Who divided Oldham?

Was it the far-right BNP - or mainstream anti-racist policies? Brendan O'Neill reports from Britain's 'race-hate capital'.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘If this election achieves one thing, let it be getting votes away from the BNP.’ Asaf Ali, a Labour Party candidate in the 2 May local elections in Oldham, Greater Manchester, wants Oldham residents ‘to vote…but to vote sensibly’.

‘People can vote Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, Green or whatever’, Ali told me, when I visited Oldham a week before election day. ‘As long as they don’t vote for the British National Party.’

Ali isn’t alone. Oldham politicians of all persuasions have united against the far-right BNP for Thursday’s local elections. Phil Woolas, Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, says Oldham residents should ‘vote anything but BNP’. On 26 April 2002 Woolas, not known for his love of the far left, was holding a press conference with the Anti-Nazi League (run by the Socialist Workers’ Party), to display a ‘united front’ against the BNP.

Even the Tories are getting in on the act. Conservative candidate Paul Stephenson says voters should ensure that BNP candidates ‘fall flat on their faces’, claiming that the threat posed by the BNP is one of the biggest election issues in Oldham. In fact, with local politicians of the left, right, red and green varieties talking about nothing else but their anti-BNP credentials, the BNP looks like the only election issue in Oldham.

‘That’s how it has to be’, insists one local councillor seeking re-election. ‘We cannot allow the BNP to bring more racism, more racist politics and more racist marches into Oldham. We’ve had enough.’

But did the BNP ‘bring racism’ into Oldham? Was it the BNP’s ‘shit stirring’, as one young Asian put it, that fuelled last year’s May riots between young Asians and the police? Did the few social inadequates of the BNP ‘drive a wedge between Oldham’s communities’?

Such simplistic explanations downplay other factors that have heightened divisions within Oldham over the years. Oldham has experienced more than its fair share of traditional racism, with social conditions and economic experiences in the area ensuring that things were never sweet between white and Asian communities. Now, with the politicisation of race through New Labour’s anti-racist policies and the increasing tendency to see everything in racial terms, Oldham seems to be more divided than ever.

There have long been racial tensions in Oldham. Its Asian population arrived in the postwar decades to work the unpopular night shifts in the then-productive cotton mills. The Asians were skilled workers who had been recruited from textile factories in Bangladesh, parts of Pakistan and Gujarat in India. When Oldham’s cotton mill business started to suffer in the 1970s, the Asians were the first to go. Stuck in an already poor area with no job prospects, the Asian immigrants soon became isolated – not helped by the fact that local politicians were quick to blame the problems of white families, who were suffering too, on Oldham’s ‘immigrant problem’.

In the late 1970s, some far-right parties, particularly the National Front, milked the tensions between whites and Asians for all they were worth – blaming Oldham’s socioeconomic problems on ‘the pakis’. One local Oldham newspaper says today’s ‘rise of the BNP’ is the same old story. ‘History repeats itself’, it says, ‘first as tragedy, then as rioting’.

But the minority support for the BNP in some areas of Oldham today has little to do with traditional racism. It looks more like a kneejerk reaction against contemporary mainstream politics. And far from being the cause of recent racial strife, the BNP is simply a beneficiary.

Since the late 1990s, Oldham has become something of a laboratory for New Labour anti-racist initiatives, everywhere from the Oldham police force to the education system, from local politics to local housing. Oldham, in the words of one local councillor, is Britain’s ‘capital’ of tackling ‘race hate, race crime and racial divisions’.

The problem is that such initiatives end up intensifying segregation and deepening divisions. When every social, political and cultural issue is seen through the prism of race, it is not surprising that people become suspicious of their neighbours and start to see their everyday problems in racial terms.

Take policing. Oldham police – perhaps more than any other police force in Britain – actively go out looking for racially motivated crimes.

‘We were one of the first divisions that went out to encourage reporting’, says Janet Garner, community and race relations officer at Oldham police station. ‘We recognised that there was a massive problem of under-reporting among black and Asian communities, so we went into those communities with racial crime books to ask about and record racist incidents.’

