The London Club has increasingly found that the successful public meetings and discussion groups were not enough—especially for younger Club members. Many members had had no previous experience of political work of a direct kind. They found the prospect of throwing themselves into active Constituency Party work uninviting, because such a close identification with the Labour Party betrayed their deep criticisms and hostility towards the general drift of the Party and its policies. Nevertheless, they were anxious, both to have the experience of working together with like-minded comrades, and to give some more direct expression to their political beliefs.
The Notting Hill project and its subsequent developments were undertaken under the direct impact of events in the area—the race riots in 1958, the bitter antagonism towards West Indians, the murder of Kelso Cochrane and the re-emergence of Mosley and the satellite fascist organisations. The issues of principle here were clear—though, at the beginning, the way of working proved difficult. The problem was complicated, from the very outset by two important factors: the relative lack of organisation amongst the coloured community—West Indians have no experience of racial violence, and were, consequently, hesitant in coming to terms with it; and the ambiguous position of the local Labour Party and its candidate on the racial and immigration issues. This was a microcosm of the political dilemma of the Labour Party in the country as a whole: here was the issue—but where was the Party? The National Executive and the Council of the TUC made inspired murmurs—but they seemed to have no impact upon the majority of the Party at local level, and no attempt was ever made to carry through high policy at local level, where it mattered most. The situation confronted the Party with the sharpest issues of principle—but the general tone of the Party was ambiguous: its contacts with West Indians in the area—non-existent, the weight of its attack sharper against the left-wing minority than against the White Defence League. Indeed, the statements of George Rogers at the time of the outbreak of violence so alienated West Indians in the area that it would have been difficult to try to work there on the basis of a direct appeal on behalf of the Party.
The original aims of the Club were (1) to hold a public meeting to demonstrate solidarity with West Indians in Britain; (2) to organise “direct action” of a socialist kind, bringing help where we could, but trying to raise the larger issues of policy and politics in the course of our activity.
The first project was, eventually, abandoned, particularly when the second project began to succeed. Some 40–50 people offered help, under the direction of Donald Chesworth, a local Councillor whose work in this field has been remarkable. This work was immediate, remedial—and, of course, limited in scope. They were stop-gap measures—but the situation demanded them, for at the heart of the problem in Notting Hill is the whole question of housing, community facilities, and the rack-renting practices of some of the larger landlords (white and coloured). Our purpose was to provide immediate physical help for those other groups who were already at work there: and to raise, at the same time, the more general issues which relate to the life of the community.
The problem of Notting Hill is not, at root, a question of race at all—though the racial situation naturally sharpened every aspect. It is primarily a problem of the community itself—the shocking condition of housing, the lack of community amenities, the shifting nature of the population, the difficulties of employment, and the short-sighted and temporising policies of the Council planners and builders. The rate of property deterioration, the steep rise in rents, the rapid drop in social “tone” and status have all, together, proved too much for the community to bear—particularly for a community without roots, without morale or hope. Certain zones are scheduled for re-development, but the pace is hopelessly slow. The area is teeming with young people, but the Youth Clubs are infrequent, ill-equipped and unattractive. During the hottest month of the year—August—when more West Indians and youngsters were on the street than at any other time, many Youth Clubs closed. The area is full of young married couples—but there are practically no creches where working mothers can leave their children. The streets are crammed with small children—but there are no playgrounds anywhere in sight. A prosperity state? And Notting Hill in the centre of the largest city on earth?
Without a community sense—that is to say, a spirit of common responsibility, a life of shared experiences, community provisions, a sense of being able to affect directly the life, growth and renewal of the area, an expanding physical horizon—Notting Hill had no human resources with which to combat the special problems of a multi-racial population. The socialist perspective—change, control, common responsibility, reconstruction, tolerance—had been totally lost, particularly amongst large sections of working class people in the area, where conditions were at their worst. Such a area was ripe for racialism, anxious to find a scapegoat, yearning after a violent release from the many problems which hedged it round. The West Indians were sitting ducks.
In August, the character of the project changed in two important ways. In the first place, the group of helpers took on a new task—that of keeping a central Youth Club in the area open during the month of greatest tension. The problem of youth—sharp in some form in every working class district in London—can be seen in its sharpest and most aggravated form in Notting Hill. And here, among the disaffected, bored young people who congregated at the street-corners, the first seeds of fascism were sown, as the organised racialist groups began to appear in the open, and the area was penetrated at every point by a vigorous propaganda and leafletting campaign. This Youth Club found a temporary home—but it proved so successful, that it has now become permanent. But there was a