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Will Angela Merkel Save the West?

16 Mar

TCM contributor Chris Bickerton has an essay on Merkel in the New York Times.

As Ms. Merkel prepares to meet this week with President Trump, many people may hope that she will stride into the White House and issue a robust defense of the liberal international order. Don’t count on it.

If the future of Western liberalism rests on Ms. Merkel’s shoulders, then it really is in trouble. She has often spoken in support of European and Western unity, but her actions have done little to strengthen them. Moreover, it’s not clear how deep her ideological commitment to liberalism really is — or, for that matter, whether she has any ideological commitments at all.

The full article is here.

Give them British citizenship!

4 Mar

The British government is not treating EU citizens resident in the UK as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with the EU. On the contrary, it is the EU that is treating those citizens, and British citizens resident in Europe, in this way. Theresa May has already sought a deal allowing EU citizens resident in the UK to remain here following Brexit, if EU governments will do the same for British citizens in their countries. EU leaders have refused to make any agreement until Article 50 has been invoked and its secretive negotiation process has begun.

The UK government should respond to this with a very public message that it is committed to the rights of those who live here. It should unilaterally declare that EU citizens have a right to remain in the UK after Brexit, and urge European governments to reciprocate. Indeed the British government should go further. It should make a point of inviting those EU citizens to become British citizens, and reduce the significant barriers to them doing so that exist at the moment.

The Prime Minister is not wrong to insist that she must put the interests of British citizens first. And EU governments may refuse to reciprocate. In Greece those governments have demonstrated that their attitude to European citizens can be almost as vicious as their treatment of African and Asian migrants. But the significant costs that might be caused by EU intransigence on the rights of British citizens abroad will be far outweighed by the long-term benefits to all British citizens.  We would be citizens of a state that has the confidence both to insist on its accountability to its own people (its democratic political sovereignty) and its openness to others (its internationalism). Such a state would earn worldwide respect from many millions of ambitious, talented and public-spirited individuals who are crying out for a break with the stale politics of the past. That would be an asset beyond price.

Opinion poll evidence suggests that there is overwhelming popular support in Britain for allowing EU citizens to remain in the UK after Brexit. A huge opportunity exists here for Theresa May really to lead the world. There is, of course, no evidence that she has either the political imagination or courage to take the opportunity – her long tenure as Home Secretary suggests the opposite. Only those committed to an internationalist politics of sovereignty are likely to be willing.

Peter Ramsay

 

 

 

 

 

The EU Has Migrant Blood on its Hands

1 Mar

Perhaps the most ludicrous claim made in defence of the European Union is that it is a bastion of cosmopolitanism and anti-racism, while all those opposed to the EU – like Brexit voters – are xenophobes and racists. The EU’s bloody borders give the lie to this cherished myth.

The EU’s cosmopolitanism rests on its supposed provision of “open borders”. But, like the classic national welfare state, this perk is selective: its existence rests on the exclusion of “outsiders”. Notwithstanding temporary “brakes”, EU citizens can move and work freely in EU countries. But EU “cosmopolitanism” is strictly for European citizens, not for people from Africa or Asia. Non-EU citizens face a wall of steel in trying to migrate into Europe.

This “Fortress Europe” approach is nothing new. Before the Arab Spring, the EU had cozied up to numerous North African dictators under its “neighbourhood” programme, bolstering their states’ capacities to interdict Arab and sub-Saharan African migrants headed through their territories for Europe. Libya’s Gadhafi regime was a leading EU partner. Italy pledged to pay the regime €5bn in 2008 to deal with “asylum seekers”, and in 2010 the European Commission gave Gadhafi €50m. In exchange, Libya organised joint naval patrols with Italy, accepted thousands of migrants intercepted by Italy, outlawed irregular migration, suppressed smuggling networks, and built a massive carceral system to intercept and deport migrants. The system was regularly denounced by Amnesty International and others, who noted that ‘rape, violence and torture were common’ in Libyan detention centres.

This was part of the gradual rescaling of European governance beyond the nation-state and even beyond the European region. Like other xenophobic Western polities – such as Australia and the United States – the EU essentially shifted its border management functions offshore. In Europe’s case, it has outsourced enforcement to vicious regimes that had not even ratified the United Nations Convention on Refugees.

