With pressure mounting from the global Black Lives Matter protest movement, Boris Johnson has put forward his adviser Munira Mirza to lead a new commission on racial inequality. However, her appointment undermines the commission before it has even started. Mirza has previously expressed scepticism about the existence of institutional racism in the justice system and has suggested that anti-racist “lobbyists and activists” have corroded public trust. She has also suggested that Britain does not have a “serious problem” with racism. This comes as no surprise: Mirza has long been associated with Spiked, an online magazine increasingly well known for its contrarian takes on current events and for its writers popping up in various places across the media landscape with rightwing views.

Infamous for its right-libertarian and iconoclastic style, Spiked has gained notoriety for arguing against numerous progressive positions, but using a rhetorical style indebted to its earlier incarnation as a Trotskyist group in the 1980s-90s, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). With a combative tone, the magazine’s writers have routinely sought to dismiss many political actions as not dealing with the “real” issues and put forward their own solutions, which often correlate with a populist right position. Previously dismissed as a fringe group on the outer limits of political discourse, more recently Spiked has become an influential force in shifting the Overton window to the right in the UK.

To understand how it has come to occupy this space and its rhetorical style, particularly concerning issues of race and racism, it is worth looking at the long road from the RCP to Spiked, via the journal Living Marxism (later titled LM). The RCP began in 1977 under the leadership of the sociologist Frank Furedi, and presented itself as the true vanguard of the British working class. The party made a name for itself for taking positions that rankled with others on the left. Among theses were enthusiastic support for the armed struggle in Northern Ireland and calling for a national ballot during the 1984-5 miners’ strike. Party members also criticised gay activists and were accused of undermining the message of safe sex during the HIV/Aids crisis.

At the end of the cold war, the RCP pronounced that class-based politics was a dead end, with ideas now being the key battleground. The party eventually dissolved in 1997, which left Living Marxism as the primary vehicle for its former cadre. It acted as a halfway house for former leftwing activists now increasingly interested in libertarianism. The journal itself was wound up in 2000 after losing a libel case against ITN over claims made about reporting during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

Its successor was Spiked, under the helm of the former LM editor Mick Hume and involving many prominent RCP members. At the same time, many of the same members were involved in establishing the thinktank the Institute of Ideas, led by Claire Fox, a former RCP member and most recently an MEP for the Brexit party. This is where Mirza entered the orbit of Spiked and its various offshoots, writing semi-regular pieces for the magazine since 2001.

The crossover of many of these individuals between the journal, the website, the thinktank and other endeavours has been referred to as the LM network. It has gained attention not just because many of its members occupy a significant media and political profile, but also for the trajectory of its cohort from the far left to the hard right. While the story of former leftwingers becoming rightwingers is not new, the fact that the leadership of the RCP seemed to transition en masse makes it a compelling story. Some commentators have suggested that this is a coordinated case of entryism (although the end goal of this is unclear). But it is more likely that the politics and activities of the network have a certain appeal (and notoriety), which has seen a number of former members be willing to shift with the changing agenda, from revolutionary communism to a mixture of contrarianism and right libertarianism. In many ways, this owes something to the Leninism of the former RCP and an ideological coherence, even in the absence of the vanguard of the party.

In recent years, Spiked has been at the forefront of perpetuating the idea of the free-speech “crisis” on university campuses and elsewhere. Some at the magazine also disagree with laws against racial discrimination (particularly against racist speech) and with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, viewing both as overreach by the state into people’s lives. This approach to racism, free speech and the state are intertwined, and can be traced back to the days of the RCP.

Throughout the 1980s, some at the magazine opposed the “no platforming” of fascists and racists, stemming from an objection to state bans and censorship. Furthermore, use of racial discrimination legislation was seen as a call for state intervention in working-class and migrant communities. In reality, this meant that while the RCP (and its front, Workers Against Racism, or WAR) were involved in a number of anti-racist campaigns, it denigrated the work being done by other activist groups. One of the constant tropes of the RCP/WAR was to argue that while the rest of the left concentrated their efforts in one area, they really should be concentrating in another (which coincidentally was where the RCP dedicated their attention). This notion that everybody else is wrong and just tilting at windmills persists in the writings of Spiked today.

Actions against non-state racism in the 1990s, such as those by anti-fascists against the British National party, were often dismissed or framed as attacks on the legitimate concerns of the (white) British working class. The end point of this rhetorical stance has seen a writer in Spiked dismiss the threat of the far right, suggesting that the BNP could appear “moderate” and “level-headed” when compared with the anti-fascist left; and the magazine publish an article titled The Myth of Bigoted Britain. Simultaneously, while its predecessor had abandoned class politics in favour of ideas in the 1990s, Spiked has also criticised the rise of identity politics as pure ideology and an attempt to divide the working class.

These preoccupations have proven to be well suited to a moment in which the right has reduced racism to a component of a “culture war” being waged by the “woke” left. Mirza’s previous comments on Spiked about institutional racism, diversity and multiculturalism reveal the mindset in which this new proposed commission on racial inequalities has been cast. They also reveal how the fixations of a contrarian, right-leaning, libertarian website, established by disillusioned leftists, has become part of the mainstream discourse in the UK.

Evan Smith is a research fellow in history at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. He is the author of No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech

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