Race Relations Act

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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‘By whatever means necessary’: The origins of the ‘no platform’ policy

Recently the concept of ‘no platform’ was in the news again when there were attempts to cancel a talk by Germaine Greer at Cardiff University. While there is no doubt that the use of ‘no platform’ has expanded since its first use in the 1970s, the term is bandied about in the media with little definition and understanding of how it was developed as a specific response to the fascism of the National Front (and later the British National Party). This post looks back at the origins of the term and how it was developed into a practical anti-fascist strategy.

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In the early 1970s, the term ‘no platform’ was first used to describe the anti-fascist strategy of denying fascist organisations the public space to organise and disseminate their propaganda. The denial of public space had been an integral part of the militant anti-fascist movement since the 1930s, employed by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), various Jewish groups and other assorted anti-fascists. Fighting Oswald Mosley’s BUF, these anti-fascists broke up meetings, occupied spaces to prevent the BUF gaining access and mobilised massive demonstrations to physically confront the fascists in the streets. This continued after the war with various groups, such as the 43 Group, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and the Revolutionary Communist Party, joining the CPGB to combat Mosley’s Union Movement. As well as physically confronting the UM, part of the anti-fascists’ strategy was appealing to the local councils, particularly in boroughs where the Labour Party was in charge, to deny the UM (or its various aliases) access to any council property. The anti-fascist movement was quite successful in its approach and Mosley fled to Ireland in the early 1950s. Until the emergence of the National Front in late 1960s, the fascist groups in Britain remained small and the anti-fascist movement gradually faded away.

Forming in 1967, the National Front brought together a number of disparate fascist and anti-immigration groups and by the early 1970s, it was making headway by attracting disaffected Conservative Party voters who felt that the Tories were ‘too soft’ on immigration. Particularly when the Ugandan Asian controversy emerged in 1972, the NF publicised its opposition to letting these British citizens into the country after the Heath government acknowledged that it had legal reason to deny them entry. The first use of the term ‘no platform’ (that I have been able to find) comes from that year. The Red Mole was the newspaper of the International Marxist Group (IMG), a Trotskyist organisation that built quickly amongst the student and anti-Vietnam War movements in the late 1960s. In the issue for September 18, 1972, the front page headline declared ‘NO PLATFORM FOR RACISTS’. It described the NF and the Monday Club (a pro-empire and anti-immigration grouping within the Conservative Party) as ‘mortal enemies of the working class’ and stated that these two groups ‘must be stopped in their tracks’. The newspaper argued that these groups needed to be confronted and were ‘not going to be convinced by rational argument’, calling for ‘a concerted counter-attack’ at meetings of both groups.

The IMG proposed that groups like the NF could not be afforded ‘free speech’ because ‘their racist campaigns are a means to destroy the organisations of the working class which defend such bourgeois democratic rights’. The same issue claimed:

the only way to deal with fascist type organisations like the National Front is to break up their activities before they grow to a size where they can begin to smash the activities of the working class.

While acknowledging that ‘[w]e are nowhere near a threatened Fascist coup yet’, but said ‘the methods necessary on preventing such a threat must be explained and demonstrated in practice now… We must begin to adopt the right tactics right from the start.’

The IMG was one of the most influential leftist groups amongst the student movement in Britain in the early 1970s, but competed with the International Socialists and the CPGB (who were part of the Broad Left group with students associated with the Labour left). The NUS in 1974 was under the leadership of Steve Parry, a member of the CPGB and the Broad Left, and were in agreement (in principle) that a policy of ‘no platform’ should be applied to NF and other fascist organisations attempting to recruit students on university campuses. At the Liverpool conference in 1974, the policy of ‘no platform’ was devised as part of a wider stance against racism. Amendment 4 of the resolution on the fight against racialism stated:

Conference recognises the need to refuse assistance (financial or otherwise) to openly racist or fascist organisations or societies… and to deny them a platform.

However conference believes that in order to counter these groups, it is also necessary to prevent any member of these organisations or individuals known to espouse similar views from speaking in colleges by whatever means necessary (including disrupting of the meeting).

Student unions were called upon to ‘prevent any racist or fascist propaganda being displayed, sold, distributed, or propagated through meetings by whatever means may be necessary’.

