mann the Tory government anti Semitism tzar. Even though there were millions of travellers Roma & Gypsy killed along with the Jewish people I’d had imagined he would have had the same dislike for the treatment of the GRT community. But he also called me the wing kind of Jew in an email I sent to LP with no action taken.

  • John Bowley says:

    Keir Starmer acts as if the only discrimination which matters is antisemitism, a political stance which happens to suit his self interest.

  • Amanda Sebestyen says:

    Remembering Donald Kenrick, one of the most brilliant Jewish minds and a lifelong activist as well as a pioneering scholar of Romani culture worldwide. He would have been in JVL for sure!
    I have written to Charlotte Nichols, the ‘shadow minister for equalities’ caught distributing an electoral leaflet promising to keep Travellers out. She is also Jewish, and LGBT, and one of the few former Corbyn supporters allowed on Starmer’s team… and now tying the party in to ethnic and social cleansing. It’s all beyond belief. If she replies I will share the correspondence.

  • Jimmy Cooper says:

    It is criminal the way the Gypsy / Travelling / Roma communities are treated: they are one of the easiest groups to be smeared, labeled, marginalised, mocked and stereotyped. Because ignorance of what or who they are, racism and prejudice against them is rife. Local Authorities see them as the last item on the bottom line and with the racism of Johnson, Patel and right-wing Labour MP`s the future for them is bleak.
    I once visited a junior school provided for traveller children in a large English City and observed the positive interaction between them and the teachers. The parents wanted the best for their children like any parent. I realised then that the rights of a person and our respect for each other shouldnt depend on what type of roof you have over your head.
    Racism and prejudice is violence and I feel the chill is getting colder, especially with regards to Starmer. His Labour Party is regressive, racist and populist.
    We cant fight racism in isolation. Unite and fight together as one.

  • Julie Hope says:

    Excellent article. I was involved in the fight against racism in the 80’s and 90’s mainly in education and actually felt that progress was being made. I left to work in Australia in 1995 to help with the struggle of Indigenous People. When I returned I saw no real improvement in institutionalised racism although many people’s values had changed for the better. Now I believe that institutionalised racism is thriving under this present government. Can I also say that I spent many years in my childhood growing up on caravan sites with Gypsy and Traveller friends. They have always been given ‘bad press’ and ostracised by the general public. By trying to win political favour by denying them their historical rights is appalling.

  • Paul Crofts says:

    Thank you David. A salutary reminder of the possibilities of progressive change but the unfortunate weight of continuity.

  • David Townsend says:

    The only racism that is of any interest to Stamer is the politicisation of antisemitism as ill-defined by the IHRA.

  • Most likely nothing will be done by Starmer to resist the Tories racist policies, because he doesn’t want to be seen to be standing up for minorities. That’s far too Corbyn for this New Management.

  • Peter Johnson says:

    It’s always good to read articles from David Rosenberg. They are always well-informed by his decades of anti-racist activism & focused educational work.

Comments are now closed.