This system was plunged into chaos following the Arab Spring, and this – coupled with disastrous Western intervention in Libya, the Middle East and Afghanistan – has led to what Europeans now call the “migrant crisis”.

Since then, however, EU officials have been painstakingly rebuilding this cordon sanitaire. In March 2016, the EU struck a deal with the increasingly despotic Turkish government whereby irregular migrants in or en route to Greece would be deported to Turkey for “processing” – in exchange, of course, for various economic concessions. This deal is explicitly aimed at ensuring zero new arrivals in the EU – a policy goal that Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders could have set. Unsurprisingly, just 8 percent of EU commitments for the resettlement of refugees have been met. EU officials have also been quietly rebuilding ties with North African governments and building their capacity to interdict migrants. Members of the European Parliament have noted the diversion of funds in the EU’s €2.5bn Africa Trust fund towards anti-migration projects.

This has been coupled with the deployment of hard military force. Barbed wire fences, abusive border guards and right-wing vigilantes have been deployed along the EU’s eastern land borders. In the Mediterranean, the EU has launched Operation Sophia, a naval force that tries to suppress irregular migration networks (“people traffickers”), as well as training Libyan forces in controlling migration. Perversely, for an operation designed to deter migrants from even trying to reach Europe, Sophia is named for a baby born to Somalian migrants rescued at sea in 2015, reflecting the thin humanitarian cloak draped over this naked use of force. The mask slipped this week as the EU’s borders chief openly attacked NGOs for rescuing migrants at sea and failing to cooperate with EU security forces.

Unsurprisingly, the atrocious conditions found in Libyan and other prisons before 2011 are now recurring across North Africa. In Sudan, which was allocated €100m in migration-related EU aid in April 2016, dozens of Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees have been lashed, fined and deported. In Libya, government- and militia-run detention centres for migrants have been described by UNICEF as “living hellholes” where women and children are “beaten, raped and starved”, while border forces routinely abuse and extort migrants. Abuse is also reportedly widespread in Europe’s own migrant camps in Germany, Italy, Greece and elsewhere.

And what is the “cosmopolitan” EU’s response to such reports? The president of the European parliament, and Austria’s foreign minister, called for mass camps to be established in North Africa to intern migrants. Germany’s foreign minister rejected the proposal – but only because the (NATO-induced) chaos in Libya makes it “unrealistic”.

United Nations experts state that inhuman conditions in Libya are driving more migrants to attempt the risky sea crossing to Europe. The International Organisation for Migration states that migrant deaths on the Libya-Italy crossing from January to February this year are up 300 percent on 2016, to 326. At least 5,082 died crossing the Mediterranean last year.

Nonetheless, the EU’s brutal policies seem to be bearing fruit. Irregular migrant arrivals in the EU have fallen from 1.05m in 2015, to 387,739 in 2016, and arrivals in early 2017 are also dramatically lower than for the same period last year: 13,924 versus 105,427. These are the sort of figures the “cosmopolitan” EU touts as a “success”.

Inhuman attitudes towards refugees and economic migrants did not begin with, and were not caused by, Britain’s EU referendum. They are rife across Europe, following decades of economic decline and mainstream politicians of every stripe pandering to racist and anti-immigration sentiment, instead of confronting it. These attitudes are now at the heart of the EU’s migration policy. The human cost should shock the conscience of any cosmopolitan.

Restoring representative democracy at the national level, as TCM advocates, will not solve these problems overnight, but it will create an opportunity to do so. Making national political elites accountable to their own electorates again would make it far harder for them to outsource control over migration policy to remote supranational agencies, which then subcontract vicious regimes outside Europe. Moreover, this outsourcing of migration control has led people in Europe to see immigration as something “done to them” by the EU, as if it were an external, supranational force, not simply the consequence of their own political elites’ retreat from democratic engagement. If immigration controls are restored to national parliaments, we can have honest national debates about the appropriate policy to pursue, and we would then own those policies and their consequences – we would have no one else to blame. None of that guarantees a progressive or humane policy; but, crucially, nor does remaining within the EU, whose record is dire. The case for an internationalist migration policy must be made, and won. It is only by winning popular consent that we can ever hope to begin relating to migrants as what they are – our fellow human beings.

Lee Jones

Future posts on TCM will take up this theme and explore how a restoration of national sovereignty can be combined with a progressive and internationalist agenda.