Oldham police have embraced the open-ended definition of a racist incident laid down by the Macpherson report into the 1993 murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, and endorsed by the Association of Chief Police Officers: ‘A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.’ Now, Oldham police station regularly reminds its officers of this new definition, to keep them ‘on their toes’ about racist crime.

But when a racially motivated crime can be anything judged as such by anybody, and when Oldham police have a policy of ‘proactively’ finding racist crimes and encouraging people to report them, is it such a shock that Oldham has what the press calls a ‘rising tide of racial crime’? Reported racist crime in Oldham was fairly steady throughout the 1990s – with 246 racist incidents in 1994, 256 in 1996, and 290 in 1998 – but then it jumped by 56 percent in 2000, to 452.

Oldham police says this sudden rise reflects the true extent of racist crime, which had been under-reported by black and Asian communities in the past and is only now being found by the police. But surely it is the open-ended definition of racist crime and Oldham police’s proactive hunt for it that has led to more racist crimes being ‘found’.

Consider the issue of racist incidents in schools and colleges. In 2001, figures revealed that out of 67 racist incidents (including violent attacks) in schools and colleges throughout the 10 regions of Greater Manchester over the previous 12 months, a third were in Oldham. There were 22 incidents in Oldham, and only handfuls in other regions. But is this because Oldham’s colleges are particularly racist and divided places – or because Oldham is the only region where there is a policy of going into colleges to encourage people to report things they think might be racist?

It seems that the Oldham authorities’ approach to combating race crime since the late 1990s has had the opposite effect. With the police definition of racism now so broad, and the search for racially motivated crimes so keen, the authorities have blown the problem of racism in Oldham out of proportion.

And by bombarding people with questions about racist incidents and ‘problems’ with ‘other’ communities, the police have ensured that, far from overcoming racial divisions, such divisions and potential problems are foremost in people’s minds.

Now even the police are worried about how the race crime figures are being interpreted – concerned that the media’s ‘sensationalist’ coverage of racist crime in Oldham gives the impression that Oldham is some kind of racist hell-hole. The Ritchie report into the Oldham riots of May 2001, published in December 2001, also raised the problem of media coverage of police statistics – recommending that ‘release of such statistics should always be part of a wider communications strategy’. In other words, calm the media down before letting them run riot with race crime figures.

The police’s concern with sensationalist reporting misses the point. Their race crime figures give an overblown impression of race and hate in Oldham, without the help of the media.

The endless search for racist incidents has had a big impact on the ground in Oldham. When every encounter between communities is viewed as potentially racist, community relations can only suffer. Ad, a 22-year-old Asian who lives on the Glodwick estate, scene of the race riots of May 2001, complained to me: ‘The only time police come round here is to arrest young Asians…usually on some jumped-up charge of racist attacking, beating up whites, or anti-white graffiti.’ Ad insisted that ‘it’s the whites here who are the racists, not the Asians’.

Meanwhile, white communities complain that the police spend far too long looking for anti-Asian racist crimes and policing Asian communities to show any interest in white communities. As Labour MP Phil Woolas says, ‘Every time there is a racist incident in a white area, people say there are no police around because they are all policing Asian areas’. But when Oldham police reorient themselves around tackling racist incidents and clashes between white and Asian communities, it is hardly surprising that people articulate their law’n’order concerns in racial terms.

As well as anti-racist policing, Oldham council is going hell for leather to introduce anti-racist education – instituting classes in primary and secondary schools that aim to tackle and defeat children’s ‘prejudices’ in time for young people’s ‘interaction with society’. Oldham council, through its Schools Linking Project, aims to ‘engage the hearts and minds of staff, pupils and parents’ in the attempt to understand ‘other ethnically diverse communities’.

Surely educating children from the earliest age that they are surrounded by ‘different, but equal’ people, whose differences they should ‘understand and respect’, can only heighten young people’s awareness of division, rather than overcome it?

