The first danger is that the Leave vote in the UK referendum on EU membership has given voice to xenophobia and racism on a scale not seen in UK politics since the 1970s.
The empty promises that people could “get control of their country back” may have come from the demagogic liars of the Tory right. But the tone was set by the right-wing populist leaders of UKIP, with their racist poster and their dislike of anything “foreign”.
It is not, absolutely not, that the millions of people who voted Leave are racist. Many of them, in the former Labour strongholds across northern England and the Midlands, are
screaming their anger at a political establishment – Tory and Labour alike – that has slowly suffocated their communities with cuts in welfare, health and education, with unemployment, with the-rich-get-richer housing policies, and all the rest.
That establishment views those people with contempt. And the feeling is mutual. What is frightening is that the Tory right and UKIP have fashioned, out of that legitimate resentment, xenophobic and racist narratives. The socialist, egalitarian, internationalist response has been weak to non-existent.
So the bigots feel emboldened.
“Now you have to live by our rules”, a middle-aged white man told a young Arab-looking man on the train on Friday night. My friend who witnessed this was herself born in another EU country, but has lived in the UK for more than 30 years.
A week earlier, I was one of a bus full of passengers that questioned a white driver who victimised a black schoolboy (refusing to let him board the bus, citing a made-up rule). The driver’s apparently racist action was defended only by someone wearing an “Leave the EU” T-shirt. Social media are chock full of similar reports.
Small stuff? But there has been a political murder too, of Labour MP Jo Cox by Thomas Mair. And don’t give me that nonsense about Mair suffering from mental illness. Maybe he does. But when someone with a clearly-catalogued record of involvement in fascist politics stabs and shoots an MP, shouting “Britain First”, and kicks her dying body as she lies on the ground, I get the message.
The second danger is long-term. It’s the one that gets me in the stomach. “Little England” is emboldened, continental Europe is looked down on, “foreigners” are looked down on … and all this ugly nationalism is back at the centre of political culture. This is the country in which our children and grandchildren will grow up.
These are the dangers that made me vote Remain, and urge others to do so. And they seem to me far more important than issues about how the British capitalist class regulates its relationship with its European counterparts.
The Tory party
There is still a chance that the political elite will try to extricate itself from the mess it has created, by delaying or re-directing the negotiations with the other EU governments. After all, they have given themselves some horrible headaches. A second Scottish independence referendum – and constitutional meltdown – hangs over their heads. A physical border would presumably have to be put back up in Ireland, potentially destabilising the always-fragile Good Friday settlement. If the government triggers the exit negotiations, all these genies come out of their bottles; if it fails or refuses to implement the Leave vote, there will be other genies.
Moreover – remember this – the right can not possibly deliver on their lying promises. They can cut migration a little further, but that can not make any impact on unemployment, on cuts and on the hardship faced by working class people … none of which was caused by migration in the first place. Meanwhile, the short-term economic effect of leaving the EU will hit those working class people hardest.
My guess is that, whatever happens next, the consequences of this will be felt over decades – making David Cameron, who only called the referendum in the first place for the meanest of political reasons (to shore up his electoral base against UKIP), appear all the more reckless. No wonder the bosses of the EU are furious that he has imperilled their capitalist super-state for the sake of this squalid row on the right of British politics.
Labour and the “left”
Predictably, the Blairites – yes, the devotees of that war criminal – are blaming Jeremy Corbyn for the party’s failure to convince millions of its supporters to vote Remain. Obviously, the reasons are deeper-going.
In my view, social democracy – as a twentieth-century social and political movement that ensured working-class allegiance to capitalism in exchange for important reforms (the health service, nationalisation, Keynesian economics, etc) – is in long-term crisis and decline, nowhere more so than in the UK. I’ve argued before that the annihilation of Labour in Scotland, and the very fact that Corbyn was elected, were parts of this process.
A convincing “Remain” argument probably could have been made as part of a long-term, concerted programme of mobilisation and organisation against capital and its disciplines (whether Brussels-based or national). But to the extent that the Labour Party was ever about community and workplace organisation, it ceased to be decades ago. All this can hardly be blamed on Corbyn.
He could be criticised for setting about the Remain campaign with all the enthusiasm of a wet Tuesday afternoon. As a lifelong Eurosceptic, who simply saw the EU cutting across the possibilities for reformism in Britain, he didn’t seem to get it.