Although agreed in principle the concept of ‘no platform’, the Communist Party, the IMG and the IS differed on the details of the resolution and how the strategy should be applied. The IMG felt that the joint action suggested in the resolution would not transfer into practice and declared that the other left-wing groups were unwilling to be involved in such joint practical action. Steve Webster wrote in Red Weekly (the renamed paper of the IMG):

The fascists will not be defeated by resolutions or statements alone. There are three specific issue which face us immediately: the activity of the right in the colleges, the campaign against the reactionary anti-abortion group, SPUC [the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children), and the fight against racism. The other groups of the left rejected joint action around these issues. But it is only by such joint mobilisations, by confronting the right wing head-on, that the fascists and racists will be routed.

The LSE branch of the International Socialists put together a newsletter called The Red Agitator which stated that they believed that the policy was ‘fundamentally correct’, but took issue with the lumping together of racists and fascists in the resolution as there was a difference in approach to fascists and those in the mainstream who promoted racist ideas. The IS raised the point of the racist claims made by the psychologist Hans Eysenck who toured universities in the early 1970s, espousing the idea that there were significant differences in mental capacity between the races. Eysenck was a racist, but not a fascist, and the IS suggested approaching his meetings in a slightly different way than the employment of the ‘no platform’ strategy:

To debate with Eysenck, to treat him as a genuine scientist, is thus to indirectly legitimise Powellism. This is not to say that we should go out to break up meetings which he addresses – the real threat lies in organised fascist groups – but rather that we should picket them and organise counter-meetings in order to show up the real nature of his ideas.

But dealing with the openly fascist NF, the IS agreed with the IMG. The Red Agitator newsletter finished with this:

The racists and fascists of today are not something that we can ignore. They are a growing menace. The liberties we have today are worth defending, small though they are. Fascism aims to smash, racism creates the conditions for their destruction. We cannot allow the open fascist, or the concealed fascist working in the Monday Club or some similar organisation to gain a hearing. Every meeting that they hold gives them confidence. Every apologist for racism lends them comfort. Every liberal who debates with them gives them aid – much against their will.

Every time they are stopped from meeting, every time their meetings are broke up, their task becomes harder and harder. The moral of the fascists fall. People turn away from them as a miserable and pathetic group with nothing to offer. Every success that we have demonstrates to the waverers that we are a better solution. That is the only way to fight fascism and racism.

The Communist Party’s National Student Organiser Dave Cook also took exception with the broad nature of the ‘no platform’ resolution devised by the NUS. Cook, writing in the CPGB’s Morning Star, argued that the second part of the resolution calling for the prevention of those speaking who espoused ‘similar views’ by any means necessary endangered support for the NUS policy because of its broad interpretation and could have potentially isolated the more moderate and centrist elements in the NUS. Cook proposed that there should not be all-applying response set at the national level, but allow each individual student council to decide whether to implement the policy of ‘no platform’. Like the Party’s wider anti-fascist strategy in the 1970s, Cook also warned against the vanguardist approach of breaking up meetings by a minority of students, writing ‘It is important that direct action does not become a substitute for the often more difficult task of winning the majority.’

In the Party’s internal documents, the broad and all-applying response of ‘no platform’ was criticised further. The Communist Party was particularly concerned with making the distinction between the fascism of the National Front and the racism of the Conservatives (and other right-wing groups), which nonetheless operated within a democratic framework. The Political Committee stated:

It is important to state from the start that the resolution is not a threat to the right of the Tory party to politically operate in the colleges. The resolution clearly and correctly differentiates between the expression of a Conservative viewpoint and organisations whose declared objective is racist. This is not to say that racism is an attitude that stops at the boundaries of the Conservative Party. On the contrary. Certain Tory leaders are more potent symbols of racism than anyone in the National Front… However it id important to draw the distinction between individual Tory racists, and organisations that are part of the Tory party like the Monday Club on one hand; and organisations whose declared objective is to further race hatred on the other – not because our opposition to them is any less intense, but because they are often best fought in different ways. It is so that it can more effectively fight them that NUS policy must hinge on this distinction. (‘The Fight Against Racism and Fascism, 22 May, 1974, CP/CENT/PC/13/05, LHASC)

The Party also felt that the resolution could be used to enact the ‘no platform’ policy against individuals, rather than organised fascist groups, and that this went past necessary anti-fascist activism and contravened the idea of ‘free speech’. Another internal document made this clear:

No matter how nauseous we find the views of individuals who are not members of such [fascist] organisations, e.g. [Hans] Eysenck and [William] Shockley; or the views of the right wing of the Tory Party, e.g. the Monday Club; the fact is that both of these differ significantly from organisations whose aims is declaredly fascist. (‘The Fight Against Racism and Fascism, n.d., CP/CENT/PC/13/05, LHASC)

While the NUS resolution, as well as the IMG and the IS, all saw the Monday Club to resemble a proto-fascist organisation that should be barred from meeting and organising on university campuses, the CPGB stressed that the Monday Club (from which there was a conveyer belt of recruitment into the NF in the early 1970s) was merely a group within the Conservatives and thus should be allowed to organise publicly.