Hard v soft: misrepresenting Brexit

19 Oct

Over the last few months the debate over Brexit has begun to change shape, and with it, a slow reshuffling of political alignments has taken place. Concerned about the crude xenophobic and nativist policies that were floated at the Tory party conference in September, both liberal Leavers and Remainers have been looking to forge alliances in order to help ensure they can fight for an open economy and a cosmopolitan society in the aftermath of Brexit. Since the ‘flash crash’ of pound sterling, the debate over whether Brexit will be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ has come to the fore, even as the pound’s declining value has been taken as vindication of Remainers’ predictions over the economic damage that would result from a Leave vote. In the wake of such a major economic and political shock, it is important that we not restrict ourselves to the misleading binary option of ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Brexit. Here, much depends on how the European Union (EU) is understood.

First, with regards to freedom of movement, the distinction between hard and soft Brexit is misleading in so far as it associates freedom of movement with the single market. On TCM we have consistently argued for open borders and against the EU for its punitive and murderous external border controls. The EU’s freedom of movement has been anything but soft on those many Africans and Asians seeking to escape dictatorship, poverty and war. ‘Soft’ Brexit should not therefore be associated with free movement of peoples or indeed an open economy. Conversely, there is no reason in principle that a decisive and thorough-going break with the EU could not be compatible with open borders either: open to EU citizens and to everyone else, too.

Second, the assumption that things will be economically ‘softer’ by remaining tightly bound to the EU and the single market is based on the untenable assumptions of ceteris paribus – of everything else being held constant, as if the Eurozone economy can be kept on life-support forever. The fragmentation of the Eurozone cannot be indefinitely postponed. Brexit has become a convenient scapegoat for the ills afflicting the Western world, but any honest Remainer must know that the challenges to the EU project run much deeper, reverberating from structural contradictions at the core of the project. The hand-wringing over the crash in sterling is premised on the UK as a gateway to European markets and the Eurozone, drawing in investments that resulted in the overvalued pound, which in turn helped to disguise underlying problems of the UK economy, such as its stagnant productivity. However much Remainers may gloat over the flash crash, the question remains: how is an overvalued currency an argument for soft Brexit, or for Remain?

The British electorate have not voted to leave the EU in the midst of a booming global economy, or to delink from an EU in its prime. The Eurozone is a disaster zone; those accusing Leave voters of ‘arson’ should look to those who ruined the Greek, Spanish and Portuguese economies. The EU is structurally malformed, lop-sided and riddled with contradictions. A vote for Remain was ultimately a bet on the long-term viability of the EU – and that is a proposition more delusional than even those Anglosphere nostalgics who become misty-eyed by the thought of trading with Australia. Whatever the medium- to long-term results of the devaluation in pound sterling, it needs to be said and said again that issues of democracy, sovereignty and self-determination cannot be reduced to an exercise in public accounting and currency fluctuations.

This takes us to the third and final point – the fact that the hard / soft dichotomy obscures the crucial political distinction. Remainers gloating over the financial markets’ curbing of British sovereignty miss the point. Sovereignty concerns the nature and location of political authority more than it concerns national power and prestige. The UK’s membership of the EU is a wholly different type of issue to its relationship with the single market. As we have argued on TCM, the EU evades popular sovereignty more than it restricts national sovereignty. The EU is not merely an association of nation-states that agree to restrict each other’s external choices for their mutual benefit. It is better understood as the institutional outgrowth of internal changes in each of its constituent states: this is the shift from nation-states to member-states. This transformation has seen the curbing of legislative oversight and the systematic exclusion of the public from political decision-making through cross-border elite cooperation. Popular sovereignty has been evaded for the administrative convenience of bureaucrats and executives.

Once this is understood, the debate over ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Brexit can be seen in a different light. If ‘soft Brexit’ entails accepting certain EU regulatory structures in order to retain access to the single market, then an external restriction on the country’s trading choices may be acceptable if – and only if – it is seen as economically beneficial by the electorate and their representatives. The issue is who gets to decide. The British as a sovereign people can democratically decide to recognise the limits of their power and make a choice to abide by rules made by others in order to trade successfully. This is a question of contingent costs and benefits – quite different from membership of the EU, which degraded the internal sovereignty of the British state in so far as it enabled the government to evade political accountability for law-making.

