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The British left after Brexit

 

 

July 10 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- With British politics in crisis after the recent UK referendum vote to leave the European Union, a debate has opened on the British left regarding the situation it finds itself in. As part of Links' ongoing coverage of the Brexit debate we are republishing articles by Charlotte Bence, from Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century, Neil Faulkner, from Left Unity, and Joseph Choonara, from the Socialist Workers Party. Above, is also a video by Novara Media's Ash Sarkar exploring the way class and race are mobilised as ways to understand inequality and political disenfranchisement.

 

Standing for solidarity after the Brexit vote

 

By Charlotte Bence

 

July 8, 2016 -- US Socialist Worker -- We have to start with political honesty about what the left was able to do in this vote and what it wasn't.

 

The fact is that the left-wing Leave vote didn't have any real influence beyond the ranks of the far left and its immediate allies and friends, and pretending otherwise doesn't put us in a good place for what comes next.

 

The left Leave campaign were making very good arguments about the fundamentally un-reformable nature of the EU and why it's better for the British working class to leave. But those ideas got no traction because the debate was dominated from the start by the official Leave and official Remain campaigns. That meant the left was running to catch up on both sides, whichever position you took.

 

Both sides in the referendum were dominated by racism--in particular racist ideas about immigration. The official Leave side was horribly racist because its main message was about how to "regain" some kind of national control and stop the hordes of migrants and refugees from coming to the UK.

 

But the Remain side pandered to those sentiments as well. The Remain side claimed that if the UK remained in the European Union, we could renegotiate freedom of movement within Europe, which is one of the right's talking points.

 

So both sides were playing a racist game of pitting the working class against itself.

 

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When you look at the breakdown of the vote--if you look at the Lord Ashcroft poll, which surveyed more than 12,000 people about how they voted--the question of immigration definitely played a part. According to the Ashcroft data, the number one concern for both Labour and Conservative voters was the question of sovereignty, closely followed by immigration.

 

But the issue we were voting on wasn't immigration, but whether the UK should leave or stay in the EU.

 

When both sides pandered to racism to the extent that they did, people's fears around the state of their communities were exploited and given a convenient scapegoat. And there's fertile ground: The services provided by the National Health Service (NHS) are getting worse; classroom sizes in the UK, and England in particular, are going up; and social housing now exists now for nobody but the most desperate, with years-long waiting lists being the norm across the country.

 

When the mainstream narrative presents you with a scapegoat and says all these things are happening because of your immigrant neighbor, then voting to leave, in part, becomes a reaction against that. The reaction isn't necessarily tied up with completely and utterly racist ideas, but when people have been told that the reason these things are happening is because of immigration, then of course, they vote to leave.

 

This is what's happened in economically and politically eviscerated communities like the north of England, which all voted to leave.

 

I think we have to look at the Leave vote in communities like the north of England--communities that have been abandoned by the Conservatives since they've come to power--as the only real way that people had of expressing their dissatisfaction with life in what's supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world, but where everybody feels so very, very poor.

 

When you have the architect of all this misery, Prime Minister David Cameron, telling everybody that they have to vote Remain because it's nice to be in the EU, people are naturally going to say, "Well, fuck you, I'm not doing that.I'm voting to leave."

 

I think the increase in racist attacks since Brexit would have happened irrespective of which way the vote had gone. I think the 57 percent increase in racist attacks would have happened even if the vote had been for Remain, because when both sides were creating that culture around immigration, that's the inevitable fallout.

 

There have been all kinds of horrible attacks on European migrants, British people of color, and migrants who aren't white Europeans since the vote happened. There was racist graffiti scrawled on Polish community centers, and BBC broadcasters who had horribly offensive, racialized language shouted at them. You can search the internet for these examples and depress yourself by seeing how many there are.

