The Communist Party’s campaign for the Race Relations Act 1965

This month is the fiftieth anniversary of the introduction of the Race Relations Act 1965 by the Wilson government, the first piece of legislation dealing with racial discrimination in the United Kingdom. As I have argued elsewhere (here and here), a major part of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s anti-racist activism between the 1950s and the 1970s was the introduction and use of legislation to combat racial discrimination, namely the Race Relations Act. The following post looks at the CPGB’s call for legislation before 1965 and how it responded to the Act once it was in effect.

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

Since the end of the Second World War, the Communist Party had campaigned for the introduction of legislation combat racial hatred and the incitement to racial violence. With the influx of Commonwealth migrants in the 1950s, the Party also campaigned for legislation to fight the racial discrimination faced by many of the new arrivals to the country. In 1955, the International Department published the pamphlet No Colour Bar in Britain, which contained the ‘Charter of Rights’ for Commonwealth migrants coming to Britain. The first point of this Charter called for:

No form of colour discrimination by employers, landlords, publicans, hotel proprietors or any aspect of social, educational and cultural activity. Any racial discrimination to be made a penal offence.[i]

This meant support for Fenner Brockway’s attempts to pass legislation that would ban racial discrimination and the ‘colour bar’ in Britain. In June 1956, Brockway introduced a Bill ‘to make illegal discrimination to the detriment of any person on the grounds of colour, race and religion in the United Kingdom’.[ii] Brockway acknowledged that ‘there must be a limitation to the powers of legislation’, but cited three main areas where legislation was ‘justified and necessary’ – public areas, housing and employment.[iii] At this time, Brockway was also National Chairman of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, which founded in April 1954.[iv] Between 1956 and the introduction of the Race Relations Act in 1965, Brockway proposed a bill on racial discrimination a number of times, all defeated by the Conservative majority. Kay Beauchamp wrote in Marxism Today in 1967 that Brockway had introduced a Bill on racial discrimination ‘no less than eight times’ and this had been supported by the MCF, the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) and other progressive organisations, as well as the Communist Party itself.[v]

There were two main arguments made by the Communist Party for the introduction of the Race Relations Act. The first was a continuation of the CPGB’s anti-fascist stance, calling for a ban on the incitement to racial hatred. The other was the wider argument for legislation to combat racial discrimination that was much more widespread and institutionalised than that explicitly perpetrated by the fascist far right minority. The CPGB argued that this was not an issue of free speech, but stated that preventing race hatred was a ‘guarantee of peace, democracy and progress’.[vi] To defend these ideals, the Party demanded that fascist organisations, such as Mosley’s Union Movement, be banned from using public halls, and that workers should ‘oppose every form of colour discrimination’ and make ‘such discrimination or propaganda for it, a criminal offence’.[vii]

This argument was raised again in July 1962, when anti-fascists, in what were the beginnings of the Yellow Star Movement, battled in Trafalgar Square against the fledgling National Socialist Movement (NSM), led by Colin Jordan and future National Front leader, John Tyndall. According to The Guardian, the first public meeting of the NSM ‘ended with 20 arrests, fights, bleeding faces, abuse, and tears’.[viii] In the weeks following, the CPGB demanded that ‘racial incitement be made illegal… as a result of the widespread and deep indignation aroused by the recent re-activisation of fascist organisations in Britain’.[ix] The Party repeated that Fenner Brockway had been proposing legislation against racist propaganda for years and declared that it, along with the British working class, would ‘give its wholehearted support to the efforts being made for the carrying of such legislation in Parliament’.[x]

However, the Party was wary about the state using the 1936 Public Order Act to combat public racist agitation. In the same article, it warned that a ‘Tory MP, incidentally, has seized the opportunity to propose a ban on ALL political meetings in [Trafalgar] Square’,[xi] which would have had a much harder impact on the left and other progressive movements than the fascist far right. The fact that the Public Order Act had been ‘mainly used against those who resent and protest against provocative racialist propaganda’ was one of the reasons why the Communist Party supported Brockway’s Bill, rather than amending the 1936 Act.[xii] In a memorandum presented by the London District Committee in December 1964, the Party declared that:

There should be no question of amending the Public Order Act (1936) instead of introducing a Bill. The Public Order Act is an Act directed against the working class movement and any strengthening of it will tend to be used not against fascists, but as in the past, against anti-fascists.[xiii]

