Racism and xenophobia are resurgent in the UK, and the centre-left is partly to blame
by David Wearing, July 12, 2016.
Rather than engaging with the prejudices and misplaced fears of one
section of the working class, the Labour party has given validation to forms of
bigotry that have deep roots right across society.
“I’m not a racist, but…..”; “I haven’t got a racist bone in my body”; “it’s
not racist to have concerns about immigration”. We’re all familiar with Britain’s
broad repertoire of phrases for denying or downplaying prejudice. But with a fivefold
increase in reported hate crimes since the Brexit vote, it is no longer
tenable to sweep this issue under the carpet. We have to be honest. This
country has a problem.
The breadth of British prejudice
It is frequently said that, because a majority voted for Brexit, racism
and xenophobia cannot be a significant part of the picture. This is consistent
with the popular misconception that these forms of prejudice are restricted to
the margins: a few far-right boot-boys, 1950s throwbacks and a handful of the socially
maladjusted. It is a profoundly naïve assumption.
proportion of people admitting racist views to pollsters is 29%, and given
the social taboo around racism, the true number is likely to be higher (recall,
for example, the UKIP
councillor who said she had a problem with “negroes” because there was “something
about their faces”, while simultaneously insisting that she was “not a racist”).
quarter of Britons say immigrants, including any British-born children,
should be “encouraged” to leave the country – echoing the standard ‘send them back’ demand of the far right. A
further 30% of those polled could not say that they definitely disagreed with that
position. These figures are dismaying, but will only shock those who have never
experienced racism, and the widespread complacency about it, for themselves.
Now look at the actual size of the Brexit vote. Taking abstentions into
account, 37% of registered voters opted for Leave, and remember that several
million eligible adults remain unregistered. It is therefore reasonable to
assume a significant overlap between the approximate third of the adult
population that voted for Brexit and the proportions that hold racist or
xenophobic views (admitted or otherwise).
This is true especially in light of the nature of the Leave campaign. Many
sound and principled arguments could have been articulated in favour of a Leave
vote, but the official and unofficial campaigns barely made them.
were loudly and unambiguously racist, from the infamous
“Breaking Point” poster depicting a crowd of brown-skinned
refugees, to the warnings
of criminal Turkish hordes, poised to invade. Despite this, 37% of
registered voters still supported Leave, suggesting not only that many of them agreed
with the Johnson-Gove-Farage campaigns, but that many others were either blasé about
or oblivious to the social dangers of handing it victory.
This is even more worrying when we consider that, at the height of the xenophobic
atmosphere whipped up in the weeks before the vote, an MP and leading migrant rights
advocate was murdered, with the prime suspect later giving his name in court as
to traitors, freedom for Britain”. It would be surprising if the coming trial
of this man were to conclude that the demagoguery and the deed were in no way
connected, not least given the outbreak
of hate crimes after the referendum result was announced.
The inability of
millions of Leave voters, in the wake of Jo Cox’s death, to take a step back,
realise what was happening, and resolve to draw a line, is a social fact that
needs to be looked at squarely in the face, no matter how chilling or
uncomfortable that may be.
Of course, none of this is necessarily new. Britain has a rich tradition
of racism and xenophobia, running right through its modern history. The
holocaust of the Atlantic slave trade, the
foundation of much of our national prosperity, was justified by its
perpetrators through the language of racial
superiority. The late Victorian plunder of Africa was carried out by avowed
white supremacists such as Cecil
Rhodes (whose continued extolment
in twenty-first century Britain is defended, in the most fatuous
of terms, even by some progressive
Hostility to designated outsiders has been a persistent,
recurring theme, from the ‘yellow-peril’ of the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, to the anti-Semitism
of the inter-war years, post-war racism towards Black
and Asian people, and
today’s Islamophobia and resentment
Eastern Europeans. A toolkit of language, tropes and themes is well established
in the culture, available to be deployed in new and specific circumstances.
This goes far beyond socially unacceptable speech, or even individual acts
of street violence. Today, people from ethnic
minorities are twice as likely to be unemployed as white people, and much
more likely to suffer serious ill health, to fall foul of the law, or be rejected by
prospective landlords. Many vulnerable
new migrants, seeking sanctuary or just a
decent life, are treated
appallingly by the British government. The iniquities are enduring and
structuralised, and it takes more than a few bad apples at the margins to
maintain that state of affairs.
Yet the extent of British racism and xenophobia continues to be denied
and downplayed, almost as a kind of reflex. There are a few potential reasons
for this. For example, while everyone now knows that being a racist is socially
unacceptable, the fact remains that we have never had a real, in-depth,
national conversation about what racism is, how it manifests itself, and how it
has shaped and continues to shape British society. This has left many people
unaware that their speech and actions may be prejudiced, and many others ill-equipped
either to recognise prejudice or the conditions that give rise to it. So we end
up with the perverse situation where the accusation of racism now elicits more
righteous indignation than its concrete, widespread existence.
This is particularly true in the dominant political discourse, which may in
part be due to the disproportionate number of white people of non-migrant background
working in Westminster and Fleet Street. Those who have not been subjected to a
prejudice themselves are more likely to be naïve about its persistence, and reluctant
to acknowledge its extent (a phenomenon women are all too aware of, from their
experiences trying to highlight instances of sexism).