For decades, the British public and parliaments have not been consulted on the question of whether the costs of EU regulation are outweighed by the benefits. The Brexit vote appropriately restores their right to decide. If Brexit requires the British public rationally to adapt to a lesser place in the world, so much the better: the EU facilitated delusions of British global power and reach. What is most important, then, is that the legal and political supremacy of state institutions has been reaffirmed – and with it the possibility for greater democratic accountability and political responsiveness.

The stagnation of the global economy, the growth of geopolitical rivalries, the populist assault on elitist political systems around the world: all these indicate that a cycle of global order is crumbling away, and with it an era of technocratic liberalism incarnated in the European Union more than any other political system. Whether we welcome or mourn these changes, we need to recognise that neither US hegemony nor the Brussels’ bureaucracy could last forever; to deny this is simply to deny change itself.

Philip Cunliffe and Peter Ramsay

PostRefRacism: How Big a Problem is it Really?

3 Aug

PostRefRacism, a Twitter account set up to document post-referendum racist incidents, has just released a report on post-referendum racism in Britain. Compiled with input from similar groups, Worrying Signs and iStreetWatch, and endorsed by the Institute for Race Relations (IRR), the report garnered widespread media attention in the past week, as did police data revealing a 20% spike in reported ‘hate crime’ after the referendum, with a total 6,000 incidents.

PostRefRacism’s report is potentially useful in breaking down this alarming headline figure, given its exclusive focus on racism. It identifies 636 individual reports of ‘racist and xenophobic hate crime’ – less than 11% of the total ‘hate crime’ figure released by police – of which 88% involved verbal abuse or ‘propaganda’. Of course, Twitter usage is hardly universal. But PostRefRacism worked very hard to reach this figure. With its 10,000 followers, it received nearly 99,000 tweets from 25 June to 4 July. However, 80% of these were generic expressions of concern, with only 20% reporting actual incidents, boiling down to only 636 separate cases – 25% of which were hearsay, and none of which have been verified.

The report’s most troubling claim is that 51% of these incidents ‘referred specifically to the referendum’, while 14% affected children, 12% were Islamophobic, and 4% were ‘other’. However, 51% of the 636 incidents fit into none of these categories. That is, at most 159 cases (51% of 51%) ‘referred specifically to the referendum’. Assuming they were all perpetrated by individual ‘leave’ voters, that leaves 17,410,583 Leavers who did not abuse anyone, despite a third saying they were primarily motivated to restore immigration controls – not to mention the other 29,095,259 eligible voters. Put differently, there are about 853,000 Poles living in Britain, but PostRefRacism recorded only 54 incidents where Poles were the reported victims (0.00006%).

Clearly, there is the possibility of under-reporting, and even one incident is one too many. Verbal abuse can be desperately upsetting for victims, and we should stand in full solidarity with them. But in a country as populous and diverse as Britain, do these figures really demonstrate widespread racist intolerance?

We must also ask what the phrase ‘referred specifically to the referendum’ actually means. Sometimes there is a clear (albeit obtuse) link: someone saying ‘shouldn’t you be on a plane back to Pakistan? We voted you out’. But more often, reports seem to involve generic phrases like ‘go home’ (74 stories), ‘leave’ (80 stories) and ‘fuck off’ (45 stories). Reprehensible as such comments are, it’s unclear why we should attribute them ‘specifically to the referendum’. Racist bigots have been telling non-white people to ‘go home’ for decades – it is a standard, despicable trope. The IRR’s own digest, which provides substantive detail of each case, involves many such outbursts – most of which cannot plausibly be linked to the referendum. The ethnic breakdown of reported victims – only 21% of whom are identified as Europeans – also suggests continuity with long-established patterns of racism against non-whites. The geographic pattern of incidents also fails to correlate with the ‘leave’ vote, with 44% originating in London.