The other side to the campaign for legislation against racial discrimination was the much more widespread and institutionalised racism that black people in Britain faced in public places, in employment, in seeking housing and in their interactions with the state. Any legislation brought in could not eliminate all racism within British society, but Fenner Brockway’s aimed to ‘end, by legislation, the practice of race discrimination in… public relations’.[xiv] Despite the very real instances of racial discrimination that were experienced by blacks in Britain, the Conservatives opposed any legislation, declaring that ‘it would be almost impossible to prove that a person had been turned away on the grounds of colour and on the grounds of colour alone’.[xv] Describing Brockway’s proposals as ‘badly drafted and ill-conceived’, Conservative MP Bernard Braine claimed during a Parliamentary debate on the Bill that ‘a large number of coloured people… have not experienced any form of discrimination ‘ and ‘discrimination, therefore, is something which ought not to be tackled by legislation, but… by education’.[xvi]

The Communist Party countered these claims by the Conservatives that legislation was unnecessary in the Daily Worker and other CPGB literature. In a memorandum submitted to the Labour Government by the London District Committee in March 1965, the Party declared that racism was ‘widespread in relation to employment, housing and recreational facilities’ with ‘many examples of refusal to serve coloured people in restaurants, public houses and other public places’.[xvii] To counter this, the Party proposed that discrimination should be made illegal:

  • by a keeper of a Hotel, Public House, Café or Restaurant…;
  • by a keeper of any kind of Boarding House, Common Lodging House or in granting a tenancy;
  • by a keeper of any public place of entertainment… to which the public are admitted.[xviii]

In the sphere of employment, the Party proposed legislation making it illegal for ‘employers or workers to refuse employment, apprenticeship, training or promotion’ on the grounds of race, along with attempts to ‘pay a lower rate to a worker’ on racial grounds.[xix] The Party proposed that any public incitement of racial hatred or contempt should be an offence, to be applied to the spoken word and that used in leaflets, newspapers or any other printed or duplicated material. The Party reiterated that ‘existing legislation is inadequate with this menace’ of explicit racial prejudice and ‘the matter cannot be effectively dealt with by amending the Public Order Act’.[xx]

Throughout the Communist Party’s campaign to support the creation of what became the Race Relations Act, there was the acknowledgement of the limitations of legislation without wider education and efforts made at local grassroots level. ‘No one would pretend that such legislation, by itself alone, would be sufficient to wipe out colour-bar practices’, wrote Kay Beauchamp, ‘let alone to rid people’s minds of the racial ideas which more than three hundred years of capitalist rule have plated there’.[xxi] But what it was hoped the Race Relations Act would do was ‘deter those who at present practice racial discrimination’ and ‘restrain those… who deliberately incite racial hatred’, as well as preventing ‘the more open forms of their insidious propaganda’.[xxii]

In November 1965, the Race Relations Act was enacted by the Labour Government. On the issue of discrimination, the Act made it illegal for places of public resort to ‘practise discrimination on the ground of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins against persons seeking access to or facilities or services at that place’.[xxiii] In the sphere of housing, tenancy could not be withheld on the grounds of race, but this only applied to freestanding properties and not to lodgings where the landlord also lived.[xxiv] The Labour Government established a Race Relations Board to investigate complaints of violations of the Act and facilitate conciliation between the parties concerned. Punishment for violation of the Act could only be delivered by the Attorney General, to whom the Race Relations Board would report. While racial discrimination was now in violation of civil law, it made racial incitement, published, distributed or publicly spoken, a criminal offence. However the final clause of the Act also amended the 1936 Public Order Act, extending it to any words or writings deemed ‘threatening, abusive or insulting, with intent to provoke a breach of the peace’ and not limited to the issue of ‘race’.[xxv]

The Race Relations Act was a significantly weaker Act than the one which had been proposed by Fenner Brockway and was, as Dilip Hiro noted, ‘criticized by liberal opinion both inside and outside Parliament’, including criticism from the Communist Party.[xxvi] The Act was described as ‘marred by weakness which represented a dangerous concession to the most reactionary and racially prejudiced of the Tory Party’.[xxvii] Tony Chater claimed that the Act worked as a ‘barrier against prosecution for incitement to racial hatred’ as it relied on the Attorney General to initiate any proceedings.[xxviii] Conciliation machinery was viewed as ‘very desirable, but only within the framework of criminal proceedings’, not as a substitute for legislation.[xxix] ‘If such machinery becomes a substitute for legislation against racial discrimination’, warned CPGB member Harry Bourne, ‘then full licence will be left to the racialists to carry on their foul work’.[xxx]