 

But as horrible as these attacks are--and as important as it is to stand up to all of them--they don't represent evidence that the far right is gaining momentum, in my view. The attacks and anti-immigrant sentiment don't represent, as yet, an organized presence of racists or fascists. These are individuals shouting at other individuals who they see in supermarkets or on the street.

 

That isn't to say the racist slurs aren't horrible, but it's quite a different matter from gangs of marauding fascists marching around our towns. In reality, when the far right has attempted to organize since the Brexit vote, it's been beaten back.

 

In the southern city of Southampton, for example, there was a mobilization of 14 of the so-called "Pie and Mash Brigade" turned up to spread racist, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rhetoric. They were countered by 1,500 local residents, trade unionists and anti-fascists who were waving pro-refugee, pro-migrant placards and shouting pro-refugee, pro-migrant slogans. That's positive.

 

I think we should take heart in this response and the places where we're beating them back.

 

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One of the things that the UK left doesn't necessarily agree on is the nature of the demonstrations called since the vote in support of remaining in the EU.

 

On Saturday, July 2, in London, there was a demonstration against Brexit with many thousands of people at it. Yes, some of the people at the demonstration were waving European Union flags, which I think is a complete dead-end. But just because the demonstration was called by forces I would describe as a bit reactionary, it doesn't automatically follow that everybody who was on those demonstrations is a bit reactionary.

 

There were pro-migrant and pro-refugee placards and banners out there--and the people holding them see the European Union as the only way you can defend the rights of people who are not from the EU and the UK. Unlike a lot of other countries in Europe, Britain hasn't really had a set-piece confrontation with the EU until now--which means we're not used to debating what the EU represents and the role it plays in smashing working-class movements.

 

I think this is a job for the left to take up: to continue to talk about what the EU is and what it's done in countries like Greece, alongside a conversation about how we can build movements in solidary with people both within and without the EU.

 

One of the things that's exciting to someone like me, who has been part of the far left for a number of years, is that people who were there, chanting decent slogans and waving decent placards, were mainly people I don't recognize. These are people the far left doesn't have a relationship with, but with whom we need to engage quickly.

 

There are pro-migrant, pro-refugee demonstrations and rallies being organized all across the country--in towns and villages where the far left hasn't been seen for decades. This is exciting because it shows that the response isn't just a small far-left minority.

 

We aren't the only people who are trying to mount a defense of migration. We aren't the only people saying that people who were born outside of the UK should be welcomed on our shores.

 

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Knowing all this makes me feel positively about what we can achieve when we put our minds to it. Although we're not involved with everything, where we are involved,we're making a real impact.

 

One of the things I'm proud of about rs21 is that the Friday after the vote, we were part of a demonstration we called in conjunction with some other groups on the British left that was specifically focused on defending migration and refugees, irrespective of the outcome of the vote. Some 1,500 young people marched through central London, demanding that refugees be welcome in the UK and saying that migration isn't a crime.

 

The message from the racists to immigrants is: "It's time for all you lot to get out now, pack your fucking bags." But there are people who are saying, "No, that's not what I stand for, that's not what I'm about. I'm going to go on these demonstrations, and I'm going to defend migration."

 

I think the left has to understand that whichever way you voted--whether you voted for Leave or whether you voted for Remain--the priority now isn't recriminations or debating whether we were right or wrong, though the process of accountability toward each other is important.

 

First and foremost, our priority right now has to be getting involved in these campaigns to defend migration and defend refugees.

 

And we have to think about how to integrate that work into everything else we do/ Because it's all well and good to organize anti-austerity campaigns, but that isn't enough. The reason the right wing has been able to whip up hysteria around immigration is because they've given the impression that the reason classroom sizes are going up or it's difficult to get appointments with your doctor is because of the waves of immigrants coming over to the UK.

 

We have to get better at saying: "It's not the fault of your immigrant neighbor that you can't get a doctor's appointment. It's David Cameron's fault because he's the one who cut funding for the NHS. It's the Conservatives who are putting pressure on schools, not migrants."