The data thus boil down to a statistical uptick in an underlying current of low-level racist activity. As James Aber has argued here on TCM, a tiny, hard-core minority of racist individuals, who existed prior to the referendum, apparently felt emboldened to be more abusive following the result. Alarmist reports that made it appear that their attitudes were widely shared may even have emboldened them further. But such upticks are not new; far larger surges invariably follow terrorist atrocities. Anti-Muslim crimes in the US jumped 1,600% after 9/11; hate crimes in London increased 600% after 7/7; and anti-Muslim incidents in France jumped 281% after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The smaller uptick in Britain does not necessarily indicate any longer-term realignment. Polls on voting intentions do not suggest any shift towards right-wing parties. There is no surge for UKIP, still less for the British National Party – who, let us not forget, garnered just 1,667 votes in the 2015 general election. Conversely, there is overwhelming public support – 84% – for the residency rights of EU nationals already living in Britain. No doubt, racism must continue to be challenged – but, as Philip Cunliffe argues on TCM, we do not need the EU to do this.

This analysis is necessary not to dismiss the experience of racism but to understand it and shape appropriate responses. As Stathis Kouvelakis warns British leftists, embracing this discourse of widespread working-class racism is seriously detrimental to any progressive agenda, particularly if one believes it is historically embedded into the English character, as some now argue. It destroys the notion that the vast majority of the population are capable of acting as agents of progressive social, political and economic change. It fuels instead either liberal insistence on containing and suppressing mass sentiment, Labour-rightists’ pandering to anti-immigration attitudes, or right-wing populist efforts to exacerbate and exploit ethnic divisions.

Rather than aiding the enemy, leftists ought to be challenging these slanders against the white working classes and asking why, as Kouvelakis puts it, class struggle is being distorted into anti-immigration sentiment that, in its nastiest form, shades into racism. As we have argued, simply decrying racism merely evades this fundamental question. The answer is obvious enough. Following the crushing defeat of organised labour in the 1980s, the political class has practised 30 years of neoliberalism, resulting in flat-lining wages and living standards, followed by eight years of austerity in which real wages have fallen at the same rate as those in crisis-struck Greece. Social security, housing and decent work are all dwindling. Politicians of all stripes absolutely insist ‘there is no alternative’ to this shrinking pie – yet then admit millions of new mouths to share it. In this context, it can surprise no-one that a defence of living standards takes the form of resistance to immigration. Indeed, the hegemony of TINA makes anti-immigration sentiment a structural feature of political life. It is this hegemony that the left must challenge.

Lee Jones

The Kip of Reason Produces Monsters

14 Jul

Theresa May’s appointment as prime minister finally gives the lie to a key claim made by many on the left. For months left-wingers have been warning that a vote to Leave the EU would be a vote for a hardline right-wing government of Eurosceptic neoliberals led by Boris Johnson. The fear of a resurgent right was used to justify refusing to join in the challenge to the anti-democratic EU that was, as a result led by the political right. It turns out, however, that the left has been conjuring up a spectre that had no substantial political existence.

Right-wing Eurosceptics were able to take advantage of the unpopularity of the political class during the referendum campaign, but their victory only exposed the incoherence and unpopularity of their own ideas. UKIP leader Nigel Farage quickly resigned. The opportunist Johnson was caught out by an unexpected victory largely delivered by voters opposed to the open labour market policies that he supports. Having knifed Johnson, Michael Gove, the bête noir of the teaching unions, was abandoned by Tory Brexiteers and eliminated from the ballot. Right-wing Christian Stephen Crabb fell to a classic Tory sex scandal. Andrea Leadsom’s blustering social conservativism – emphasising her opposition to gay marriage and her status as a mother – was roundly condemned by many Tories, forcing her to drop out.

Less than three weeks after the referendum, the Eurosceptic right has imploded, handing the prime ministership to May, an arch Tory modernizer, pragmatist and Remainer. May’s political stance is less neoliberal ideologue, more New Labour authoritarian. She combines a solid record of repressive law-making as Home Secretary (expanding the drugs laws and the Prevent strategy, cracking down on immigration) with strongly centrist One Nation posturing.

As we have pointed out before, the left wrongly predicted this outcome, and is unable to exploit the right’s political incoherence, because leftists have been the most passionate believers in the right’s political strength. By the same token, the left fails to recognise its own victory in the culture wars. Ideologically, all of the pro-business mainstream parties have taken up the ideas of what was once derided as the ‘loony left’ – equal opportunities, anti-racism, gay rights – and adapted them to the needs of business. Faced with the triumph of its own cultural preferences, the left has been forced to invent an influential, hard-line Conservative right that has little real existence in Britain.