For example, around the
time of UKIP’s
triumph in the 2014 European elections, the Guardian published a string of articles, all
informing their readers that various things weren’t racist. This is distinct, of course, from the members
of the same political and media class who are actively
engaged in firing up anti-immigrant sentiment for political ends.
Racism-denial cannot be disconnected from the
resurgence in racist attitudes over the past 15 years, reversing the
progress of the preceding decade. Right-wing politicians and media have actively
pushed an anti-immigrant agenda, but too many supposed progressives have
allowed this to go uncontested, or even gone along with it. A discourse of
scapegoating immigrants and minorities has been given virtual free reign, where
previously it might have been more strongly challenged. The negligence of parts
of the centre-left has been key to this dynamic.
A new conventional wisdom which casts hostility to migrants as an
expression of ‘legitimate concerns’ from the economically ‘left behind’ has
played a major part in disarming those on the left whom migrants and people of
colour might have hoped to count upon as allies. Many instead have
chosen to deny the prejudice inherent to anti-immigration politics, to
dismiss anti-racists effectively as snobs, and to portray Brexit as an
authentic ‘working class revolt’.
The ‘left behind’ narrative contains some truth, but it obscures more
than it reveals. Research shows that right-wing
authoritarian attitudes are far more strongly correlated with the
preference for Leave than income or class. 81% of people who think
multiculturalism is a “force for ill” were also Leave voters. Meanwhile, many deprived urban areas
opted very strongly for Remain, and Leave
was opposed by two
thirds of Asian-British and three-quarters of Black-British voters, both disproportionately
disadvantaged groups. Brexit can only be stood up as a ‘working class revolt’
if one equates working class with white and non-urban.
And it can only be
labelled primarily as a protest from those ‘left behind by globalisation’ if
one ignores the fact that many of the main targets of this protest – migrants
from the global south and Eastern Europe – fall precisely into that category.
Opposition to immigration and the EU occurs on a cross-class basis – the
Brexit vote was 59% middle
The specific section of the working class most susceptible to these
views tends to reside in areas
where migration is low. These people have highly
legitimate grievances about economic issues, but not about EU immigration.
researchers at UCL and LSE have shown, recent migrants do
not push down wages or reduce job opportunities, are net
contributors to the exchequer, and boost the economy by spending on goods
assumptions about immigrants, which of course feed on prejudice to some
degree, have been successfully mobilised by the political right, and even
echoed in parts of the left. In terms of the latter, some point with alarm to ‘the
numbers’, placing the blame for social injustice on the wrong amount, and kind,
of humans rather than the wrong economic system. Others, with unforgivable
thoughtlessness, propose an ‘emergency
brake’ on immigration, effectively corroborating the demagogues’ scare-story
of foreigners as a threat to the nation.
Perhaps above all, Labour’s role in the rehabilitation of racism and
xenophobia has been crucial. This is partly down to the mistaken
view that UKIP is mainly a threat to Labour rather than the Conservatives,
and that UKIP’s social base matches that of the left, rather than that of the
hard right. Hence the Labour establishment’s impulse to bid
for the xenophobic vote, regardless of the social costs.
In addition, the ‘legitimate concerns’ narrative embraced by the Labour right-wing
allows migrants to serve as convenient scapegoats. New Labour’s abandonment of
anything approaching class politics, and refusal to offer a structural critique
of neoliberal capitalism, has left it unable to provide any explanation as to
why many people’s economic conditions have become harsher and more insecure.
The obvious and factually accurate response to the current mood – that
exploitative bosses, landlords, tax dodgers and a
system built around their interests are to blame for our problems, not
migrants – is a line that Labour’s ancien
regime simply cannot and will not adopt. Their goal is to manage the status
quo, not attempt to change it.
So ‘listening to people’s concerns’ on immigration serves as a substitute
for doing anything that might address the real, structural issues (both
economic and social), and allows Labour MPs to tell themselves that they’re
still standing up for the people. But when Labour agrees that immigration is a
problem (which inescapably means that immigrants, as people, are a problem),
the politics of the right – sometimes even the language of
the far right – there will, inevitably, be consequences. Now, xenophobic
politics are no longer fighting on contested terrain, but prospering in the comfortable
realm of common sense.
Now, ‘everyone knows’ that immigrants are the problem.
So rather than engaging with the prejudices and misplaced fears of one section
of the working class, Labour has given
validation to forms of bigotry that have deep roots right across society. The
effect has been to lay out a big discursive welcome mat for the likes of Nigel
Farage, which in turn has led to Brexit, and everything
that comes with it.
Instead of thinking about how the Leave vote is in large part a legacy of
their own actions, however, the Parliamentary Labour Party has decided to pin
the blame on one of the very few politicians – Jeremy Corbyn – who has
seriously taken up the issues of economic insecurity and xenophobia.
If Corbyn is
deposed, Labour will likely revert to playing its previous enabling role,
reinforcing and accelerating the current
frightening trends, when it should be fighting against them. A big question
then for Labour and the wider left, in the post-Brexit environment, is which
side of this battle it wants to be on.
SOURCE: Open democracy