by Caroline Colebrook
THE NEO-Nazi British National Party last week gave its support to new London Mayor Boris Johnson’s decision to drop the main anti-racist theme from London’s annual Rise festival.
Richard Barnbrook, the only BNP member of the London Assembly, strongly welcomed Boris Johnson’s decision to cut anti-racism from the Rise music festival funded by the Greater London Authority.
And then within a few days Boris was forced to ask a senior adviser, James McGrath, to resign in a race row after he said that African-Caribbean people should go back to the West Indies if they did not like the new mayor.
McGrath had been asked in a tape-recorded interview if Johnson’s mayoral victory would trigger an exodus of immigrants from Britain to the Caribbean, he replied: “Well, let them go if they don’t like it here.”
McGrath, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff who hails from the north Australian state of Queensland, made the comment in a meeting last month with Marc Wadsworth, a black activist and London-based journalist.
Hours after his comments appeared on an internet news site at the weekend, Johnson announced his senior advisor, who played a key role in his win over Labour’s Ken Livingstone last month, had quit.
“It is with great regret ... that I have accepted the resignation of my political adviser, James McGrath,” Johnson said in a statement.
Meanwhile Boris himself was making blunders by the hour. When interviewed on BBC television’s local London news programme, he seemed unaware that he had banned anti-racism from what has traditionally been an anti-racist festival.
He also seemed to be unaware that that he had barred the traditional Cuba Solidarity Campaign stage for being too overtly political.
It seems he had delegated the arrangements for the festival to an underling and had little idea of what the festival was or what his officers were doing with it.
And he had failed to read a crucial briefing about an agreement that his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, had negotiated with the Government to protect London council taxpayers from having to fund any escalation in the costs of the 2012 London Olympics.
Johnson said he was concerned about cost over-runs, but when asked in a BBC interview about the memorandum, he said: “I rather doubt that it exists. There is a doubt the agreement that was struck between the former mayor and the Labour Prime Minister about the exact extent of London’s obligations.”
He added: “There is a dispute at the moment between the GLA and the mayoralty and the Government about who is up for over-runs in so far as they may or may not occur. The details are far from clear.”
The mayor’s comments in a BBC interview were seized on by Ken Livingstone and the Government who both contacted the BBC to correct his mistake.
Livingstone described the comments as “bizarre” as the document is widely available. “I find this bizarre,” he said. “It was published in the House of Commons library, Boris could have seen it as an MP; I gave a copy to every member of the London Assembly.
“It specifies in writing, with the Government’s signature and mine, there will be no increase in the council tax and no increase in fares if there are any further cost over-runs.”
The Rise Festival started life in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence murder and McPherson Report as the TUC organised Respect anti-racist festival. The idea was taken up by Ken Livingstone when Mayor, who promoted seven annual festivals during his mayoralty. During the Livingstone years the name was changed from Respect to Rise.
The changes to the festival have antagonised the major trade unions who have always been involved in the organising and funding it.
For the past five years Unite has co-produced a programme of Latin American music and dance at Rise, a close fit with its organising campaigns, working with London’s Latin American community who are often on the margins of the labour market.
The Latin American show has gone from strength to strength and is seen as one of the high points of the Rise Festival.
Unite’s London Regional Secretary, Steve Hart, has tried to negotiate with the Mayor’s Office to resolve the impasse but has always come up against the same barrier: Unite is welcome to participate but it can’t participate if it involves Cuba Solidarity Campaign as its partner.
Steve Hart said: “The ban on Cuba Solidarity Campaign is the direct application of a political pre-condition on Unite in its sponsorship of the Latin American stage at Rise. Censorship is unacceptable to my union. I feel that I am left with no alternative other than to withdraw our intended funding of the Latin American stage at Rise in 2008.”
Samuel Tarry, who chairs Compass Youth and is London Young Labour’s anti racism officer said: “The fact that Boris Johnson, the new Mayor of London has already moved to make such a blatant political gesture is indicative of what we will come to expect from the new Tory administration at City Hall.
“You would have thought given the accusations of racism levelled at Boris Johnson from the Black and Asian communities in London during the Mayoral election then, he would have made every effort to dispel those ideas. Instead at a time of increased racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism he pulls the plug on the anti racist message of one of London’s biggest free music festivals.
“Given the momentum of the BNP at the moment and the fact that they openly backed his run for City Hall he has given them another opportunity to come out in support of his agenda and claim credit for this move”