Furthermore, the CPGB was worried that the phrase ‘by any means necessary’ could be interpreted in a number of ways and was concerned about physical violence at public events involving sections of the non-fascist right wing, such as Eysenck’s university tours. This had already occurred the previous year when the tiny Maoist group the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) (featuring the future leader of the Workers Institute for Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, Comrade Bala) broke up a presentation by Eysenck at the LSE.

The resolution was heavily criticised in the mainstream media, with even The Guardian’s John Fairhall describing the move as a denial of free speech, voted for by student ‘under the spell of Mr Parry’s oratory’ (April 9, 1974). Fairhall predicted that ‘[t]rouble and violence seem inevitable’ and warned:

Students should perhaps remember that frustration which leads to a denial of the right of one section of society is not something new. It is classic pattern of fascism.

Parry replied in a latter to the newspaper (April 16), arguing:

Our members overseas have been singled out for abuse, threats and outright economic attack by powerful extreme right-wingers during the time of the last Government. All our conference agreed was that at least they should not be subject to that abuse in our own student union.

Parry further addressed his critics in the press in an article in the journal Labour Monthly (June 1974) which had been run since the 1920s by CPGB stalwart, R. Palme Dutt. Unlike the position taken by Dave Cook, Parry saw the Monday Club and the National Front as very similar and posed the question, ‘What is the difference between the ideologies of the National Front and the Nazi party?’ Responding to the claim that the notion of ‘no platform’ put restrictions on ‘free speech’, Parry answered at length:

One must accept that to deny racists and fascists a platform is to ‘limit freedom of speech’ but one cannot see this freedom as something which exists in the abstract. It is a freedom which is already limited by such laws as the Race Relations Act and the law of libel, and must also be seen in the context of a class society in Britain which limits the freedom of speech for the vast majority of people… In refusing to assist the spread of racism the NUS is fighting for a freedom of even greater importance: the freedom to live without discrimination on the basis of race. It is only in relation to reality that principles of freedom can be seen. It is not an abstract intellectual exercise.

Because of the controversial nature of this resolution, the NUS held a special emergency conference in London on 15 June, 1974. This was the same day that the NF attempted to hold a meeting at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square and a counter-demonstration was held by Liberation and other anti-fascists, including the IMG. The resulting melee between anti-fascists and the police led to the death of Warwick University student Kevin Gately.

At the June conference, the debate was over the application of resolution. Dave Cook, writing again in Morning Star (21 June, 1974), said that the IMG and the IS wanted to maintain the resolution as it was passed, ‘which dictated a common response to all racist and fascist organisations in all situations’. The Communist-affiliated Broad Left group opposed this arguing that ‘the best way to implement national policy was for decisions to be made by each individual union in accordance with its local situation’. Put to a vote, the amendment suggested by Broad Left failed to get over the line and the resolution remained as it was, despite the Federation of Conservative Students seeking the opportunity to defeat the resolution in its entirety. But the death of Gately at an anti-fascist demonstration bolstered the argument made by the Trotskyist groups – if fascism was not countered ‘by any means necessary’, then people on the left were to become targets of violence.

By this time, the National Front were starting change tactics. For most of the early 1970s, the NF had played up its ‘respectability’ and tried to attract disaffected Tory voters (and members) who were anti-immigrant, pro-empire and anti-Common Market. ‘No platform’ was probably at its most controversial, but also very necessary, during this period, when a determined anti-fascist movement was needed to break the respectable veneer that the NF was putting forward while trying to woo the Tory right.