Oldham Council is even planning ‘race classes’ for parents in Oldham. According to one report, ‘parents at some schools in Oldham [will] be invited to anti-racism classes in an effort to prevent a repeat of last summer’s riots’. A local councillor explained the reasoning behind the initiative: ‘All parents should be mindful of their responsibility to equip their children with the skills and attitudes necessary to live in a multicultural society.’

So the way to stop race riots is to educate parents? This patronising initiative seems to suggest that unenlightened mums and dads are the cause of racism in Oldham, by passing it on to their kids and creating a vicious cycle.

Like the police, Oldham council is also worried about how its anti-racist initiatives are presented in the press. A member of Oldham council’s press team told me there was a tendency for ‘grubby Daily Mail types’ to hear the words ‘anti-racist and parents and classes’ and then present them as some form of ‘bad compulsory thing that all parents must do’.

No doubt there is some truth in that, particularly when it comes to the Daily Mail – but there was more than a hint of defensiveness in the press officer’s tone. If Oldham council is going to initiate anti-racist policy after anti-racist policy – many of which focus on supposedly rampant crime, problematic parents and ignorant children – they shouldn’t be shocked when they hit the headlines.

However, there is little doubt that media coverage has helped to inflame tensions in Oldham. In May 2001, during the riots between Asians and the police, Philip Hirst, managing editor of the Oldham Evening Chronicle, accused the BBC of ‘exacerbating racial hatred’ with its coverage of the riots – by blowing incidents up and repeating the ‘urban myth’ that Asians on some Oldham estates had set up ‘no-go zones’ for whites. ‘Being seen as the race-hate capital of the north of England doesn’t help’, said Hirst.

During the riots, and in the year since then, the press have consistently described Oldham in the most depressing terms: the ‘race-hate capital’, a ‘town called hate’. Since May 2001, Oldham is usually just referred to as the ‘race riot town’. Not only do media organisations tend to report Oldham’s racist incident figures and ‘racial problems’ without asking probing questions, they then proceed to make things sound even worse than they are. When Oldham is painted as a hotbed of racism, where whites hate Asians and Asians hate whites, it can’t do much for community relations.

This became clear when I visited Oldham last week – when I found that some of the media myths about Oldham’s problems had become accepted as reality. James, a white 18-year-old student drinking in the ironically-named Live and Let Live pub on the Glodwick estate, which was attacked by young Asians during the 2001 riots, said: ‘You just have to look at how these things start to see who is to blame. Some of the Asian people on this estate wrote all that graffiti saying “Get whites out” and they set up no-go zones, and that tells us we’re not wanted.’

No-go zones? These are the supposedly Asian-only areas set up young Asians prior to last year’s riots where any white person feared to tread. They are also a myth. Local journalists, police officers and Asian councillors declared in May 2001 that there were no such thing as no-go zones for whites, and pleaded with people to stop talking about them ‘as if they were a reality’. A year of intensive national media coverage later, and the no-go zones seem to have become a reality – with some of the young whites I spoke to talking them up as an example of ‘Asians’ arrogance’.

The police, politicians and media organisations have all expressed their ‘grave concern’ about divided Oldham – but the truth is, they created it. The police obsession with racist crime, together with Oldham council’s focus on all maters racial and the media’s inflamed reporting, have intensified divisions. The end result is an ever-more racialised region – and it is this that created an environment where the BNP can win some votes.

Take the high-profile Walter Chamberlain case of April 2001. Seventy-six-year-old Chamberlain was beaten up by Asian youths in Oldham, a crime held up by the media as a sign of Oldham’s deep racial divide and treated by the police as racially motivated. But Chamberlain’s family saw it differently. ‘It was a violent assault on an elderly man’, said Chamberlain’s son Steven, shortly after the incident in April 2001. ‘As a family we don’t think it was a race issue at all.’

Not surprisingly, the BNP jumped on the issue to boost its standing. In May 2001, just prior to last year’s riots, BNP members and supporters marched through Oldham with placards showing Chamberlain’s battered face, claiming he had been the victim of ‘vile racism’ – a publicity stunt that was denounced by all as cheap and nasty. But the reason the BNP could pull such a cheap stunt was because the police and the media continued to treat the Chamberlain attack as a case of racist violence, even when his family said otherwise.

