Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Les Back, Michael Keith, Azra Khan, Kalbir Shukra and John Solomos (2002) 'The Return of Assimilationism: Race, Multiculturalism and New Labour'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 2, <>

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Received: 14/5/2002      Accepted: 31/7/2002      Published: 31/8/2002


This paper develops a critique of the politics of race and multiculturalism under New Labour. It argues that as a political formation New Labour is fraught with incommensurable impulses and commitment with regard to issues of multiculturalism, nationalism, racial justice and racism. While there have been palpable shifts and important new legislative initiatives, one of the consequences is that the project of assimilation has been reinvigorated under New Labour. This in turn leaves the normative whiteness that colonises British institutions and political life intact.

Immigration And Racial Equality; Multiculturalism; New Labour; Politics; Racism


When Labour took power in 1997 there was great anticipation in the embattled trenches of black and anti-racist politics. It was thought that, as the mantra of the time went, 'things can only get better.' Successive Conservative Governments from 1979 to 1997 had undermined the local state where minority political claims were once voiced, reified the 'British way of life' as a national treasure to be defended from 'enemies within' and ' enemies without' and effectively closed the door on migrants from the New Commonwealth. Yet it is still unclear exactly what New Labour has achieved with what former Home Secretary Jack Straw has called the 'race agenda'. More than this there has been little clear analysis of the politics of race and racism post 1997.

However different analytical positions are beginning to emerge. There are those who suggest that New Labour has simply taken the ground of the Conservative agenda, pandered to racism and delivered very little (Fekete, 2001). For others New Labour has turned back time, returned to the vocabulary and debates of 1960s and reinvigorated the project of assimilationism (Rattansi, forthcoming). A glib correlation between the rise of racism and the increased flows of migrant labour into the United Kingdom has even been endorsed by leading figures in British sociology (Giddens, 2002), echoing the received wisdom of liberal interventions from Roy Hattersley and Roy Jenkins, which were used forty years ago to rationalise the passage of strong immigration controls and race relations legislation by the Labour administrations of the 1960s (Solomos, 1988 and 1993). The public statements of Home Secretary David Blunkett in particular - playing to a reading of the traditional Labour heartlands as illiberal (Lister, 2001) - almost explicitly undermine the gains made around cultural rights and multiculturalism in Britain. Blunkett exemplifies a populist strand of New Labour rhetoric that tends to mollify rather than confront the sentiments demonstrated in increased support for the BNP across the northern mill towns and their electoral successes in local government elections in Burnley.

Yet in contrast there is a sense that the Labour government has embraced - or at least tried to manage - cultural diversity and has placed institutional racism on the political agenda. The report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence authored by Sir William Macpherson and his colleagues can be seen from this perspective as a major benchmark in race relations (Macpherson, 1999). Jenny Bourne has written: 'Never in British race relations history has there been so much interest in exposing and combating racism' (Bourne, 2001: 13). This culminated in the passage of the 1998 Human Rights Act and the 2000 Race Relations (Amendment) Act. The former made the contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom illegal in the United Kingdom. Robin Cook even won the dubious distinction of being condemned by the Daily Mail for 'one of the strongest defences of multiculturalism ever made by a Government minister' (Kushner, 2002: 13). The latter attempted to strengthen the 1976 Race Relations Act and more generally to respond to the recommendations of the Macpherson Report.

Bearing these rather contradictory developments in mind it comes as no surprise that a number of commentators have argued that New Labour has two very different faces in relation to race and racism. But which of these is its true likeness? What are the underlying assumptions upon which post 1997 policies on race and immigration and race relations have been based? These are the key questions that we want to address in the course of this paper. Drawing in part on empirical research we have conducted on changing forms of ethnic minority political mobilisation in contemporary Britain we want to suggest an analytical framework for thinking about current trends and developments in this field.

