Anti-racism must be at the heart of the People’s Assembly

This blog originally appeared as a guest blog for the Sheffield and South Yorkshire People’s Assembly.

We should be under no illusions. The economic and political project of the government is to boost profits for corporate shareholders at the expense of the overall majority of people. In the five years since the start of the crisis, profits have reached record highs, whilst standards of living for ordinary people have taken a dramatic dive. Even under the so-called recovery trumpeted by the media and the government front bench, this trend is set to continue (in fact, the economy remains smaller today than it was five years ago).

The rhetoric of austerity is a divisive one. It has to be. It’s the only political strategy that makes any sense.  “Strivers” versus “skivers”; “deserving” versus “undeserving” poor; “chavs” versus so-called “hard working families”. If you’re in government and you’re hitting the 99% to benefit the 1%, you better make sure that the majority you’re going after are too busy tearing each other apart to notice you’re the one responsible for the problems they face; for cutting or freezing pay, for slashing pensions, for the millions of people queuing at the Job Centre, for the people working for free under workfare, for all those chronically – sometimes terminally – ill people forced back to work by Atos. The list goes on and on.

It’s self-evidently true that to build an effective campaign against austerity all these attempts to foment division amongst the people suffering from the cuts should be resisted. Where the government makes scapegoats and offers nothing but contempt and suspicion, we should offer solidarity. The struggle against racism must be a central aspect of this work.

For the last ten years, the cutting edge of racism in Britain has been directed at the Muslim community. Unbelievably, in this time over half of all mosques and Islamic religious centres have been subject to attack in the UK, women have been assaulted in the street, their veils ripped from their heads, and universities have been daubed with racist graffiti. The rise of the English Defence League (EDL) has given expression to a violent Islamophobic racism, with so-called “protests” terrorising Black and Asian neighbourhoods and erupting into clashes with the police. The EDL is what a modern pogrom movement looks like.

Thanks to organisations like Unite Against Fascism (UAF), the EDL now seem to be in terminal decline. UAF has consistently argued that the racist politics of the EDL should be challenged whenever and wherever they march. They’ve organised demonstrations up and down the country against racism and Islamophobia which celebrate and defend multiculturalism.

Importantly, they also acknowledge that the emergence of the EDL did not take place in a political vacuum. Rising levels of Islamophobia in the political and media mainstreams provided the context for the growth of the EDL as an organised fascist street movement. To successfully oppose the EDL requires that we make zero concessions to racism or Islamophobia wherever it appears (this should also mean that the people most affected by fascism – at present, the Muslim community – are at the centre of the campaigns against it). By tackling mainstream Islamophobia head-on, the poisonous racism of the EDL is marginalised which makes it harder for them to grow.

This has meant challenging any attempt to argue that the Muslim community is uniquely reactionary, or that Muslims are more predisposed to particular types of crime such as child grooming, or that Muslim women do not have the right to dress in whatever way they please. In fact, in countries where concessions have been made to this agenda – such as France with the banning of the veil – the far-right and fascists have got stronger, not weaker. As the adage goes, if you give an inch, they take a mile.

Whilst the EDL seem to be in decline, the conditions for a new fascist street movement are still more than adequate. Anti-Muslim bigotry has continued to have a prominent place in public discourse. Similarly, immigrants have become the target of government crack downs. The correctly named ‘racist vans’, telling illegal immigrants to ‘go home’, do nothing but echo the sentiments of the far-right.

We should be absolutely clear that a ‘neutral’ discussion of immigration is not on the table. It’s obvious that the concerns raised by politicians about the levels of immigration into Britain are not directed at the (white) Australian or American immigrant populations. As it stands, the immigration debate is used as the pretext for dog-whistle racism; just another form of divide and rule.

On Monday, the Prime Minister directly connected the issue of immigration with the economy, claiming that the reason many British workers were unable to get jobs was because of immigration from Eastern Europe. This is nonsense. Workers – of all nationalities – are unable to get jobs because there aren’t any.

The message here is crude: the problems faced by workers in Britain are not the fault of the government, its failed policy of austerity and the suffering it has caused, and will continue to cause; they are the fault of immigrants. In the anti-austerity movement, we know that’s not the case. We know that claiming that it is the case means distracting people from the real issues.

It’s for this reason that the struggle against racism is a necessary, inextricable part of the struggle against austerity. In much the same way that they blame benefit ‘cheats’ and ‘skivers’ to distract us from much bigger issues, like tax avoidance, the Tory-led government try and scapegoat Muslims and immigrants. We wouldn’t tolerate any concessions to the idea that benefit cheating is the reason the country is in a mess, neither should we tolerate any concessions to the idea that it’s because of immigrants or Muslims. This is why anti-racism should be at the heart of the movement against austerity. Without taking the struggle against racism seriously, we risk falling prey to the divide and rule tactics of the advocates of austerity.