It reached its highest membership during this period and concentrated on electoral politics. The NF continued to contest elections from 1974 to 1977, but switched to an attempt to siphon off right-leaning Labour voters. However the small electoral fortunes of the NF kickstarted the anti-fascist movement against them and the years from 1977 to 1979 saw increasing confrontation between the NF and anti-fascists on the streets. By the late 1970s, the idea of ‘no platform’ seemed fairly straightforward – occupy the streets and the places where the NF seek to publicly assemble. Colin Sparks, from the SWP, explained in a 1978 pamphlet, Fascism and the National Front:

We do not engage in this sort of activity because we like violence or because the NF are reactionary. There are many other reactionary organisations around, for instance the Tory Party, which we do not attempt to smash up. The National Front differs from the Tories because their aims are precisely to control the streets, to build a mass fighting movement. In this, they need the marches and rallies. (p. 41)

The Communist Party, which was largely critical of the SWP’s ‘adventurist’ approach, also recognised the need to confront the NF, but argued that this needed to be done on a mass scale. But they also advocated using the Race Relations Act to combat the NF and their ‘claim to have a democratic right to flaunt their racism’. In the 1978 pamphlet, A Knife at the Throat of Us All, Dave Cook, now the CPGB’s National Organiser, wrote:

Communists support, and will defend to the utmost, the right of people to freely speak their mind. But to attack people because they are black is not a political argument. People form their political views on the basis of conviction. They are born with their colour. That is why to attack someone because of his or her race is to attack that person as a human being. Their political views can change, colour cannot.

To permit the NF the ‘freedom’ to be anti-human can end up destroying the freedom of us all. That is why incitement to racial hatred must have no place in a civilised society. (p. 28)

Even the Labour Party accepted a form of ‘no platform’ for the National Front, when the Party’s National Executive Committee in 1978 declared:

Labour candidates should not share platforms at meetings or appear on constituency programmes on radio or television with candidates or other members of the National Front.

Despite the original NUS resolution targeting specifically openly fascist and racist organisations, such as the NF and (perhaps controversially) the Monday Club, there were fears that the policy could widened to be used against any political organisation and individual that fell foul of the NUS leadership. In their 1974 pamphlet, Fascism: How to Smash It, the IMG gave instances where ‘no platform’ had been applied to political ‘enemies’ who were not fascists:

Racists like Powell or Harold Soref – who are not fascists – have often been driven off university campuses. This is because the effect these people can have is similar to fascists – that is, terrorising black people or others chosen as scapegoats for capitalism’s social ills, and encouraging social violence, legal or otherwise, against them…

‘No Platform’ has been applied to many people by the workers’ movement. Trade unionists, for example, would generally expel employees who attended their meetings. Print workers sometimes censor by blacking a newspaper editorial attacking the unions. When Mr. Godber, Tory Minister for Agriculture, [was] sent to Birmingham one day last year to do a public relations job for Tory price policy, he was mobbed off the street by angry housewives. All these actions are against ‘free speech’ and sometimes involve a physical struggle.

Throughout the 1970s, the ‘no platform’ policy was challenged at the NUS annual conference. At the 1977 conference, concerns were raised about demonstrations against Sir Keith Joseph speaking at Essex University. In The Guardian (March 23, 1977), John Fairhall wrote that the NUS Executive Committee felt that actions, such as the one against Joseph, were ‘against the interest of the union, and damage an anti-racialism campaign’. Alan Elsner, a member of the Union of Jewish Students, wrote in the New Statesman (May 13, 1977) that the Joseph incident ‘heightened the fear that “no platform” policy could be used as a means of silencing people whose views might be controversial or unpopular’. Elsner also raised the controversy over the use of ‘no platform’ against organisations that were explicitly Zionist or supporters of Israel.

Fairhall reported that some on the NUS Executive Committee wanted to change the policy from ‘no platform’ to ‘no invitation’, allegedly supported by the Communists in the Broad Left coalition, but this was defeated, 182,333 to 154,033 (with 33,948 abstentions) (The Guardian, April 1, 1977). Future Labour MP Charles Clarke was, at the time, NUS President and a member of the Broad Left, but after the vote, defined the existing policy of ‘no platform’ as:

A student union would do anything it could physically – such as picketing and demonstrating – to prevent people whom the student union decided by a general meeting vote were racists or fascists from speaking on a campus. But prevention would stop short of violence.