What of UKIP? Certainly it seems to have channeled growing popular resentment about immigration, fuelling claims of widespread xenophobia or racism. Doubtless, its anti-immigration populism has been central to its growing support among the working classes, broadening its based beyond the Home Counties Tories disgruntled by the Conservatives’ Blairite revolution. There is now a significant risk that UKIP may displace Labour in some northern, working-class constituencies.

But this does not reflect UKIP’s own inner strength as a party. Organisationally, UKIP is a mess, dominated by a leader who keeps resigning and leading lights who are often exposed as embarrassingly unprofessional and eccentric. Having won the referendum, Farage resigned this time using language that strongly suggested that he thought UKIP’s work was done. UKIP is also in bad financial shape, having received more money from the state than from any private donor.

UKIP’s potential, such as it is, comes from the many working-class voters who feel the country, the government and their own lives are out of their control. The right’s advantage here is one bequeathed to it by the left. Research shows that UKIP’s working-class supporters are the ‘left behind’: skilled or semi-skilled workers sidelined by neoliberal policies and abandoned by New Labour as it triangulated towards the swing voters of ‘middle England’. UKIP has simply stepped into this vacuum, politicising immigration as a cheap way to gain support.

The left is deeply confused over how to respond to this. Pragmatists insist on the need to address voters’ ‘valid concerns’. This ‘strategy’ simply extends the left’s pandering to anti-immigration sentiment, which – if anything – has only fuelled UKIP’s rise. Ideologically, it concedes that the problems voters face really are caused by immigration – not by the hollowing out of the economy, collapsing provision of social goods like housing, and declining living standards. Accordingly, it entirely evades these real problems, failing to devise any solutions to them. Jeremy Corbyn is practically alone in insisting there can be no upper limit to immigration and that the problems of working people result from decades of neoliberal policy.  However Corbyn has up to this point yoked his pro-immigration stance to support for the European Union that voters have rejected, the same European Union whose immigration controls are leading to the deaths of thousands of Africans and Asians in the Mediterranean.

Part of this disarray surely reflects confusion over the sources of anti-immigration sentiment. Many can see it as nothing more than racism or xenophobia. However, in an opinion poll following the referendum, just 16% thought that EU citizens currently resident in the UK should be told to leave, indicating that deep hostility to immigrants as such has limited appeal. Doubtless a hard-core of this minority is motivated by racism. However, there are plainly other causes of hostility to immigration. One is the experience of having little capacity to defend your wages and working conditions in circumstances where foreign workers may be willing to undercut you. Another is the mainstream green idea that Britain is a small, overcrowded island with limited resources. This creates the groundless impression of a limited economic ‘pie’ being shared with growing numbers of people – groundless because that pie has never been bigger, yet it is increasingly gobbled up by a dominant oligarchy. The left’s failure effectively to politicise these issues in an anti-capitalist direction is what has allowed UKIP to exploit them.

Divisions and prejudices remain among the population, but they are not what they used to be. One idea that is very much a minority taste is the old racist nationalism: that the white British are superior to other ethnic groups by virtue of our racial makeup and imperial greatness. This is an idea initially created but long since abandoned by our rulers. Despite the claims of many leftists, it is an idea as remote to most white British people today as the proposition that a woman’s place is in the home. It is so archaic that even UKIP has the good sense not to espouse it. UKIP certainly has its share of racist cranks. But its migration spokesman is of mixed Irish, Jewish and black American heritage. Its foreign policy is opposed to Britain’s warmongering overseas. This is another unacknowledged cultural victory of the left.

The political grip of the old patriotic patriarchal conservative traditions died out a generation ago when Margaret Thatcher’s return to ‘Victorian values’ came to nothing. The neoliberal worship of markets lost what limited appeal it had with the crash of 2008. The exaggeration of the influence of these clapped-out ideas indicates that much of the left is every bit as nostalgic as the Eurosceptic right, still fighting battles that ended long ago. In its reverie, the left dreams up monsters while Theresa May gets on with repairing the damage done by the Eurosceptics to the political class’s already limited authority.

 

James Aber

Peter Ramsay

The racism excuse

28 Jun

Last Wednesday, just before the UK referendum on membership of the EU, TCM pointed out that the true nature of the European Union had not been discussed in the UK referendum campaign because that would have required an honest confrontation with the political void between the rulers and the ruled in Europe. Neither the Remain campaign nor the Leave campaign was willing to address the breakdown in representation that left the interests of millions of voters effectively unrepresented and at the same time led national governments to seek refuge from political accountability in the EU.

