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Race to victory

There may not have been a public debate about racism during the election campaign, but Sharon Clarke suggests that it played a deceptively big part in deciding the outcome

The defeat of black Conservative candidate John Taylor in Cheltenham made the Tories look like the victims of racism. The Sun denounced Cheltenham for having 'shamed the country' by electing a Liberal Democrat MP on racial grounds. Everybody agreed that the white, hick voters of the Cotswolds had been the unpleasant exception in a general election where race was not a national issue.

But racism was a big issue in the British election. It may not have been shouted from the hustings. It was rarely so obvious as it was in Cheltenham. But it was there, just beneath the surface. And it proved to be the Tories' secret weapon in key areas.

Coded comments

John Major's Conservatives do not want to be openly identified as a racist party. They are still uncomfortable with public expressions of racial prejudice. That is why the leading Cheltenham Tory who spoke out against the nomination of a 'bloody nigger' as candidate was expelled from the party last year. It was also why top Tories moved to distance themselves from Scottish MP Nicholas Fairbairn on the eve of the election, after he had made a poisonously anti-immigrant speech.

The Conservative leadership prefers to see the politics of race put across more discreetly, with a nudge and a wink or a coded comment. Fairbairn was condemned for betraying the code by making an outright attack on all immigrants. Hours later, outgoing home secretary Kenneth Baker showed how it should be done by delivering a speech about the problem of 'bogus refugees' abusing Britain's 'tolerance'. The words were different but the message was the same.

At his next morning press conference, Major himself was keen to distinguish between what he called 'Nicky Fairbairn's colourful remarks' and Baker's measured warning. 'I do not wish to see the sort of difficulties in race relations in this country that we had many years ago', said Major. 'There is a danger that could be caused if firm but fair immigration control was swept aside.'

Essex issue

The coded racism of the Tory Party played an important part in their fourth election victory. Look, for example, at what happened in some of the outer London constituencies populated by those whom the media has dubbed Essex Man.

The accepted wisdom among many pundits and pollsters was that these 'upwardly-mobile' working class people, who had voted Tory in the eighties and done relatively well out of the shortlived Thatcher/Lawson boom, would turn back to Labour in the recession. Yet, from the moment when one of the earliest election results showed the Conservatives holding on in Basildon, it was clear that many Essex men and women were still voting Tory. Why?

The race issue provides part of the explanation. Late last year, when the media was starting to predict that large parts of Essex would go Labour, Andrew Calcutt investigated the region for Living Marxism. He concluded that the Conservatives would win again; partly because people trusted Labour even less than the Tories on the economy, and partly because 'racism may well prove a useful issue with which Essex Tories can rally support' ('Better the devil you know', November).

'Dispossessed Afrikaners'

This view was expanded upon, on the eve of the election, in the right-wing weekly journal the Spectator. Reporter Andrew Gimson did a 'vox pub' story from the bars of Basildon. Gimson claimed that race was the question which excited most interest among those whom he spoke to. He summarised the views of one man who put the typical arguments most forcefully:

'He said I needed to understand that Basildon was the old East End. Everyone had moved out of London to get away from the blacks, whom they loathed. At times he sounded like a dispossessed Afrikaner or Palestinian, forced to leave his native land and full of unappeasable resentment. A Paki had tried moving into his road in Basildon and they smashed his windows every night.' (Spectator, 11 April)

No doubt Andrew Gimson and the high Tory Spectator have their own prejudices about Essex Man. But it seems certain that the Tories' carefully coded racism, like the attack on 'bogus refugees', was instrumental in bringing out the votes they needed to win again in seats like Basildon and Billericay.

The Tories' use of racism was not confined to Essex or the south, either. During a 1991 by-election in Langbaurgh, North Yorkshire, the Tories had tried to play the race card against Labour candidate Ashok Kumar. Of course, they did not demand 'wogs out'; they did not need to. Instead, in the true Tory style of silent racism, they simply put out a leaflet bearing a big picture of Kumar's Asian face. That time, the race trick was not enough to stop a protest vote swinging the seat to Labour. But in April's general election, it worked better. The swing to Labour since the 1987 general election was cut to 0.5 per cent - far less than in some similar seats nearby - and Kumar's by-election win was reversed.

Elsewhere in Yorkshire, in the constituency of Dewsbury, the Tories played the race card in unusually high-profile fashion. A couple of days before the election, Conservative candidate John Whitfield came out publicly in support of Nicholas Fairbairn's anti-immigrant speech. That was always likely to be a potent message in Dewsbury, one of the many hidden backwaters of British society where racial tensions are high (see 'Apartheid in rural Yorkshire', Living Marxism, October 1989). The final swing to Labour was just 0.1 per cent, and the Tories came within a few hundred votes of winning the marginal seat.

No doubt there are many more examples of the race factor having an electoral effect. There are three seats in Ealing, West London, for example; two produced swings to Labour of five per cent and 8.1 per cent respectively, but the third bucked this strong trend by showing a 0.7 per cent swing against Labour. That third seat was Ealing Southall - where the Labour candidate was Asian.

Against this background, the Tories and the Sun have little room to complain about being trumped by the race card in Cheltenham. The Liberal Democrats took a leaf out of the Conservative code book. Their campaign never mentioned the colour of John Taylor's skin. Instead, it emphasised that, unlike the Lib Dem candidate, Taylor the Tory was not a 'local man' with a feel for 'local issues'. In a semi-rural constituency where only two per cent of the population are black, it was not hard for people to interpret 'local' as white.

Labour's complicity

So both the Tories and, to a lesser extent, the Liberal Democrats profited from the race issue on 9 April. What about the Labour Party? It would be wrong to see Labour as the innocent victim of all this. It has been complicit in helping to create the all-party racist consensus which the others have now exploited.

In the run-up to the election, when rumours spread that the Tories would make immigration an issue, the Labour leadership took desperate steps to avoid being portrayed as soft on immigrants. First, Labour watered down its opposition to the Tories' anti-refugee Asylum Bill, promising to help speed it through the commons if the government would make some minor adjustments to the new law. Then Labour included its own commitment to a similar measure in its election manifesto.

The Labour Party has seemed equally unwilling to challenge underlying racist prejudice at local level. I live in a marginal constituency in north-east London, and I happened to overhear a telling exchange between one of my neighbours and two Labour canvassers.

The neighbour in question is a pensioner and a bigot - a sort of cleaned-up version of Harry Enfield's old gits. When the canvassers knocked on his door, he said he couldn't vote Labour 'because of the immigrants'. Their response was to assure him that there weren't really many immigrants coming into Britain now, to promise that a Labour government wouldn't let any more in, and to suggest that the NHS was as important an issue as immigration.

In short, in their desperation to win votes at any price, these self-styled socialists accommodated to his bigotry right down the line. And then they wonder why racism is such a rich resource for the Tories to tap.

With much of the Tories' political programme in a state of exhaustion, racism is likely to be an increasingly important focus for the right in the period ahead. The need to break the hidden consensus on race which cuts across Tory, Labour and Lib Dem lines will be an urgent consideration for all of us who want to create a political alternative over the next five years.

The Tories lost token black candidate John Taylor in Cheltenham, but won with the race card elsewhere
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 43, May 1992

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