The Times’ Ian Bradley stated that the policy was dropped by the NUS in December 1977 but reinstated at the 1978 NUS conference just four months later (April 7, 1978). Although the moderate NUS leadership opposed it, the far left, including the National Organisation of Labour Students, managed to get the policy reinstated. Trevor Phillips, the incoming NUS President and who was personally against the policy, maintained that the policy would be used against the National Front, but ‘would oppose any attempt to use it against Mrs Thatcher or other members of major political parties’. The outgoing NUS President, Susan Slipman added, ‘The new policy will not mean the infringement of the democratic right of any members and it will definitely not mean reraising the question of banning Jewish student organisations.’

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By 1979, the NF had fallen into disarray, marginalised by the growing anti-fascist movement from one side and by the right-wing shift of the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher from the other. However the ‘no platform’ policy was maintained and many would argue, succumbed to the newly developed interest in ‘identity politics’. Writing in Socialist Worker Review in 1986, Lindsey German said:

the policy often means little in confronting racism and sexism on more than an individual level. But what is more, it broadens the definition of no platform to an almost unworkable degree. The original no platform went for stopping organised fascists and racists, because their organisation was such a threat. That is not the case with individual members of the rugby club, however noxious they might be. Those people have to be defeated politically, in open and hopefully large union meetings.

German defended the policy, but argued that it needed to be limited to its original intent – against the National Front and other fascist organisations, such as the emerging British National Party. She warned that there were two things that were to be avoided if the NUS was to maintain the policy:

The first is to widen the policy far too far, and therefore allow the right wing to make capital from particular issues. The second is to get trapped into allowing the right to pose as defenders of free speech. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It seems that student activists at British universities have not heeded German’s warning and that the strategy of ‘no platform’ employed against political opponents far removed from the original targets, the organised fascist far right. ‘No platform’ was developed as a specific tactic to prevent the encroachment of the National Front (and the Monday Club) onto university campuses in the mid-1970s. However it seems that almost from the time of its implementation, it has been open to misinterpretation and abuse by certain student groups. This post has sought to show that before it became a widely used tactic by various student groups, ‘no platform’ had a discreet and specific context to be used in an explicitly anti-fascist framework. Contemporary discussions in the media of the tactic often ignore this origin story, but do so at their own peril.

Integration and limitation: Labour and immigration, 1962-68

Last night, Channel 4 aired a program on the 1964 election in the seat of Smethwick, where immigration became a controversial topic and was used to reason why Labour lost a safe seat to the Conservatives. I have written about the use of a racist slogan during the election campaign before (here and here), but this post gives a wider context for the changing political landscape at the time and why the Smethwick election had a long-lasting impact the Labour Party. It is based on an extract from our book Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control, which came out last year.

Throughout the 1950s, the official position of the Labour Party on immigration control was one of consistent opposition. When the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill was debated in Parliament in November 1961, the Labour Party opposed it on the same grounds it had presented in 1958. Gordon Walker, Labour MP for Smethwick, contended that the Conservative Home Secretary R. A. Butler ‘advocates a Bill into which race discrimination is now written – not only into its spirit and practice but into its very letter’.[1] Labour’s opposition to the introduction of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was based on both political and economic arguments.[2]

Politically, the Labour Party favoured a more benevolent British Commonwealth and defended the right of free entry for Commonwealth citizens, attacking the Conservatives for ‘having rejected the Commonwealth’ and what it supposed were ‘the principles on which it was founded’.[3] The Labour Party opposed the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill on the principle that it was racially biased, and ‘consistently accused the government of implementing racism’.[4] During the Bill’s second reading, Walker declared that Labour would ‘bitterly oppose the Bill and will resist it’ as it was ‘widely and rightly regarded as introducing a colour bar into our legislation’.[5] Labour’s economic argument was that the flow of migration had been regulated by the demands of the British economy, with leader Hugh Gaitskell stating that ‘the rate of immigrants into this country is closely related and … will always be closely related, to the rate of economic absorption’.[6] As Gaitskell explained, throughout the 1950s until 1959, there was ‘an almost precise correlation between the movement in the number of unfulfilled vacancies … and the immigration figures’.[7]

Some authors, in particular Paul Foot and Peter Alexander, have emphasised the principled opposition of Gaitskell, as leader of the Labour Party, who presented an official, unified, formal position on the concept of immigration control for Labour.[8] Foot wrote that Gaitskell understood ‘much better than his colleagues the general principles behind the international migration of labour’, and believed in the British Commonwealth as a ‘world-wide multi-racial community network’.[9] In Parliament, Gaitskell declared that the Bill was ‘a plain anti-Commonwealth Measure in theory and … a plain anti-colour Measure in practice’[10], and Denis Healey, Labour’s spokesperson on colonial issues, pledged at a meeting of immigrant and Commonwealth organisations that a Labour government would repeal the Act if elected.[11]

