Tuesday, 14 June 2016

The likeliest outcome of the EU referendum? A hike in anti-immigrant racism, whatever the vote

Corbyn must fight anti-immigrant racism



A majority of recent polls show a growing, if still shaky lead for the Leave campaign in the EU referendum. This is deeply worrying for Remainers: whatever people say about a swing to the status quo in the final weeks of a campaign, that simply hasn't happened this time - at least not yet. It seems that in this case, as with so much in politics around the world at the moment, normal rules no longer apply.

A few months ago I wrote that the left's argument about remaining in the EU was made with too many qualifications to cut through. In that I was right. But I was also wrong in that I declared, "Nationalism and Liberalism will carve up the debate between them." Let me stress, liberalism is nowhere to be seen in this debate. The choice is between two establishment-co-opted, right-wing nationalisms and the reason for this boils down to how the left's impotence - or rather its absence - has negatively impacted on the debate.

The EU referendum has turned into a regional, racial, and class vote which mirrors almost exactly the breakdown of results at the 2015 general election. A true blue Tory English south; a cosmopolitan Labour London; a solid centre-left showing in Scotland and Wales; and an English north split between Labour loyalism and UKIP. Balanced for turnout and population spread (and given the fact this is a simple yes/no vote, unlike the parliamentary voting system), this shifts the vote in favour of Brexit. What this means is that the seizure of the Labour Party leadership by the radical left since the last election has done little to create new cleavages in the electoral map. It also shows that most Tory supporters will be voting against the Tory leadership. In case of a Brexit vote, the big losers will be the leadership of the established UK parties - Labour in the north; the Tories in the south.

The 2015 election was the first time a long-gestating crisis in British politics bore tangible fruit: the collapse of the Labour vote since 2001; the collapse of wider voter turnout since 1992. The narrowing policy and ideology gap between Labour and the Tories led to a collapse of the traditional representative link between political parties and the voters who turned out for them. Finally, despite a parliamentary system that militated against it, politics fragmented. All over the country - and indeed most of Europe - voters turned to whatever alternatives they could find. That habit is showing no sign of slowing with this referendum: voters are choosing to vote against everything the perceived establishment tells them to do, and they are doing so along startlingly similar lines to last year.

The crisis in British politics, born of the victory of Thatcherism and New Labourism, was brought to boiling point not long after the biggest economic crash in postwar history and a series of violent global confrontations, all of which have, needless to say, brought death and instability to much of the globe. These twin crises have brought to the advanced heartlands of global capitalism the same morbid symptoms crisis always brings: an intensification of racism and other burning resentments. It is no coincidence then that immigration has become the single outstanding issue of this referendum. Labour and the traditional social-democratic left has not been able to fight anti-immigrant and refugee racism because the only intellectually consistent way to do so is to criticise global capitalism, the crisis policies of the neoliberal state and imperialist foreign policy. Blairism, indeed the entire social-democratic tradition, is unable and unwilling to do any of this. Indeed, while tacitly accepting the economic need for immigration, Blairism has been quick to attack immigrants when it has proved politically expedient.

Labour sneaked anti-immigrant rhetoric into the mainstream. In 2005 Blair boasted about reducing asylum claims faster than anywhere else in Europe and claimed he would "put in strict immigration controls that work." They didn't work - because the UK economy needs immigration and global population flows are complex things that are only becoming more complex with - well, all those wars we keep launching. Now anti-immigrant sentiment has become common sense and far-right racism a much more acceptable, though still peripheral, view. That tendency has reared its head again in the EU referendum as leading Labour Remainers from the right, panicking at the strong polling of the Brexiters, demand an end to free movement within the EU. These are the same tawdry, graceless manoeuvres that made Labour into a laughing stock under Blair and Ed Milliband and they won't win voters away from either the Tories or UKIP. The radical left leadership - basically Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell - have not been half as forthright in their defence of immigration as they ought to be. Indeed a defence of immigration is the only way the public conversation can be led away from the issue and towards the real causes of the stress on public services: the budgetary pressure on local government; the lack of revenue coming in to central government; the squeeze on NHS funding; the refusal to increase the pace of house building. Anti-immigrant sentiment cannot be ignored - and only a radical left leadership of Labour have the moral authority to fight it.

This brings us back to what happens after the vote. For the left the referendum itself is a purely tactical question: the choice between the cartelised, belligerent, authoritarian institutions of the EU on the one hand and the free market utopia espoused by elements of the British establishment on the other. Not forgetting, of course, the conduits of financialised capital which operate (and will continue to operate no matter what) between them. That choice has become clearer and clearer - there is no lesser-evil option, a Liberal soft option which will spare us the nastiness of unleashed nationalism. The intensification and increasing visibility of anti-immigrant sentiment which has resulted from Labour triangulation and establishment vilification of migrants and refugees is likely to be the awful legacy of this referendum whatever the outcome.

Here's my bet: a close remain victory will nevertheless see UKIP massively emboldened in the north, where they will replace the Tories as the second place to Labour and even overtake Labour in some constituencies. Anti-immigrant frustration, even of the quiet and simmering kind, will turn into outright racism. That racism is partly conjured by elites looking for a useful distraction but its base materials are a sense of powerlessness and a feeling that the ruling order is inevitable and unchangeable. It can only be quelled where there are meaningful attacks on and victories against the real source of wage repression, flatlining productivity, shitty jobs, decaying public services and infrastructure: that is, neoliberal capitalism.


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