Similarly, the BNP runs a ‘Race crime awareness’ campaign in Oldham, as it does elsewhere in Britain, to ‘educate’ white people about the ever-broadening definition of racial crimes, encouraging them to report anything they think might be a racist incident – from being pushed on the street to being burgled to being attacked. ‘The police have to deal with race crimes as a priority’, one BNP member told potential supporters in Oldham in February 2002. Again, this is a cheap stunt – but the BNP is only feeding off the tendency to view every incident and clash between communities as potentially racist.

But even those who do vote for the BNP in Oldham are not necessarily casting a racist vote. Most votes for the BNP look like a two-finger ‘fuck you’ to mainstream politics and politicians, rather than a clear endorsement of the BNP. And with BNP policies including ‘increased investment in public transport’ and having ‘a clean, beautiful country, free of pollution in all its forms’, this hardly looks like a return of hardcore racists.

David, a 42-year-old regular at the Live and Let Live pub, told me he was thinking of voting BNP (and even here, in what some reporters refer to as the most racist pub in Oldham, he said it under his breath) – not because he was particularly enamoured with the BNP’s policies, but because: ‘I’m sick of Labour, and they are who I normally vote for. Everything around here is going to pot, the area is worse than it has ever been.’

Yet rather than addressing this disaffection, politicians respond to the ‘threat of the BNP’ by trying to shut people up and clamp down on debate. Which only makes things worse.

Local politicians have responded to the BNP’s standing in Oldham’s local elections by creating a lame excuse for a ‘united front’ against everything the BNP stands for. From the Tories through to the Socialist Workers’ Party, all shades of opinion in Oldham have got together to ‘defeat the BNP’ and ‘deny them a platform for their views’. In short, politics and debate have been put on hold in the name of standing up to the BNP. The people of Oldham can forget anything like democracy or choice – but as long as they don’t vote BNP, they’ll be okay.

When politics is reduced to such simple choices – between the nasty BNP, who only stupid people will vote for, and enlightened politicians (with no policies), who decent people will vote for – it isn’t surprising that Oldham’s local election isn’t getting people fired up. And when voters are treated as potential racists-in-the-making, who must be warned at every opportunity to resist the temptation to vote for the BNP, it isn’t surprising that many intend not to vote at all – or that some will opt for the most ‘outrageous’ choice and go for the BNP.

In the name of ‘denying the Nazis a voice’, anything resembling free speech is off the agenda too. When last year’s election results came through in Oldham on 7 June 2001 – when the BNP won about 15 percent of the vote – there was a sweeping attack on free speech and democracy. The unelected chief executive of Oldham council banned candidates from speaking from the platform, to ensure that racial tensions were not stirred up. Now, for the current local election, the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight (and its Tory and Labour friends in Oldham’s new anti-BNP coalition) has two bits of advice for journalists and politicians:

‘Firstly, that fascists should not be allowed a public platform to express their detestable beliefs and incite racial hatred and violence. Secondly, that if fascists do gain a public platform, then members of other political parties and organisations should not share it with them.’

The assumption seems to be that the voters of Oldham are so blinkered and ignorant that they might be sucked in by the BNP – so it is better just to shut down debate, pretend the BNP isn’t there, and protect the voters from themselves.

In recent years, people in Oldham have been treated like lab rats for every patronising, anti-racist initiative going – now they are being treated like children in need of education and constant advice, in case they fall for the (non-) charms of the BNP. No wonder Oldham is, in the words of one journalist, ‘a depressing place’.

It remains to be seen how well the BNP does in the local elections on 2 May. But one thing looks certain: Oldham will still be divided, with or without the BNP.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

The myth of the far right, by Brendan O’Neill

Who’s afraid of the far right?, by Mick Hume

Oldham: unasked questions, by Brendan O’Neill

Same Oldham story?, by Brendan O’Neill

After Bradford: engineering divisions, by Josie Appleton

spiked-issue: Race

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Topics Politics


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