The election of a Labour government in 1974 paved the way for the introduction of the Race Relations Act 1976, which established the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), and created the offence of incitement to racial hatred. During the late seventies the issue of race was kept on the boil by the activities of the National Front (NF), a largely working class right-wing political party committed to the compulsory repatriation of non-whites from Britain. The NF began to have some limited electoral successes, particularly in London where it attracted about 10% of the vote in the GLC and borough council elections, higher than that achieved by the Liberals in many wards. This rise in popularity caused deep concern in leftist/liberal circles, which responded with the setting up of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) which, although nominally independent, had strong links to the hard left Socialist Workers Party. During the late 1970s there were many clashes between NF members and ANL activists, the most notable taking place in Southall, when SWP member Blair Peach was killed, by police action in April 1979, during a demonstration against an NF march in this predominantly Asian part of West London.
In contrast the earlier Conservative government under Edward Heath had passed the Immigration Act 1971 which introduced the new terms of 'patrial' and 'non-patrial'. Patrials, defined as being British born, or having a British-born parent or grandparent, were free from immigration controls, unlike non-patrials who needed an entry certificate or a work permit to enter Britain. This was a thinly disguised device to distinguish white from non-white Commonwealth immigrants, since few of the latter would qualify as patrials. Thus it endorsed the consideration of race as a legitimate factor in immigration control and, as such, was widely condemned by the Labour opposition and liberal commentators.
However, the Conservatives self proclaimed supposedly 'tough' immigration policy was quickly blown off course with the expulsion, in 1972 by Idi Amin, of 27,000 Asians with British passports living in Uganda. Unlike the Labour government decision on the Kenyan Asians, the Heath government quickly capitulated and allowed them to settle in Britain permanently. The Conservative government, faced with a choice between upholding its manifesto commitments, the clearly expressed views of its supporters and the national interest or instead, appeasing liberal concern, predictably surrendered to the latter, maintaining a well established trend on this subject that has continued to the present day.
The Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher returned to government in May 1979. During a television interview, in an uncharacteristically unguarded moment, Margaret Thatcher spoke about the fears of being 'swamped' by people of alien cultures. This was widely interpreted by many voters, without any real justification, that the Tories might actually be thinking seriously about taking some action against third world immigration. One consequence of her remarks was that the NF, which was expected to do well in the 1979 general election, received a derisory 1.4 % of the vote. It is likely that many potential NF voters were beguiled by what they interpreted as a 'coded message' from the Tories that they would take a firm line on immigration. In reality, over the 18-year period of Conservative governments, the number of third world legal immigrants averaged about 50,000 per year. So, including illegal immigrants, during the Tories time in government, the ethnic population increased by at least a million, and this ignores the appreciably higher birth rate of ethnic communities.
However, during the eighties the issue of immigration largely went off the boil. This was partly due to a media blackout on the numbers of third world immigrants still entering the country, despite the Tories’ supposedly 'firm but fair' immigration policies and, also, because other subjects such as trade union reform, unemployment, inflation, privatisation, crime, health and education received greater political media coverage. It was also a period when militant 'anti-racism' became more entrenched in local government, trade unions and higher education. The most celebrated trailblazer was Ken Livingstone’s GLC, whose 'rainbow' political machine diverted large amounts of taxpayers’ and ratepayers’ money into the pockets of favoured minority groups. It was a period when no inner city area was complete without its new 'community centre', for the dominant ethnic minority, and from which only the indigenous white population, who largely funded it, felt excluded.
During the summer of 1981 rioting involving mostly ethnic minorities occurred in several towns and cities, the most serious taking place in the Toxteth district of Liverpool and Brixton, South London. Lord Scarman, an eminent High Court judge, was asked by the government to investigate the causes of the Brixton riots. His subsequent report recommended the recruitment of more black police officers, better race awareness training and stressed the need for community policing. He also advised the government to end racial disadvantage and tackle the disproportionately high level of unemployment among young black men which stood at 60% in the area. More rioting was to take place later in the decade in Brixton, the Handsworth district of Birmingham and the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham where PC Keith Blakelock was hacked to death. Many commentators began to ask whether the fears of Enoch Powell were being realised.