In the days following the referendum, that void has been impossible to ignore. Realising that the in-out vote would give them a one-off chance to have a real political impact, millions of traditional Labour voters in the relatively impoverished provincial towns and cities of England and Wales seized the chance that the referendum offered to give the finger to the political class in London and voted to Leave. Divisions between the constituent nations of the ‘United’ Kingdom were also sharpened by the result. A majority of voters in Scotland backed the separatist SNP’s call for a Remain vote, and a majority of voters in Northern Ireland also voted to Remain, leading Sinn Fein to demand unity with the Irish Republic.

The practical exposure of the lack of authority commanded by the British political elite has generated an unprecedented political crisis. In the first of a series on what the referendum tells us, Lee Jones looks critically at the idea promoted by many on the left: that the result is a consequence of rampant working-class racism.

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The EU referendum has exposed a deep class and cultural divide in Britain. Overwhelmingly, the data show that the lower social classes, particularly those who have lost out from the neoliberal socio-economic revolution of the past thirty years, voted Brexit. Immigration was undoubtedly a huge issue, too. 80% of those seeing immigration as a force for ill voted to Leave, while 79% of those seeing it as a force for good voted to Remain. Although the top reason Leave voters gave to explain their choice was the issue of democracy (49%), the second was immigration and border control (33%).

Accordingly, the dominant reaction of many Remain commentators and voters has been to call Leave voters are stupid, uneducated, and racist. The same attitudes were expressed during the campaign, particularly after the murder of Jo Cox MP, by someone who appears to be a white supremacist, and the release of UKIP’s notorious ‘breaking point’ poster. After the vote, Twitter and Facebook have been flooded with warnings about a ‘race shitstorm’ and ‘Brexit England… expecting the trucks to turn up next week deporting Poles from their council houses’. Leftist commentators openly prognosticate about ‘neofascist nightmares’. This has led many to demand that the referendum be re-run (3.9 million signatures and counting) and propose various other ways to overturn the result.

This response is as revealing as it is absurd. Even at its nastiest, the Leave campaign never proposed removing migrants already in the UK – just restraints on future immigration. There is no reason for any Leave voter to expect any deportations, and there are probably more Remain voters suggesting this, irresponsibly whipping up a frenzy of anxiety among non-citizens. It is, of course, undeniable that a minority of Britons harbour racist attitudes. Likewise these attitudes are – as with the EU vote – correlated with social class, and have risen recently with large-scale immigration. But the proportion describing themselves as ‘very’ racially prejudiced is just 3%. No doubt this small minority feel emboldened – reflected in a reported outburst of verbal abuse. But the idea that we inhabit ‘Weimar Britain’, with racist hordes slavering to take advantage of a Leave vote just doesn’t ring true. Far-right groups like Britain First can barely muster a few hundred protestors. The far-right British National Party received just 1,667 votes in the 2015 General Election. By contrast, 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU. To treat them all as racist xenophobes is itself an exercise in prejudice and stereotyping worthy of any racist. It is a sign of the ugly elitism that too many on the left seem willing to promote.

Much of the concern around immigration is obviously driven less by racism than by deindustrialisation, rising job insecurity, flat-lining or declining real pay and pensions, and deep cuts in social services. If voters blame those problems on immigration this is not solely a result of the influence of the right. The Labour Party and the wider left is also responsible for failing either to win people over to a pro-immigration position or to mitigate their relative economic decline.

Postwar British politics has always had a strong anti-immigration streak, and Labour and the trade unions have made major contributions to hostility to immigrants. The postwar Keynesian-welfarist settlement was always partly secured through constricting the labour supply by excluding foreigners. From the 1960s onwards, the Labour Party both supported Tory restrictions on immigration, and enacted its own. Left-wing elites only began to move in a more cosmopolitan direction from the 1970s, eventually coming to support large-scale immigration as they embraced wider market deregulation. Following the labour movement’s crushing defeat in the 1980s, left wing parties across Europe were reconfigured from a channel for working-class interests into ‘third way’ electoral machines, ruthlessly triangulating their way towards ‘neoliberalism with a human face’. Increasingly staffed by cosmopolitan lawyers and professional politicos, their links to working-class communities were severed.  They pushed state policy in a formally anti-racist direction at exactly the moment that that their embrace of the market forced them to take their wider working class constituency for granted as mere electoral fodder. The Labour Party’s abandonment of the working class has now come back to bite it.