'Cool Britannia' and Postcolonial Melancholia

In the immediate aftermath of its massive election victory in May 1997 New Labour was keen to present a commitment to modernising Britain, embracing diversity and valuing cultural mix. In the first term of office New Labour quietly dropped the 'primary purpose' clause in immigration rules, which prevented people marrying a spouse if they admitted the main purpose was to settle in Britain. This was aimed at undermining the 'arranged marriage' system and its abandonment was greeted with relief amongst some quarters within Britain's south Asian communities. It's in no surprise within a year of the electoral victory Chris Smith, the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport emphasised that young multicultural Britons were now major national assets. In his book Creative Britain he claimed 'British bands such as Blur, Oasis, the Prodigy, Pulp and the Verve dominate much of the rest of the world. Singers such as Roni Size and Jazzie B. are putting black music on the map. And the British record and CD industry - as a result of the talent that lies behind it - is one of the great strengths of our modern economy' (Smith, 1998: 7). A small quibble here is that neither Jazzy B. nor Roni Size is a 'singer' in any conventional sense of the word. But Smith boasted that the British music industry was currently worth 4 billion dollars to the UK economy and two billion dollars worth of this income was from overseas and employing some 115,000 people. Then without a hint of self-consciousness he concluded: 'Its net export earnings are bigger than those of our steel industry, and our musicians' union is now bigger than our miner's union' (Ibid: 81). In Blair's Britain there are more guitarists than there are miners.

The civil unrest during the late summer of 2001 in the northern cities of Britain seem to have been an important factor in shifting away from this celebration of multicultural diversity. An example of this shift can be found in the debates about immigration and asylum in the period since these events. David Blunkett, appointed as Home Secretary after New Labour's second electoral victory in June 2001, signalled the changing terms of public debate through his controversial comments about the need for immigrants to learn English as a test for citizenship, his denouncement of 'forced marriages' and 'female circumcision' and his insistence that South Asian communities organise arranged marriages only between brides and grooms already resident in the UK. Such language reminds one not of the debates of the seventies, eighties or even nineties, but of the assimilationist language of the sixties. It smacks of a language that somehow refuses to stay in the past. In his preface to the 2002 White Paper on Secure Borders, Safe Haven: Integration and Diversity in Modern Britain Blunkett writes:

To enable integration to take place and to value the diversity it brings, we need to be secure within our sense of belonging and identity and therefore to be able to reach out and to embrace those who come to the UK [...] Having a clear, workable and robust nationality and asylum system is the pre-requisite to building the security and trust that is needed. Without it, we cannot defeat those who would seek to stir up hate, intolerance and prejudice (Home Office, 2002: 1).

Here are the two hands of assimilationist rhetoric. To the left, a commitment to value diversity, or what Roy Jenkins defined in 1966 as 'equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance' (see Solomos, 1988: 65). To the right, a steadfast commitment to control the global movements of migrants and refugees, as a prophylactic to racism and hatred of 'the other'.

Indeed it seems that while New Labour has produced a proliferation of 'diversity talk', or what it referred to as 'managing diversity,' it is still trading in the currency of rejuvinated national pride whose defining centre is allusively archaic. It is telling that Blunkett mentions in the quotation above the need to for the British to be 'secure within our sense of belonging.' Yet, this sense of Britishness, or perhaps more accurately Englishness, is far from secure.

It was telling that in the aftermath of the publication of the report into The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (Parekh 2000), the then Home Secretary Jack Straw countered the suggestion that Britishness was intertwined with visions of whiteness and racism by invoking opportunistically George Orwell's defence of patriotism and Englishness in much the same way that Conservative Prime Minister John Major had done in the early nineties. Anxieties around the meaning of British/Englishness produce both manic and euphoric outbursts of defensive nationalistic zeal under New Labour.