 

That's the way that we can integrate migrant and refugee solidarity work into everything else we do.

 

Charlotte Bence is a union organizer and member of revolutionary socialism in the 21st century.

 

Brexit, the new ‘Anglo-Europeans’, and the anti-Corbyn coup

 

By Neil Faulkner

 

It took the Brexit racism of Johnson, Gove, and Farage to make the EU popular. Some 50,000 people wanted to demonstrate on Tuesday night until the organisers caved in to police pressure and called it off. Some thousands still turned up.

 

July 3, 2016 -- Left Unity -- Now at least 50,000 have actually demonstrated, marching from Hyde Park to Parliament in a colourful, high-spirited, spontaneous display of Euro-enthusiasm.

 

The politics were soft and mixed. Some of it was little more than uncritical support for the existing EU setup, and a willingness to cheer dreary liberals like Tim Fallon and Bob Geldof. But that is inevitable if the Left leaves a vacuum – and the Left was almost entirely absent. Other forces – essentially right-wing forces – will fill the space and channel the movement if they can.

 

But, as in all new movements, the politics were unformed and therefore complex and contradictory. ‘Eton Mess’ was shouted at Downing Street: a class-conscious slogan if ever there was one. Activists offering placards saying ‘Defend Free Movement’ were mobbed by young people wanting to get one. A young nurse carried a homemade placard which read ‘NHS nurses against Brexit lies. The NHS needs EU.’ Twenty-two year old Jess Baker was there saying, ‘We want Britain to be EU-orientated, outward-looking, and inclusive.’

 

Let’s put this into a wider frame. The Referendum statistics are these. Voting Remain were: 80% of Green voters; 75% of young people; 75% of black people; 70% of Muslims; 65% of Labour voters; and 65% of SNP voters.

 

I cannot find figures for this, but my guess is that between two-thirds and three-quarters of trade unionists will also have voted Remain. This is based on three things: a) ten top union leaders called for this; b) Labour’s Remain vote implies it; and c) union membership is much higher among skilled public-sector workers than among unskilled private-sector workers, and the figures show 60% in the corresponding ABC1 categories voting Remain, as against 35% in the C2DE categories.

 

Then we have the more anecdotal evidence from further afield, like the Homerton Hospital surgical team who posted an online photo of themselves with national labels, showing a British (Pakistani) consultant alongside an Irish radiographer, a German consultant anaesthetist, a Greek urologist, and three Spanish scrub nurses.

 

What is this? It is a popular revolt against racism and nationalism – against the small-minded, backward-looking, victim-bashing bigotry of Tory toffs. It is an assertion of an alternative identity that is multi-cultural and international.

 

In the immediate context of Brexit, it takes the form of what might be described as an ‘Anglo-European’ identity. But this, given the racism directed against EU migrant workers during the referendum campaign, amounts an essentially progressive political reaction.

 

At the same time, we are witness to another kind of political surge in response to the New Labour coup to topple the Corbyn leadership. I understand that some 60,000 people have joined the Labour Party since it began, and that at one point a hundred an hour were joining Momentum. We have seen open-air rallies of thousands, and meetings that used to attract a few dozen are sometimes pulling in several hundred.

 

Despite the embrace of death in which the Parliamentary Labour Party has held Corbyn captive since his election, the political enthusiasm engendered by his challenge to the neoliberal status quo seems undiminished. The Corbynistas, largely absent from the scene for several months, are back.

 

The coup is, of course, part of the wider political crisis – effectively an implosion of the political system – triggered by the Brexit vote. But it is more than that. The New Labour Right has been deliberately undermining Corbyn’s authority since his election, mounting in effect a slow-motion coup since last summer. And much more than Brexit is at issue.

 

Heidi Alexander, the Shadow Health Secretary, was the first to resign after Hilary Benn was sacked. She is on record claiming that her position had been ‘undermined’ on health policy by ‘secret meetings’ of an advisory group set up by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell (one of which she gate-crashed).