As argued by James Heartfield, Chris Bickerton and TCM, the EU expresses and entrenches this elite estrangement from the masses. Political elites have retreated into the structures of the state and then networked their states across borders, creating a transnational system of regulatory governance. Decisions that were once exposed to political contestation have thereby been transformed into matters for inter-bureaucratic bargaining and secret diplomacy. This has allowed elites to pursue policies that would not command democratic majorities at home. The free movement of people is just one of these, and part of a broader, neoliberal ‘economic constitutionalism’. Elites present these policies as beyond their control, as immutable outcomes of EU membership – when in reality they reflect and entrench their minority preferences, and those of big business.

The gulf between elites and the masses on immigration was obvious by the early 2000s. After coming to power in 1997, New Labour did nothing substantial to reverse two decades of deindustrialisation, under-employment and widening inequality. Social dissatisfaction rose noticeably as immigration surged – it was not created or ‘unleashed’ by the EU referendum – but politicians either sneered at it, or politely ignored it. Gordon Brown’s infamous description of a Labour voter concerned about immigration as a ‘bigoted woman’ spoke volumes.

New Labour did nothing to win people over to a more positive view of immigration, abandoning the electorate to the right, which was happy to blame foreigners for people’s troubles. Indeed, Labour’s response to rising support for the British National Party was to promise a curb on immigration – a pledge reiterated in the 2015 general election, after years of inaction as austerity fuelled anti-immigration sentiment.

Importantly, both sides in the EU referendum campaigned on an anti-immigration platform, not just the Brexiters. The Remain campaign stressed that Britain is outside of Schengen and that David Cameron had negotiated a curb on benefits that ‘draw’ EU migrants to the UK.

immigration labour photo

The present anti-immigration mood – not just in Britain but across Europe – is not, therefore, a result of a sudden profusion of racist xenophobia; rather, it reflects a structural disconnect between elites and the working classes. The left in particular has abandoned the working class to the economic and political margins, not bothering either to persuade them of the benefits of migration or to do very much about their relative material decline. Instead, Europe’s political parties have clubbed together through the EU to impose their policies without popular consent. They have relied on EU treaties to justify free movement rather than winning the argument for open borders. The referendum outcome reminds us that one cannot rely indefinitely on undemocratic institutions to maintain policies that do not command popular support. This is equally true for those policies, like workers rights and environmental protection, that left Remainers wished to defend by staying in the EU, even while recognising its fundamentally undemocratic nature.

It is crucial for Remainers to recognise that staying in the EU would not have contained this dynamic forever. It is a structural product of the void between rulers and ruled. The idea that the EU is a bulkwark against right-wing populism is nonsense. It is the EU that causes populism to thrive by entrenching the elite-mass disconnect. Right-wing populism is rampant across the EU; indeed, it is stronger on the continent, and inside the Eurozone, than in Britain. There is no prospect of the EU closing the void. On the contrary it intends to rely on increasingly undemocratic methods to block right-wing populists from power.

If Remain had won, the void would still be there, with the opportunities for populist predation only increasing. The view that politicians are ‘all the same’, and ‘only in it for themselves’, is widespread, with many analysts warning of a crisis of democracy. Half of Leave supporters believed the referendum would be rigged, possibly by MI5. Having been systematically ignored for so long, many people do not believe that voting changes anything. Some Brexit voters openly expressed shock that their ballots – apparently cast only in protest – might actually compel political change.

If the rise of Donald Trump tells us anything, it is that these conditions are ripe for exploitation by the most opportunistic, unprincipled and dangerous forms of populism. Remainers who thought they could avoid this outcome by redoubling the conditions that produce it must now come to their senses. In the long run, it is far healthier for democracy that this situation be confronted now, that politicians be forced to engage with the masses, to actually listen to and have to argue with their views, and win genuine mass support for an open society.

The accusations of racism are an excuse for the failure to represent the interests of poorer workers. The left needs to stop branding people idiots and racists, and think about where it has gone wrong. If the left fails to do this, it will only help to create the very outcome it fears.

Lee Jones

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