Paul Gilroy has suggested that New Labour is bound within what he refers to as postcolonial melancholia (Gilroy, 1999). A condition that echoes the distinction made by Freud between a process of mourning that reckons with the loss of bereavement and eternal cycles of solipsism and neurosis. In Freud's reflections he talks about the ways in which the object of melancholia can sometimes be elusive: ' cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost, and, it is all the more reasonable to suppose that the patient cannot consciously perceive what he has lost either' (Freud, 1991: 254). Similar things might also be said of crisis of equally impalpable ideas like Englishness and whiteness. For Gilroy, British political life is caught like a grieving child unable to move beyond, or let go of, the death of an imperial parent. This in itself inhibits the coming of age of a truly heteroglot notion of Britishness. The spectacle of the recent death of the Queen Mother and the national melancholia produced here is a sign of the intensity of this condition. In his Parliamentary tribute Tony Blair cheerfully recalled that Adolf Hitler had once dubbed the departed royal 'the most dangerous woman in Europe'.[1] This masked the more troubling fact that she had been a supporter of Neville Chamberlain' s appeasement of Hitler and had been given to making 'vaguely disobliging remarks about Jews'.[2] Regardless, Blair couldn't resist casting her as a national heroine as opposed to a relic of an imperial age.

It might be possible to suggest that two faces of New Labour on the politics of race and nation are no more and no less than a duplicitous attempt to please very different audiences by being all things to all people. But instead what we are suggesting here is that at the heart of what has become the New Labour project lies an uncertainty about the challenge contemporary multiculturalism poses to the very constitution of the polity of the nation. This cannot be reduced to the sometimes simplistic binary narratives of political racism or its absence. Instead, ambivalence around the melancholic desire for an imperial past sits alongside the contradictions that surface in both liberal models of social inclusion and the attempt to define a social democratic model of national economic growth in a globalised economy.

Blair's Local and Global

New Labour has resolutely attempted to forward an agenda around questions of social exclusion and institutional change. A dominant strand of New Labour policy derives from the Third Way rhetorical commitment simultaneously to enhance inclusivity within the social order whilst remaining fiscally prudent in terms of overall public expenditure. In this context the Policy Unit in No 10 Downing Street, and its creation the Social Exclusion Unit, have become new drivers of policy change within the Blair administration, responsible for a variety of 'New Deals' (including in Employment, in Housing and Regeneration) and the flagship policy area of Neighbourhood Renewal.

The drive towards a more inclusive vision of society clearly extended to issues of race, at times through a problematic celebration of cultural diversity but also at times through a commitment to address some of the more pernicious longstanding forms of racialised discrimination. Jack Straw most pointedly expressed this twelve months after the publication of the Stephen Lawrence Report. In a review of policies in response to the Macpherson Report he claimed that over half of the recommendations in the report had been implemented. He championed the amendment of the Race Relations Acts, outlined the initiatives towards monitoring and retention of ethnic minority staff in the public services, the recuperation of racial awarenessness training and curriculum review of the National Curriculum to foster diversity. He concluded: 'Full delivery of the Action Plan can only be a start on the road to delivering a truly multi-cultural Britain, not just free from the scourge of racism, but where diversity becomes a cornerstone of our modern society' (cited in Chronicle World, 2000: 2). Essential within this strategy was the localisation of the issue of inclusion. Central to New Labour's strategy is to put 'community leadership, partnership and race equality best practice at the heart of the role of modern local government' (Ibid: 5).

This shift to local responsibility has been one of the mainstays of New Labour's policy agenda on race since 1997. Such a process of localisation needs to be considered at a range of scales through which both regulation and responsibility are exercised. From the most mundane level of the individual's responsibilities for their own welfare through to the apparently arcane niceties of national insurance and a national economic strategy the scale at which power to influence the conduct of others is exercised is both historically and geographically variable. At times the localising rhetoric witnessed not only in Britain has simultaneously recognised and promoted a less ambitious representation of the potential of the nation state - to influence economic well-being, to provide a universally accessible welfare state or to arbitrate between competing interests.

