Diane Abbott: Let's revive the spirit of anti-racism

It is no surprise, more than 30 years later, to have it all but officially confirmed that the police caused the death of Blair Peach
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Certain campaigns evoke an era. And the campaign to find out "Who Killed Blair Peach?" evokes the anti-racist campaigning of the late 1970s like no other. If you had not been on the demonstration, you had the poster.

The campaign reverberated through Left politics in London and beyond. It encapsulated a number of themes: multi-racial resistance to fascism; concern about police brutality and an overweening state and, above all, simple solidarity. And these themes ran like a golden thread through Left politics – from the 19th-century trade union movement right up to the advent of Tony Blair.

But 1979, when Blair Peach lost his life in an anti-fascist demonstration – almost certainly at the hands of the police as a Scotland Yard report accepted yesterday – was a very different era from today. Now, although politicians are careful to condemn Nick Griffin as a person, they fall over themselves to adopt his agenda. One of the most depressing parts about the recent TV debates is how all three leaders competed to demonstrate how tough they would be on immigration. No one is brave enough to explain to the British people that, in an era of globalised trade and currency flows, globalised labour flows are inevitable. Nor is anyone prepared to explain that, far from being a burden on schools and hospitals, much of the public sector could not survive without immigrant labour.

I went to a Labour Party briefing meeting with Jack Straw when he was preparing for his Question Time appearance with Nick Griffin. To my surprise it was full of Labour MPs insisting nervously that, whatever Jack did, he should not accuse BNP supporters of being racist. It is a long way from marching against a National Front building in Southall, to trying to pretend that people who vote for the BNP are not racist. And it is at least arguable that the failure in recent years to confront racism, in the uncompromising way that Blair Peach and the other marchers did, has allowed the BNP to flourish.

The other strength of the anti-racist movement of that era was that it was genuinely multi-racial. Black, white and Asian went to Southall to resist the fascists. Since then we have seen a regrettable fragmentation. First Asian people resisted being called black. Now Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus all insist on a separate identities. A distinct cultural identity is one thing. But the struggle against racism has been immeasurably weakened by the political fragmentation we have seen in past decades.

It is no surprise, more than 30 years later, to have it all but officially confirmed that the police caused the death of Blair Peach. Innumerable witnesses at the inquest could not have been clearer. One, Martin Gerrald, said that "Mr Peach was hit twice in the head with police truncheons and left unconscious. The police were wielding truncheons and riot shields. It was a case of the boot just going in; there was no attempt to arrest anybody." And Commander John Cass's inquiry at the time, now made public, was in no doubt either. "It can reasonably be concluded that a police officer struck the fatal blow."

There is some consolation in hearing the truth from the police themselves. But how much have we moved on? Ian Tomlinson allegedly died at the hands of the police at last year's G20 demonstrations, but prosecutors have still to come to a decision on whether to charge anyone. But the lasting effect of Blair Peach and those who marched with him is that they drove the fascists off the streets of Southall never to return.

There is no doubt that some aspects of the late 1970s, like mullet hairstyles for men, are best forgotten. Others, like the Sony Walkman, are now completely outmoded. But as the era of the New Labour project comes to an end, there are many Labour movement values which are worth reviving. And an uncompromising resistance to racism, which the demonstration that Blair Peach lost his life on exemplified, is something that we could all benefit by rediscovering.

Diane Abbott is standing for re-election as Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington