Safya interviews Labour MP Lisa Nandy about her father's interesting connection to Enoch Powell and battling the far right in Wigan.
Safya: When did you first hear about Enoch Powell?
Lisa: Well I grew up in Manchester in the 1980’s. The reason that my family had moved to Manchester was actually because my dad was instrumental in setting up the Equal Opportunities Commission. He came to this country in the 1950’s from Calcutta and immediately, as he tells it, got involved in race relations not through any sense of choice but through a sense of obligation really. The reality of life in Britain for immigrants and particularly, as they were known then, “coloured” immigrants was very stark indeed.
When was this?
He arrived in the 1950’s and had a long history of activism in race relations, later went on to work for Roy Jenkins to help draft the Race Relations Acts and established the Runnymede Trust as part of that work. So Enoch Powell was a very familiar figure growing up in our household. In fact, my dad used to debate with him quite regularly on TV. It was a very angry time growing up in Manchester in the 1980’s for all sorts of reasons, particularly the impact of the Thatcher government but also because racism was a very prevalent reality on the streets of Manchester at that time. There were riots in Moss Side when I was a young child just a few miles from us and running battles between young people and the police, and so Enoch Powell was a very familiar figure to me from a very very young age.
I think what’s really depressing when you look back at the Rivers of Blood speech is how familiar it is. When you listen to the discourse from figures like Farage today or, a few years ago, from Nick Griffin and members of the BNP. It’s very very similar, the sentiments they express, the tactics that they use in order to divide us. One of the things that I think has really happened in the intervening years since that Rivers of Blood speech is that my generation in particular, I think, dropped the ball on the race equality struggle.
What do you mean?
I think there was a, after the huge activism of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s which established institutions such as the Runnymede Trust, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, the Equal Opportunities Commission, we had several acts of Parliament. I think there was a sense, amongst many people, that actually we’d solved some of these problems. And the writer Afua Hirsch writes very well about this, I think, about colour blindness in Britain and the sense really that we’ve moved on from some of these problems. But actually, what the research that HOPE not hate has done has shown very strongly is that while economic concern about immigration has fallen in recent years, cultural concerns, particularly around Islam, have risen quite dramatically. That says to me that we have an underlying problem that we simply haven’t addressed or sufficiently even considered as part of the public discourse in recent years.
And is that an issue in Wigan, a cultural one?
I think that the biggest challenge actually is how polarized attitudes have become and I’d say that’s as true in Wigan as it is in other areas across the country. Rob Ford at Manchester University has written some quite interesting analysis of ONS figures about how hardened attitudes have become on both sides. We’re very very separated in how we feel about immigration by age, by education, by class, by heritage. And what that’s created, I think, is a difficulty for progressive politicians because, in recent years, I think what we’ve seen is an attempt to find some middle ground between those two. And as Rob has rightly said, what that has done is alienate both sides in that debate. I think the response from politics has to be dramatically different to anything we’ve seen in recent years.
Well that was my next question, actually. What do you think could help now?
So, two things. First of all, it is a historical fact that concern about immigration rises in times of insecurity and in the run-up to the 2015 election, I travelled across the country campaigning in marginal seats and wrote a piece later in which I argued that anxiety was now the prevailing sense of our times across both the working and middle classes. That’s partly about economic insecurity but it’s also very much a feeling of powerlessness, I think, across the country, people who feel that the things that they most value, whether it’s time with families or work that pays well, that gives dignity and meaning to life, those things are increasingly under threat.
So the first response, I think, from politicians has to be to address those things. They are what the writer Johnathan Freedland called “the oxygen that allows extremists to thrive.” But the second part of that too, I think, is that we have to show some political leadership, we have to be very robust in the argument that a diverse culture is a good thing for Britain and not threatening, but enriching and push back against the prevailing argument of Farage and others that a diverse community is the cause of the very real problems of people’s lives.
So are you talking about mainstream political rhetoric at the moment?
I’m talking about a lack of vision in this country, really. A positive future for Britain and what binds us together. I think in recent years what we’ve allowed to happen is a sense that we’re pitted against one another when, in fact, I heard it expressed quite well years ago by the Conservative politician Damian Green. It was a debate about the headscarf and he said well, you know, Britain has always been a tolerant country, it’s one of the values that makes us British and I would hate to see us throw that away in the pursuit of some other goal. It’s always been an odd thing to me that patriotism has been a concept that’s been so comprehensibly captured by the right in Britain when actually that notion of us being bound together by common ties is something that, in my view, rightly belongs on the left. But it’s something that hasn’t been very well expressed.
What do you think we could learn from that now? Because obviously the situations are not the same anymore.
Well I think what you most of all, looking back on the history of all of this, is that progress isn’t inevitable, and if you want to not just see change happen for the better but if you want to defend the very real progress that’s been made then you have to go out and you have to fight for it every single day. My dad’s generation, for them it wasn’t really a choice about whether to get involved in race relations. When you can’t get letting agents to find you somewhere to live, when you walk into bars that have a colour bar, when you can’t get a job despite being an English literature graduate because you’re told you haven’t got a good enough grasp of the written language. It’s such an everyday reality that you have no choice. But for my generation, the great benefit that people like him and his generation gave me is something that the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates talked about in his recent book in America. It was the luxury of not having to be defined by our race. So when I was elected in 2010 to Parliament, I was able to talk about a whole variety of issues: foreign policy, economics, children’s services, I was able to choose in a way that my dad’s generation weren’t. But I worry now when I look at what is happening across this country, that there are a generation for whom those choices are simply no longer available, and that’s the sort of thing that I think that we need to step up and address.
We don’t have their issues anymore, there are some things that are unacceptable to say when it comes to racism but on the other hand, Enoch Powell’s words are in the mainstream, in a certain sense, with Farage and some other politicians.
I mean I think where you draw courage and confidence from is, in my experience, of living and bringing up my family in Wigan and feeling and seeing, very strongly, the warm response that refugees get in a town like ours even where it’s quite a new phenomenon. And how well people respond when they’re given the ability to do so. Just to give you one example, we recently had a decision by Serco to place huge numbers of young male asylum seekers into a hotel in a small village on the outskirts of my constituency without any warning. Most of those young men came from a variety of African countries, they immediately looked very different, the village felt very different, and people had no idea why they were there. Within about 24 hours we had far-right organizations traveling from across the country with Swastika banners trying to whip up hatred on social media, and real concern from members of the community who wanted to understand what was happening, why they were there, wanted answers to some of the questions that had been posed about safety and security and the future for this village.
When we empowered that community with knowledge, with an understanding of what was happening, with the answers to some of those questions, the response from the community was absolutely overwhelming. In fact, we launched an appeal to help refugees a couple of weeks later and within two weeks we had 36,000 bags of donations across Wigan. We had churches preaching sermons about tolerance, and we had members of the public visiting the hotel in order to try and offer their support and their solidarity really, with what people had been through. It says to me that when you empower people, when people feel confident, when they feel in control about what is happening in their own lives and their own communities, the response is very very different. That’s why, despite many many attempts the far-right have never really been able to get a foothold in towns like mine. It tells me that there is a very very decent, very sensible, very committed majority in this country but the job of politicians is to make sure that they have the space and the power and the confidence to make good choices, and for that decency to be expressed.