However, the Labour Party’s official position changed soon after Gaitskell’s death in early 1963, when Harold Wilson became leader of the party. Whereas previously Labour’s opposition to immigration control had been officially ‘unconditional’, now Wilson claimed that the party ‘supported and … do support certain provisions of the Act’.[12] Wilson announced that ‘[w]e do not contest the need for control of immigration into this country’ and accepted the continuation of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act.[13]

Wilson’s statement that Labour accepted the concept of immigration control was the beginning of a growing consensus between the two major parties that non-white immigration from the Commonwealth was a problem. The defeat of Labour MP Gordon Walker to Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths, primarily fought on the issue of immigration, made many within the Labour Party move towards an acceptance of strict immigration controls, believing that opposition to controls could be cited by the Conservatives as a sign of Labour’s weakness. Griffiths used the issue of immigration, supported by the Conservative Association, local anti-immigration advocates and fascist groups, to disrupt the traditional support for the Labour Party in Smethwick. The most notorious and infamous aspect of this campaign was the slogan, ‘If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour’, about which Griffiths commented, ‘I would not condemn anyone who said that. I regard it as a manifestation of popular feeling’.[14] The Labour Party’s interpretation of the loss of Smethwick (a loss of 7.2 per cent against an average swing across the nation to Labour of 3.5 per cent)[15] was, according to Labour Minister Richard Crossman, that ‘[e]ver since the Smethwick election it has been quite clear that immigration can be the greatest potential vote-loser for the Labour Party’.[16]

Despite the official front, the Labour Party had been internally divided on the issue of immigration for many years. The official position on unconditional right of entry had seemingly only been held together by the leadership qualities of Hugh Gaitskell.[17] The notion of the Labour Party yielding in the face of racist public opinion has been well documented in the history of race relations in Britain. Yet, as Kathleen Paul has observed, the concept of a ‘hostile public push[ing] an otherwise liberal administration toward ever greater “immigration” control’ is the ‘picture presented by policy makers themselves’.[18] Both Labour and the Conservatives had adopted unofficial means to prevent Commonwealth immigration into Britain in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. While the traditional history views the Smethwick result as impetus for Labour’s acceptance of restrictions upon non-white Commonwealth immigration, Kathleen Paul’s assertion that these measures were ‘driven not by the explosion of “race and immigration” into the electoral arena but by imperatives internal to the governing elite’ is far more convincing.[19]

In March 1965, Wilson stated that the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was ‘not working as was intended’, recommending that ‘a fresh examination of the whole problem of control is necessary’.[20] The result of this re-examination of immigration policy was the White Paper Immigration from the Commonwealth, published in August 1965. The White Paper suggested that the problem involved how to ‘control the entry of immigrants so that it does not outrun Britain’s capacity to absorb them’.[21] The emphasis of the Labour government’s platform on immigration during this period was on the notions of ‘integration’ and ‘absorption’ of Commonwealth immigrants, but the government believed that integration could not occur without immigration controls. Labour MP Roy Hattersley summarised this by declaring that, ‘without integration, limitation is inexcusable; without limitation, integration is impossible’.[22] To this end, the White Paper made two main proposals: the discontinuation of the Category C vouchers and a large reduction in the number of vouchers issued.[23] Category C vouchers had been the most issued voucher since their introduction, with 42,367 issued between July 1962 and September 1964.[24] More importantly, the total number of vouchers was to be reduced from around 20,000 a year to just 8500 a year, with 1000 reserved for citizens of Malta and ‘not more than 15 per cent of the vouchers issued in Category A will go to any one Commonwealth country’.[25] Effectively this meant that Old Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, which had fairly small populations, were entitled to the same number of vouchers as the more populous Commonwealth countries like India and Pakistan. Regarding the Labour government’s fears of ‘evasion’ of control, the Paper also proposed stronger powers for Immigration Officers to refuse entry to those who were not considered ‘bona fides’.[26]