This kind of local rhetoric others have argued results in a divesting of responsibility from central government. The result people like Donzelot argue is that the economic is being 'disowned' by neo-liberal governments (Donzelot, 1991). Consequently the responsibility for progress is increasingly offloaded onto individuals, communities, cities or regions and invariably smaller units of analysis than the nation state. Writers like Nikolas Rose have argued that this produces a greater degree of self-government and 'individuals' become new objects within regimes of governmentality (Rose, 1989, 1999).

At its least problematic the New Labour invocation of the local speaks to the devolution agenda, the creation of Regional Development Agencies and the attempts to 'modernise' or revive structures of local government. However, at the heart of these putative moments of redistribution of power multiculturalism challenges the very tension between the rhetoric of communitarianism and the realities of self-government.

A recurrent stress of the Third Way politics of self-government rests in making visible the responsibility that is devolved to individuals and as a result debates of citizenship concentrate on contractual obligations and participating individuals. The learning of democratic mores, learning to be civilised and David Blunkett's recent comments about learning English are cast within this kind of move. Beyond this, communities within this rhetoric are also commonly charged with the responsibility for being the arbiters of moral worth. This move has deep roots in ethical philosophy (i.e. liberal versus communitarian models of conduct). The communitarian tendency leads to its own ambivalences and uncertainties when promoting 'local autonomy' comes into direct conflict with the problems in what the local embodies. New Labour's support of faith communities and Blair's explicit religiosity is a feature of this version of communal rhetoric. But in complex multi-ethnic and multi-faith settings 'the community' is not a simplistic or homogenous formation. Rather, than the arbiter of moral worth it becomes a battleground of competing ethics. The local can be the arena for the expression of 'rights for white' tenant groups, foundational Christianity and a complex variety of articulations of Islam. Local settings can also be interconnected in a complex ways to places around the globe, to the degree that it is foolish to think of 'the local' without understanding how the local is interconnected with other contexts around the world. It is simply not possible to disconnect the post September 11 events in Palestine or Afghanistan from synagogues and mosques across London. This involves a complicated navigation of recognition, translation and judgement (Gutmann, 1994; Schuster and Solomos, forthcoming a). There seems a limited spectrum within which this debate can take place now particularly in the aftermath of September 11th.

Put simply a desire to empower the local, set within a plethora of initiatives to promote participatory democracy, highlights the contradictory nature of apparent localised autonomy. The communitarian urge to promote school governing bodies, GP practices or third sector welfare provision sits easily within a monocultural notion of the social world. It is more problematic when the politics of recognition translates into demands for faith schools, culturally specific gender practices or rights for whites elderly care in these newly empowered local arenas. In one sense this does no more than reveal the agonistic heart of the liberal democratic settlement (Mouffe, 2000). But in a British context race serves as mediating metaphor that in tracing the limits of the tolerance of intolerance highlights the flaws within an unproblematic model of social inclusion. Ultimately multiculturalism and racism provoke debates about rights and responsibilities that demand explicit resolutions that cannot be confined to the scale of the local and whose resolutions potentially severely compromise New Labour's talent for populist appeal (Hall, 2001).

One of the most tangible ways in which New Labour attempted to pursue the 'diversity agenda' was through honours and peerages. There are currently 26 black and ethnic minority peers in the House of Lords. New Labour installed a staggering 19 of these minority peers. This tells us something about the types of patronage politics that New Labour has gone in for since 1997. Equally, New Labour has opened up new points of contact and dialogue. In spite of fourteen years of Labour opposition to any form of Black Section in its ranks, after winning the 1997 General Election, New Labour announced a series of new structures through which it might build a series of close, new relationships with ethnic minority community representatives. In 1998, Home Secretary Jack Straw announced that he would lead a Race Relations Forum at the heart of government, in the Home Office, providing him with unpaid part-time advisors from the ranks of the growing body of ethnic minority professionals and politicians (Shukra, 1998). In October 1999 the Government consulted approximately a thousand organisations and individuals on proposals for a Holocaust Memorial Day. The first of these national annual commemorations took place on 23rd October 2000 alongside a host of locally organised events.

New Labour's recognition of Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the Union of Muslim Organisations of UK and Eire, an organisation set up in 1996 prior to Labour's election, is an important case of ambivalent types of political dialogue. It was claimed in a recent TV documentary that New Labour acknowledged by MCB because it was as an organisation it could use to demonstrate its consultation with the British Muslim community.

In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks Blair was keen to present the imminent action against Al Qaida as not a war on Islam. Although, Bush's comments that the war on terror would be a 'crusade' left little doubt in the minds of British Muslims that political Islam was his main target. Gita Sahgal wrote that Blair's dilemma was how 'to balance the bombing of Muslims abroad with wooing them at home' (Sahgal, 2002: 2). On Friday 28th September 2001 just hours after the attack on Afghanistan started a delegation from the MCB was invited to Downing Street and paraded smiling and shaking hands. On 9th October the MCB issued a press release strongly denouncing the war. New Labour we reported to be furious. The MCB didn't support the demonstrations against the war but it was clear that they did not want to further alienate the government.

More intriguing has been the pressures applied to the five British Muslim parliamentarians namely MPs Khalid Mahmood and Mohammed Sarwar, and the peers, Lord Ahmed, Lord Patel of Blackburn and Lady Uddin. It is claimed that the parliamentarians we presented with a letter denouncing the bombing of September 11th and part justifying the retaliatory bombings by Downing Street and told to sign it.[3] Khalid Mahmood has denied that he signed any such letter [4] Regardless of the accuracy of these claims what is clear is that there are difficult struggles taking place over issues of consultation, dialogue and the manipulation of the Muslim presence within New Labour.

The end result is a climate of fear, and anxiety, which is captured powerfully in this letter by one British Muslim:

I have to condemn these terrorist attacks louder than other citizens, as anything less disguises hidden support for the murder of innocent civilians, These civilians are the only ones I'm allowed to grieve for. I cannot oppose the bombing of Afghanistan, as this amounts to treason, because 'our troops' are out there. I cannot condemn the killing of Palestinian civilians, as this means support for Hamas and Hizbullah. I cannot oppose the sanctions on Iraq as this implicates me in the development of weapons of mass destruction. In fact, I cannot support any cause involving Muslims around the world as this betrays loyalty to Queen and country.[5]

The result is to set up two poles: the first is a consensus position defined and policed by the government (in sharp contrast to the pluralities of moral debate implicit in the logic of localisation) and the second is the province of extremism. Thus the claiming of minority rights or affiliations is policed by a 'zone of moderation' that is ultimately defined by New Labour. The injunction to be moderate is ultimately the terms of inclusion within space offered to minority communities.

In turn, ethnic minority communities and political representatives have found themselves either disappointed or betrayed by a government that seemed to promise so much. As one interviewee from a national campaign told us:

I think the fact there was a Labour government which said they were going to sit down and talk to people, consult them, and sort of work with organisations to make sure that there was a thorough review of the entire immigration system and asylum system, made certain organisations believe that, believe that the government would actually do that and listen to them, because for the previous 18 years, these organisations had the experience of complete stonewalling from the government...but there was a sham of a consultation. The organisations made submissions in terms of the concerns they were raising about the Bill and so on. Those were not taken into account and when the bill became an act there was hardly any element of the concerns raised by many refugee organisation taken into account, hardly any of them (Interview, 8th November 2000).

Ethnic minority representatives appear to find themselves caught in a dilemma when government offers to listen. To participate in consultation mechanisms can leave them feeling manipulated and muted at the end of the process but the alternative is even more frightening for most of them:

'obviously people don't want to cut off and say, you know, "we don't want to be in that dialogue" because that would be foolish' (Ibid.).

However, the bargaining chips used by ethnic minority community representatives in the past - either their capacity to restore social order at times of unrest or their ability to deliver a bloc vote - are not as threatening to government as they once might have been.