 

Talk of ‘secret meetings’ is rich coming from Alexander. She, like most Labour MPs, is a supporter of the secret privatisation of the NHS that has now being going on – behind the backs of the British people, without any democratic mandate, against the wishes of 85% of electorate – for a generation. Only last week she was on the platform at a major NHS privatisation conference attended by cohorts of private health corporates at the Excel Centre. So of course she is not welcome at meetings of socialists called to discuss ways of saving the NHS.

 

Make no mistake, the struggle raging inside the Labour Party is about whether the entire programme of growing corporate power and the hoovering of wealth to the top to feed the grotesque greed of the 1% is going to continue unimpeded. Corbyn is the socialist cuckoo in the neoliberal nest. They want him out – all of them, the New Labour spivs, the Tories, their media echo-chambers, and the City bankers in the background.

 

Questions crowd in. Can the anti-Brexit upsurge – spontaneous, formless, lacking political clarity, without much sense of direction, at risk of derailment by neoliberal interests – crystallise into something more solidly anti-racist, anti-corporate, anti-elite? What is the relationship between the anti-Brexit youth and the pro-Corbyn supporters? How should the Left respond to the tidal wave of racism unleashed by the Brexit vote?

 

One thing is clear: we need to get stuck in. Tens of thousands of people are on the streets calling for free movement and rejecting nationalism. Tens of thousands of others are crowding into meetings to defend a political alternative to austerity and privatisation. The two upsurges are connected. You only have to look at that picture of the Homerton Hospital surgical team.

 

So I repeat what I said last time. We need mass movements against racism linked with mass movements against austerity and privatisation. Three immediate dates are these:

 

9 July for the demonstration in defence of immigrants called by Another Europe is Possible https://www.facebook.com/events/993593024089717/.

 

14 July, when health workers, supported by other trade unionists and radical activists, will be blocking the road to protest NHS privatisation https://www.facebook.com/events/245797525796605/.

 

16 July for the demonstration against austerity and racism called by the People’s Assembly https://www.facebook.com/events/997373007038180/.

 

Neil Faulkner is a revolutionary socialist, a Brick Lane Debates activist, and the author of A Marxist History of the World: from neanderthals to neoliberals.

 

After the leave vote: we can beat back racism and austerity

 

By Joseph Choonara

 

July 1, 2016 -- Socialist Review -- The British state, its ruling class, its economy and its political system have all been thrown into chaos by the vote to leave the EU.

 

Some 52 percent opted for exit, on a turnout of 72 percent, higher than any general election since 1992. They did so in the face of opposition from three quarters of MPs, the leadership of all three of the biggest parliamentary parties — the Conservatives, Labour and the Scottish National Party — the overwhelming bulk of British industry and almost every major capitalist institution, from the Bank of England to the International Monetary Fund.

 

David Cameron, who confidently called the referendum to lay to rest debate on Europe in his party has announced that he will resign as prime minister by autumn. He leaves behind a weakened and divided party with a slender parliamentary majority.

 

The pound fell to its lowest value against the dollar in three decades and markets globally were plunged into turmoil. The EU, which has operated as a dysfunctional junior partner to US imperialism in its attempts to police the world system, has lost its second largest member — an event in many ways of greater magnitude than the Greek exit threatened over recent years.

 

EU leaders, meeting in Brussels in the wake of the vote, feared a domino effect in which further countries, potentially the Netherlands and Denmark, perhaps even France, leave the union.

 

There is now a demand for a second referendum on independence in Scotland, which voted to stay in the EU. If it went ahead, it would probably see the breakup of the British state.

 

A neoliberal organisation, which has again and again acted in the interests of European capital, grinding the Greek people under the heel of austerity, supporting Francois Hollande’s assault on French workers and seeking to implement the TTIP free trade agreement with the US, with contemptuous disregard for any opposition, has suffered its greatest blow to date.