The result of the White Paper’s release was that consensus was reached within government circles that Commonwealth immigration was undesirable and threatened social cohesion in Britain. As Roy Hattersley stated in Parliament in March 1965, ‘I believe that unrestricted immigration can only produce additional problems, additional suffering and additional hardship unless some kind of limitation is imposed and continued’.[27] Previously speaking as ‘a passionate opponent of the Act’, Hattersley came claimed in 1965 that, ‘with the advantages of hindsight, I suspect that we were wrong to oppose the Act’.[28]

The Labour government’s policy of integration featured heavily in the White Paper, which recommended the implementation of tighter restrictions on Commonwealth immigration while tackling racial discrimination in the domestic sphere. This led to the introduction of the first legislation against racial discrimination in late 1965 to ‘complement’ the White Paper. The Race Relations Act 1965 was introduced to ‘prohibit discrimination on racial grounds in places of public resort’ and was enacted in November 1965[29], but was a much weaker Act than had been proposed by MPs such as Fenner Brockway since the mid-1950s. While reservedly welcomed by both progressive and immigrant organisations, the Race Relations Act was inherently tied to the notions of integration and restriction. As Dilip Hiro wrote:

Taken together, the 1965 White Paper and the 1965 Race Relations Act signalled the convergence of the two major political parties on the issues of immigration control and racial justice. An advance, albeit minor, on the front for ethnic minorities was conceded by the Conservatives in exchange for a retreat by Labour in the matter of immigration restrictions.[30]

The Labour government believed that immigration control and the Race Relations Act would ease the process of integration for non-white immigrants from the Commonwealth into the ‘British way of life’. This process of integration, reinforced by legislation against the most overt forms of public racial discrimination, would help ‘stamp out the evils of racialism’.[31] As Peter Alexander wrote, ‘[i]mmigration control was expected to reduce racism. The reverse happened. And with increased racism came further controls’.[32]

While the number of colonial migrants on work vouchers decreased through the mid-1960s, other colonial migrants (on British passports issued overseas) started to increase in numbers, especially after Kenya won independence in 1963. This point in time symbolises the beginning of an ‘Africanisation’ campaign that ‘prompted many [Kenyan South Asians] to migrate to Britain rather than face continued discrimination’ in Kenya.[33] A ‘steady flow’ of Kenyan South Asians migrated to Britain between 1965 and 1967. In 1967, the Kenyan Government passed a law under which these British citizens of South Asian descent could reside and work in Kenya only on a temporary basis. This created an increase in migration to Britain and prompted demands from sections of the media and Conservative MPs, such as Enoch Powell, that restrictions be applied to these Kenyan South Asians.[34] Powell claimed that the number of South Asians arriving from Kenya would reach a total of 200,000, but the reality was a much smaller 66,000 out of a potential 95,000, with 29,000 already settled in Britain by February 1968.[35] In late February 1968, the Labour government ‘steamrollered through Parliament in three days of emergency debate’ the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 with the ‘sole purpose of restricting entry into Britain of Kenyan Asians holding British passports’.[36] According to this Act, British citizenship was determined by the birth of a person or of one of their parents or grandparents in Britain. This effectively excluded the Kenyan South Asians, or any other non-white citizens of the Commonwealth, from British citizenship. Despite the rhetoric that the 1968 Act was impartial and not racially biased, the reality underpinning this amendment was the Labour government’s intention to prevent further non-white immigration to Britain.

Zig Layton-Henry described the 1968 Act as the ‘logical outcome of appeasement that the Labour government had adopted in order to achieve the bipartisan consensus with the Conservatives and to reduce the electoral salience of the issue’.[37] However, this was more than merely a pragmatic issue of Labour attempting to not appear ‘weaker than the Conservatives on the issue of immigration controls’,[38] but was the result of a deeper reassessment of the idea of British nationality as Britain’s colonial empire collapsed. White British citizens born abroad were ‘never referred to as “immigrants” under any circumstances’. The term ‘immigrant’ was reserved for non-white Commonwealth migrants, and by the late 1960s the equation of ‘immigrant’ with ‘black’ had become the prevailing attitude.[39] The Labour Party had originally opposed immigration controls on the grounds of the ideal of the free movement of people and trade throughout the Commonwealth. However, the right to enter and live in Britain without restriction did not mean that Commonwealth immigrants were ‘regarded as British in any other sense’.[40] For Labour, the ‘Commonwealth ideal had never been intended as a defence of [unrestricted] black immigration to Britain’. And, as Caroline Knowles has stated, the increasingly tougher controls on immigration seen in the 1960s demonstrated that Labour ‘reconstructed immigration away from Commonwealth and labour needs’, perceiving immigrants as ‘an invasive and oppositional political community to indigenousness’.[41]

In 1968, Robert Moore wrote that ‘[r]acialists have nothing to lose and everything to gain by pressing the Labour Government even harder’.[42] The long-term effect of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 was to create a distinction between the predominantly white British citizenry who could claim lineage within Britain and the predominantly non-white Commonwealth citizenry who could no longer claim to be ‘British’, which in turn barred the Commonwealth immigrant from entering Britain. In this we can trace the beginning of the double standard citizenship rule which divides ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ migrants according to country of origin.

 

Opposition to the 1962 Bill (via National Archives UK)

Opposition to the 1962 Bill (via National Archives UK)

[1] Hansard, 16 November, 1961, col. 706.

[2] Robert Miles & Annie Phizacklea, White Man’s Country: Racism in British Politics (Pluto Press, London, 1984) p. 42.

[3] Miles & Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, p. 42.

[4] Miles & Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, p. 42.

[5] Hansard, 16 November, 1961, col. 1716

[6] Miles & Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, p. 42; Hansard, 16 November, 1961, col. 793-794.

[7] Hansard, 16 November, 1961, col. 794; R. Miles & A. Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, p. 42.

[8] Paul Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1965) pp. 174-175; Peter Alexander, Racism, Resistance and Revolution (Bookmarks, London, 1987) pp. 34-35.

[9] Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, p. 175.

[10] Hansard, 16 November, 1961, col. 799.

[11] Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, p. 173; Marika Sherwood, Claudia Jones: A Life in Exile (Londo,: Lawrence & Wishart, 1999) p. 99.

[12] Cited in Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, p. 170; Hansard, 27 November, 1963, col. 365.

[13] Hansard, 27 November, 1963, col. 367.

[14] Cited in Miles & Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, p. 49.

[15] Miles & Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, p. 50.

[16] Richard Crossman, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, vol. 1: Minister of Housing 1964-66 (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1975) pp. 149-150.

[17] See Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, pp. 161-175.

[18] Kathleen Paul, Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era (Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1997) p. 177.

[19] Paul, Whitewashing Britain, pp. 177-178.

[20] Hansard, 9 March, 1965, col. 249.

[21] Immigration from the Commonwealth, Cmnd. 2739, HMSO, London, 1965, p. 2.

[22] Cited in Miles & Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, p. 57.

[23] Immigration from the Commonwealth, p. 6.

[24] Figures calculated from Control of Immigration Statistics 1 July 1962 – 31 December 1963, HMSO, London, 1965, pp. 15-16; Control of Immigration Statistics 1964, HMSO, London, 1965, p. 11.

[25] Immigration from the Commonwealth, p. 6.

[26] Immigration from the Commonwealth, p. 8.

[27] Hansard, 23 March, 1965, col. 380-381.

[28] Hansard, 23 March, 1965, col. 380.

[29] Race Relations Act, 1965 .

[30] Dilip Hiro, Black British, White British: A History of Race Relations in Britain (London, Paladin, 1992) p. 211.

[31] David Ennals, ‘Labour’s Race Relations Policy’, Institute of Race Relations Newsletter, November/December 1968, p. 437.

[32] Alexander, Racism, Resistance and Revolution, p. 34.

[33] Paul, Whitewashing Britain, p. 179.

[34] John Solomos, Race and Racism in Britain (Palgrave, Houndmills, 2003) p. 60; D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 213.

[35] Alexander, Racism, Resistance and Revolution, p. 36; D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 214.

[36] Fryer, Staying Power, p. 383.

[37] Zig Layton-Henry, The Politics of Immigration: Immigration, ‘Race’ and ‘Race’ Relations in Post-War Britain (Blackwell, Oxford, 1992) p. 79.

[38] Layton-Henry, The Politics of Immigration, p. 79.

[39] Ann Dummett & Andrew Nicol, Subjects, Citizens, Aliens and Others: Nationality and Immigration Law (London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1990) p. 201.

[40] Caroline Knowles, Race, Discourse and Labourism (London, Routledge, 1992) p. 94.

[41] Knowles, Race, Discourse and Labourism, p. 96, 103.

[42] Robert Moore, ‘Labour and Colour – 1965-8’, Institute of Race Relations Newsletter, October 1968, p. 390.