'Managed Migration' and the Wretched at the Border

A second major contradiction within the New Labour politics of race results from the attempt to reconcile an aspiration for a model of neo-liberal economic growth based on a rhetoric of globalised economic forces with an attempt to protect the social integrity of the nation state. The contradiction becomes most apparent when the rhetoric of economic globalisation collides with the reality of globalised flows of migrant labour and refugees.

While New Labour has adopted the language of diversity and racial justice it has also over seen some of the most authoritarian initiatives directed against young people and an incredibly stringent immigration policy. The tremors of moral concern about the domestic quality of the 'multicultural question' have been in large part separated from a wider concern about the 'new immigration.' In recent times we have seen a tidal wave of xenophobia has hit Britain surrounding the new immigration in the form of asylum seekers and refugees. What is significant about this is the degree to which domestic cultural politics of race are seen as distinct to what Stephen Dobson calls the 'border questions' (Dobson, 1999). The venom and crudeness of the public outcry revolves around the image of refugees as 'beggars' and involved in 'violent crime' are routine reference points in the media. The general context is that asylum seekers are living below the poverty line, surviving until recently on vouchers that can only be traded for goods and subject to a dispersal policy that is aimed to inhibit them settling in particular areas together. Meanwhile, liberal or even left-wing politicians try to justify these draconian measures as being 'faster, firmer fairer' on the issue of political asylum.

While New Labour castigated the Tories for terminology like 'bogus asylum seekers' there have overseen a policy that has effectively criminalized the process of seeking political asylum. According to the 2002 White Paper there is a need 'to expose the nonsense of the claim that people coming through the Channel Tunnel, or crossing in container lorries, constitute an invasion when it patently demonstrates how difficult people are finding it to reach this country' (Home Office, 2002: 1). The irony here is that being tough seems to be a matter of placating the delirium of racist scare mongering!

But, the security of those borders also creates the market of desperation that lines the pockets of smugglers and criminals who are making small fortunes out of illegal traffic. The mud of criminalisation sticks to all those seeking refuge. The figure of the refugee and the asylum seeker has been transformed from a political émigré to de facto criminal. The levels of surveillance and monitoring have increased considerably with the introduction of electronic finger print systems and 'Application Registration Cards' or identity cards. This in many respects is the product of the harmonisation of immigration policy on a European level that seeks to deter applications for asylum (Schuster and Solomos, forthcoming b). The contract for the controversial 'voucher scheme,' now being phased out by New Labour, was awarded to a French company, Sadexho Pass International, who implemented this system in Germany (Fekete, 2001: 35).

The desperation contained in the stories of those people caught, often fatally, at the border need to be heard and faced. Reckless stowaways are literally falling out of the skies along London Heathrow airports flight path. In the summer of 2001 a young Pakistani called Mohammed Ayaz fell out of the undercarriage of the Boeing 777 in a Homebase car park in suburban Richmond, West London. He had sprinted through the darkness of Bahrain airport and hauled himself up into the cavernous opening above the wheels. He was long dead before he reached British airspace. Another man, an unknown Iraqi soldier, attempted to walk through the channel tunnel and was hit by a train. He died in the intensive care unit of a south London hospital (Back, 2002). The profound irony was the ITU where he was treated suffers from acute staff shortages and the hospital trust has been searching the globe for nurses to encourage economic migration to meet the chronic skills shortages.

In this south London ITU scenario is the essence New Labour's paradoxical position on global population movement. There are the wretched who have been shown the door, the unwanted asylum seekers and political pariahs; while are those prized international workers who have been actively recruited within what New Labour calls 'Managed Migration'. One London hospital spends 17% of its staff budget on non-NHS staff. There are chronic labour shortages and the organisation of the global movement of skilled labour is an essential priority. The Government has introduced a Highly Skilled Migrants Programme in attempt to encourage skilled workers particularly doctors, information technology workers and scientists to migrate to Britain.

