As Britain faces up to becoming the worst performing country in the world in its response to coronavirus, our communities have banded together in a way not seen for decades. The strong looking after the vulnerable in voluntary isolation groups and key workers showing exactly who is crucial to the operation of day-to-day life in Britain. The toxicity of the Brexit debate which has dominated politics since 2016 has largely been forgotten.
At the same time the appalling killing of George Floyd in the US has seen Black Lives Matter protests sweep the globe. This is far from a one off and is simply the latest prominent example of a deeply unfair system that is riven with racial inequality. Whether that manifests itself in death due to police brutality, an increased susceptibility to Covid-19 or reduced economic prospects, the need for change is palpable.
While the solidarity seen during the largely peaceful protests is fantastic to see, there has also been a frightening outpouring of hatred. Social media posts expressing solidarity are met with huge support but also many negative comments. In the 33 years since Britain elected its first black MPs progress has been made but there is still a long way to go. Working-class people across the UK are ground under the weight of the elites, but for working class people of colour a double burden is felt.
The British ruling class have a long and successful tradition of dividing working people in order to maintain their grip on power. Over the past decade following the financial crash there has been a huge transfer of wealth directly out of the pockets of working people into those of the thousand wealthiest people in the country.
It is no surprise that this has coincided with a cacophony of hysteria from the right-wing press, whether through the demonisation of immigrants or refugees or ‘benefit cheats’. Quite simply to get away with it the elites needed you to hate someone.
Their hatred for working people in all their diversity is plain for all to see. Migrants, Britain’s Black communities, Muslims, single mothers, LGBTQ people, striking workers and many more have found themselves subjected to the wrath of the right-wing press. But the reality is always different to the headline.
During the Peterborough by-election in 2019 for the first time in my life I visited a mosque. Far from feeling this was an alien experience it was open, welcoming and serene. I spent time with Muslim community leaders where they spoke of their concerns about fly-tipping, crime, getting a university in their town, improving the local economy and schooling. Canvassing in the largely Muslim terraced streets felt like the mining homes of my youth, with a tremendous community spirit and families living close to one another.
As a striking miner during the year-long dispute in 1984-’85 I saw first-hand how communities were demonised and criminalised. I saw the shrieking sensationalism turned against people in coalfield areas and how honest, hardworking men were hauled through the justice system. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder and were joined in solidarity by the LGBTQ community, people of colour and other oppressed groups. We failed to win but that solidarity should be a blueprint for the battles to come.
In recent weeks, protests have targeted the statues of those who made their wealth on the backs of the brutalisation of black men and women during the slave trade. Those who criticise the protesters are, of course, well within their rights. But in the case of Edward Colston, they must should consider why a statue of a slaver responsible for the immiseration of 100,000 people and the deaths of 20,000 still stood in a city like Bristol in the 21st century.
That the Tory group leader on Bristol city council thinks he was a hero should provide a clue. We should shed no tears for this statue, in its toppling it has taught so many more people about the hideous crimes of empire and slavery than their schools ever did.
While for decades I supported the struggles of people of colour across the world, I admit as a white, working-class, former miner from a predominantly white constituency, in the past I strayed into behaviour that did little to progress the cause of black and ethnic minority communities. I am learning as well.
I certainly had never given much thought to what the statues that occupy prominent spaces in our towns and cities represented, or why they were there. I didn’t know enough about the history of these ‘great men,’ or their involvement in the slave trade. I endeavour to learn more still.
I want to be an ally to communities who face oppression and I intend to listen to my comrades from black and ethnic minority communities to understand how best I can do that.
For too long this country has been plagued by inequality and scarred by racism. These ills have been manipulated by the right-wing press to prop up the elite. Imagine what we could achieve if we set to one side the vast amount of energy used to hate and turned it to something more positive?
The working class in all its diversity can build a better Britain for everyone as we come out of the coronavirus crisis, if we embrace one another and reject the division fostered by the ruling class. If not, we are doomed to a second wave of austerity and an increasingly hateful and spiteful future.
I’m hopeful we can choose a progressive path. But increasingly we face that choice. Which side are you on?