Many of those “lefts” who are closest to Corbyn and share much of his underlying politics – including the Morning Star newspaper, what remains of the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party – called for a left-wing exit vote (“lexit”). The reasons given were
various. On one hand there was some outrageous pandering to anti-immigration sentiments (see Free movement of labour and migration, below). On the other was an ultra-left argument that Brexit would spark off a crisis of the ruling class of which “revolutionaries” (?) would be able to take advantage.
There’s a crisis all right. But so far it’s tearing up the traditional “left” and fuelling a right-wing rampage.
(I am summarising here; of course there was a wide range of “lexit” views, and some valid points made by their advocates. But I think that as a whole, the “lexit” argument, which completely failed to identify the main danger, was damaging.)
The threat from the right can only be convincingly met by the growth of movements, based on organisation in communities and workplaces, aspiring to social liberation. There are convincing socialist answers to the real problems worrying working class people – unemployment, poverty, the dismantling of the NHS and welfare services – with which readers of this site are familiar.
Organising around these issues does NOT, to my mind, mean “rebuilding the left”. The old working-class movement is in decline, and the old left has largely failed to adapt. (I’ve written on that in more detail e.g. here.) The referendum has put a sharp edge on that reality. We need to work over the experience of our history, but we do NOT need a “new” left that re-hashes the old.
We need new ways of organising, of talking to each other, of working in communities. I recommend Ewa Jasiewicz’s excellent post-referendum summary here.
There are no easy answers. But we never had any of those anyway.
Free movement of labour and migration
Some “lexit” arguments pandered to anti-immigration sentiment in a way that in my view has nothing to do with any kind of socialism. For example Julian Jones, writing in the Morning Star last week, advocated a “rational immigration policy” and attacked the principle of the free movement of labour.
“Migration and social dumping” arise from “inherent contradictions within capitalism”, Jones argued, and need to be “combatted through trade unionism, internationalism and solidarity”.
He doesn’t explain what he means by “social dumping”. The implication is that EU migrants (the focus of the article) are being “dumped” in the UK. He asks “how many young people [EU migrants] are being coerced – if not forced – out of their countries” because of an economic situation caused by EU fiscal policies.
In order to “combat” this immigration, the principle of the free movement of labour – that “many young people” have been “duped” into thinking is “near socialist” – should be scrapped, Jones believes. “By being so positive towards EU migration, sectors of the left are naively, or willingly, falling into a trap.”
To my mind, it’s a basic principle of socialism that attacks on living standards and wages by employers need to be countered with working-class weapons – working-class unity and organisation against the employers – not by immigration controls. Socialists can not favour measures by the capitalist state that undermine and obstruct workers’ ability to find work, or their ability to combine in their workplaces to improve their wages and conditions. Given the freedom of capital to roam around the world exploiting workers, how can we do otherwise than welcome the right of workers to move around in response?
Of course the EU’s policy of the free movement of labour is supported by many employers, with a view to using cheap labour against expensive labour. But working-class organisation and unity is the means to resist that, not the inherently divisive imposition of state controls.
Jones reports that he discussed this issue with British construction workers, who “did not resent the migrants themselves but rather the lack of job opportunities available to them at a decent wage”. I wonder if he mentioned to those workers the principles of working-class organisation as the means to combat employers’ attempts to source cheap labour – because in his whole article he doesn’t refer to that. And if he asked the migrant workers their opinion, he hasn’t shared that with his readers either.
Jones addresses himself not to working-class people so much as to the state (not that it’s likely to be listening, but still). He says the principle of free movement of labour, that should not be applied to EU migrants (that’s the real subject of the real argument with real Nigel Farage), should apply to people from former British colonies “to whom we owe a great debt” because of “our shameful colonialist past”.
So “we” is Britain, the British ruling class and the British state, then? And “we” need to “form a rational immigration policy”. (At some time in the future, I presume. Without defending the principle of free labour from Nigel Farage in the meantime.)
All the wrong starting-points.
And we’ve been here before. The political tradition with which the Morning Star is associated had its roots in the Communist Party – which slavishly supported state dictatorship over labour, and restrictions on its free movement, in the Soviet Union from the late 1920s through to the 1980s. All a long time ago. But that’s why chunks of old “left” (?!) dogma must be junked, and why we can’t recreate a new “left” by putting together random bits of the old. GL, 25 June 2016.