There are huge tensions here between on the one hand the necessity of global population movements in a context where the British population is aging and not reproducing itself and the unspeakability of the migration debate. Indeed, the very nature of the term 'immigrant' is over determined by the legacy of the way in which movements of labour have been coded racially. Britain faces chronic skills shortages but at the same time the legacy of racism and the discourse of immigration means that New Labour is reluctant to have that debate.

Yet the scale of such labour demand cannot be hidden. In 'Towards the London Plan' - outlining the city's future needs - there is the suggestion that from the year 2001 'there could be an increase of around 700, 000 people in the next fifteen years'[6] in the capital city alone. Although it attracted little publicity at the time of publication of the report the Plan also notes the significant probability that renewed growth in migrant flows would play a significant part in this increased population, that international in migration was increasing rapidly and had already averaged about 56, 000 people per year annually over the decade of the 1990s.

Perhaps, the only way to open up these questions is to abandon the language 'immigrants' and 'immigration' in favour of less coded terminology. One alternative would be to speak of the necessity of global movement, that is both fluid and not necessarily permanent, within a international pool of labour.

Meanwhile, there are literally hundreds of thousands of invisible economic migrants coming to Britain each year. A study conducted by Janet Dobson and Gail McLaughlan concluded that 'that migrants from developed countries formed around three quarters of the inflow from the mid eighties onwards - nearly 80 percent in 1995-99 [...] Contrary to common perceptions, the biggest contributors to the increase in employed people coming from overseas were countries in the developed world, particularly the Old Commonwealth [Australia, Canada, New Zealand, republic of South Africa] and the European Union and EFTA [Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland]' (Dobson and McLaughlan, 2001: 34-35). There were 282,000 asylum applications between 1995 and 1999, approximately half of those will have been turned down. During the same period the inflow of workers from developed countries into it the UK was 381,000. The Government has recently published figures that show that that the number of asylum applications received in 2001 was 11% lower than 2000. Clearly their strategy is making clear, in David Blunkett's words, 'how difficult [some] people are finding it to reach this country'.

The Absurdities of the New Assimilationism

Ali Rattansi has asked recently: 'Is national pride in multiculturalism such a difficult project?' (Rattansi, 2002). New Labour is caught in the double-bind of a complex of incommensurable commitments. The short answer to Rattansi's deceptively searching question is that the government is compromised by its attempts to placate racism and xenophobia within its increasingly disenchanted electorate. Its flirtations with multicultural democracy are combined where opportune with appeals to the remnants of racially exclusive nationalism and the phantoms of imperial greatness. From the point of view of New Labour pragmatists these postcolonial paradoxes can only be lived with and unlike a contradiction they cannot be resolved. Something has to give but New Labour wants it both ways.

Such paradoxical combinations define the political formation of New Labour's agenda on race and racism. Its 2000 Race Relations (Amendment) Act draws public bodies such as the police into the remit of the act for the first time. Yet, the government only outlaws colour discrimination in the immigration service, leaving immigration officers free to discriminate against Tamils, Kurds, Roma and Afghans at will at the point of entry. Under the 2000 Prevention of Terrorism Act the Home Secretary has identified 21 alleged terrorist organisations including the Tamil Tigers, Kashmiri and Palestinian organisations. Schuster and Solomos comment that 'normally, membership of such organisations would have been considered proof that one was in fact politically persecuted, now it has become grounds for deportation' (Schuster and Solomos, 2001: 6).

New Labour is animated, in part, by the aftershock of post-colonial racism. It is also culpable in the emergence of a new xeno-racism that is institutionalised within the immigration legislature. In view of this, David Blunkett's comments about language and national identity seem both disingenuous and palpably absurd. They mask the record of Labour electoral strength in migrant minority strongholds where loyalty to the Labour Party has historically often drawn on the strengths of community networks that have resisted the erasing force of the assimilationist rhetoric. In the major cities where white Labour politicians have been propped up by legions of non-English speaking Labour Party members it is precisely the resistance of assimilation that reproduces the power of 'community king-makers.' Questions over citizenship and participation have appeared less relevant to Labour MPs when such bloc votes are mobilised in electoral politics.

