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
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.
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
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
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
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
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).
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
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.
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
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