In July 1967, Beauchamp wrote in Marxism Today:

The Race Relations Board recently reported that out of 309 cases referred to it, 224 referred to matters outside its powers, including 97 on jobs and 23 on housing. Of the remaining 87, 17 had been settled out of court, 2 had been referred to the Attorney General and 31 were being looked at.[xxxi]

The amendments to the Public Order Act in the 1965 Act were claimed by the CPGB to have ‘nothing to do with race relations’ and its extensions going ‘beyond the intention’ of the Act, with the possibility of it being ‘used to curb the normal political activities of the people’.[xxxii] Despite its weaknesses, the Communist Party saw the Act as ‘a first limited step to combat the spread of racial discrimination and incitement’ and called for support for it ‘in principle by all progressive people’.[xxxiii] The CPGB continued to call for ‘amending of the Race Relations Act to make it more effective against incitement to race hatred and against discrimination, particularly in housing and employment’.[xxxiv] It also proposed that ‘it should be easier for a victim… to have recourse to law without having to seek the Attorney General’s intervention’.[xxxv] However as the Act was strengthened by the Labour Government in 1968, this happened as more severe restrictions were placed on black immigration in Britain.

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Beauchamp’s 1967 article in Marxism Today

 

(Full refs are available upon request)

[i] Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 11.

[ii] Hansard, 12 June 1956, col. 247.

[iii] Hansard, 12 June 1956, col. 248-49.

[iv] Howe 1993, p. 231.

[v] Beauchamp, ‘Racialism in Britain Today and How to Fight It’, Marxism Today, July 1967, p. 203.

[vi] ‘Stop Racial Propaganda’, n.d., Manchester: CPGB flyer.

[vii] ‘Stop Racial Propaganda’

[viii] The Guardian, 2 July 1962.

[ix] Jones, ‘Outlaw This Incitement to Racial Hatred’, Comment, 11 August 1962, p. 381.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Zaidman, ‘Fight Race Hate Here Too’, Comment, 5 October 1963, p. 631.

[xiii] London District Committee, ‘Memorandum on a Bill against Racial Discrimination and Incitement’, 16 December 1964, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/RACE/01/01, LHASC.

[xiv] Hansard, 30 April 1958, col. 388.

[xv] Hansard, 24 May 1957, col. 1604.

[xvi] Hansard, 24 May 1957, col. 1602; col. 1606.

[xvii] London District Committee, Against Racial Discrimination & Incitement: What Should Be in the Bill?, March 1965, p. 2, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/RACE/01/04, LHASC.

[xviii] London District Committee, Against Racial Discrimination & Incitement, p. 5.

[xix] London District Committee, Against Racial Discrimination & Incitement, p. 6.

[xx] London District Committee, Against Racial Discrimination & Incitement, pp. 8-9.

[xxi] Beauchamp, ‘Colour Bar’, Comment, 11 January 1964, p. 22.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Race Relations Act, 1965, 1 (1)

[xxiv] In most discussions of the shortcomings of the first Race Relations Act, it is generally mentioned that ‘it did not apply to the areas of employment and housing’. While employment was not included in the Act, some mention of housing was included, but this is commonly overlooked. Even contemporary reports in the Communist Party press generalised about the weaknesses of the Act, stating that, ‘Discrimination in the important fields of employment and housing is not within its scope’. Miles and Phizacklea 1984, p. 57; Hiro 1992, p. 210; Moore 1975, p. 103; Chater 1966, p. 62; Daily Worker, 29 April 1965.

[xxv] Race Relations Act, 1965, 7

[xxvi] Hiro 1992, p. 210.

[xxvii] ‘Political Committee Statement on Race Relations Bill’, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/RACE/01/02, LHASC.

[xxviii] Chater 1966, p. 62.

[xxix] Chater 1966, p. 63.

[xxx] Bourne, Racialism, p. 12.

[xxxi] Beauchamp, ‘Racialism in Britain Today and How to Fight It’, p. 203.

[xxxii] ‘Political Committee Statement on Race Relations Bill’

[xxxiii] ‘Political Committee Statement on Race Relations Bill’

[xxxiv] Beauchamp, ‘Racialism in Britain and the Fight Against It’, p. 617.

[xxxv] Bourne, Racialism, pp. 12-3.

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