The young men of Burnley, Bradford and Oldham who took to the streets in the summer of 2001 had grievances that had nothing to do with 'assimilation' (Cantle, 2001). Indeed, they are all too well assimilated into a society divided by racism and discrimination. Philly Desai has pointed out that to see the involvement of young Bengali men in violent conflict with white peers as a manifestation of 'poor race relations' is to miss the patterns of masculine embodied culture that they share with white peers (Desai, 1999). What's at stake here is a struggle around belonging and entitlement. In this sense he argues that young Bengali men have been integrated into cultures of conflict that both predate immigration and prefigure the experience of growing up in these urban locations. Here it is not a matter of 'difference,' but rather, of marking divisions within shared patterns of masculine culture.

These relationships need also to be cast within effects that institutional and popular racism have on young Bengali men. The rules of engagement are mutually acknowledged and to some degree - however tacit - shared. Some commentators might view these combinations of acquaintance and division as the result of Asian youth assimilating the culture of 'English yobbery.' This view simplifies what is an incredibly complex situation in which cultural dialogue, the sharing of standard forms of communication and local vernaculars and divisions exist simultaneously. The important point to emphasise here is that there is a complicated story of integration and exclusion that cannot be understood in the terms set by David Blunkett around 'assimilation' and 'integration.'

New Labour seems completely unaware of the complexity and ethical reflection within those communities at which Blunkett seeks to wave his finger of corrective citizenship. Gita Sahgal concludes: 'Many of the Councils of Mosques and Temples that have the ear of the government are controlled by fundamentalist elements in their communities who have succeeded in excluding not just more secular voices but minorities within their own communities [...] As for the connection between forced marriages, learning English and rioting: the alienated young men who rioted are British-born and certainly spoke English. If they had foreign-born wives or British sisters who were subjected to forced marriages, where are the resources to help them escape? Where is the acknowledgement of the state's role in upholding forced marriage through its 'respect' for cultural diversity? And, finally, where are the resources for English classes that groups like South Black Sisters have been struggling for?' (Sahgal, 2002: 5).

At its worst the government is merely repeating well-worn patterns of patronage and assimilation that leaves the core values of its defining centre intact. However, this is not simply a matter of 'spin politics' and bad faith. The government's predicament is fed by the paradoxical impulses and energies that animate British politics in an era of intense economic globalisation, European integration and geopolitical uncertainty. Despite New Labour's gestures towards cultural diversity and inclusion its body politic beats to the rhythm of a white heart. Blair, like the Roman god Janus, is standing at the threshold of the new century looking both ways at once. On the issue of the politics of race and racism the Blair government is a political formation riven with incommensurable commitments and aspirations. In short, New Labour is so difficult to characterise because its vision oscillates to the past and the future by turns. It cannot mourn its imperial ghosts, nor embrace a democratic and truly multicultural future.


1 'Parliament Honours Queen Mother' Guardian Unlimited April 3rd, 2002

2 Christopher Hitchens 'Mouring will be Brief' The Guardian April 1st, 2002 p. 15

3 The Guardian, Diary, March 13th and Faisal Bodi 'Opportunistic Cronies' November 13th, 2001,

4 The Guardian, Letters, 'Questions of Loyalty for Muslims', November 16th, 2001

5 Ibid.

6Towards The London Plan, Initial Proposals for the Mayor's Spatial Development Strategy, p 21, London: Greater London Authority. ISBN: 1 85261 318 1


An earlier version of this paper was given at the Pace and Politics Panel of the Annual Conference of the Political Studies Association, University of Aberdeen, 7th April 2002. It is based on research we are conducting as part of a research project on Democratic Governance and Ethnic Minority Political Participation in Contemporary Britain funded by the ESRC Democracy and Participation Programme [Grant No: L215252046-A]. We are grateful to the ESRC for their support. We would also like to thank Claire Alexander, Chetan Bhatt, Saulo Cwerner and Liza Schuster for their comments and suggestions.


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