 

Yet the mood of many on the left in Britain is despondent. For them, the referendum is seen as an outpouring of nationalism and racism directed against migrants from the EU.

 

It is a gross oversimplification to reduce this to a vote over racism.

 

The vote was, above all else, a rebellion by working class people who feel they have had their lives torn apart by the ruling elite. Two-thirds of those classified as skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers voted to leave, compared to just 43 percent among those in “intermediate” or “higher” managerial, professional or administrative roles. A third of Asian and a quarter of black voters chose Leave. Large, ethnically diverse cities in the north of England voted for exit — including Sheffield, Birmingham and Bradford.

 

Why should these people, many of them traditional Labour supporters, vote to defend an undemocratic and neoliberal institution that has done nothing to shield them from growing inequality and austerity?

 

That is not to downplay the racism that has characterised the referendum campaign.

 

The racism is obvious on the Leave side, where anti-immigrant arguments from the UK Independence Party and Conservative politicians played a prominent role, especially in the final weeks of campaigning.

 

However, the Leave campaign did not invent racism. The referendum came in the wake of an unremitting barrage — stretching back decades — of xenophobia and scapegoating spewed out by the press and politicians to deflect from anger over austerity and privatisation or to justify foreign wars. Much of this came from those in the Remain camp.

 

It was Cameron who launched an Islamophobic campaign against Labour’s successful candidate for London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, earlier this year, attempting to associate him with ISIS. It was Cameron’s government who drove through parliament the most draconian Immigration Bill in generations, which will make border guards of estate agents and employers.

 

In the context of this racist offensive it is no surprise that racist movements can emerge or that anti-migrant racism can sometimes act as a symbol of wider discontent among working class people over what has been done to their lives.

 

We should never make concessions to the argument that migration is the problem — as sadly even shadow chancellor John McDonnell did when he argued that Labour should “look again at the free movement of labour” in the event of a Remain vote. But nor is the solution to lump together all those voting Leave as ignorant racists who have thrown their lot in with Nigel Farage.

 

Socialists have always recognised that workers can hold in their heads contradictory combinations of ideas, some based on solidarity and common struggle, other uncritically absorbed from society and reflecting the market ideology that sees us as isolated individuals destined to compete for jobs and resources. This is an unstable combination that can, in times during which mainstream politics and ideology are disrupted, explode to the right or to the left.

 

Our challenge is to combine struggles against racism with struggles against the wider attacks on the working class.

 

The method here is not new to British politics. Indeed, it is the method eventually adopted by the sections of the left in the East End of London in the 1930s. Faced with the rise of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), which preyed upon social discontent and tried to direct it against Jewish people, the left had both to confront the racists and take up the issues, particular the issue of housing, feeding the discontent.

 

Phil Piratin, then a Communist councillor in the area, recalls in his memoir the case of two families facing eviction. “I discovered that in both cases they were members of the BUF and obviously wanted no truck with us. One family would have nothing to do with us whatsoever that evening. The other was prepared to listen.”

 

While the BUF did nothing to help the family, the left mounted a defence, successfully fighting off the eviction after battling the police and bailiffs. Piratin writes: “The lessons did not require to be pressed home. BUF membership cards were destroyed voluntarily and in disgust... The kind of people who would never come to our meetings, and had strange ideas about Communists and Jews, learned the facts overnight and learned the real meaning of the class struggle.”

 

These are not the 1930s and UKIP are not the BUF, but the lesson remains relevant. We have to demonstrate that it is the ruling elite and the bosses who are to blame, not immigrants, and to build a militant unity between migrant and non-migrant workers. But we cannot do this if, out of fear of the racist right, we throw our lot in with mainstream politicians and institutions of neoliberal capitalism such as the EU, which, in practice, offer no protection against growing inequality or racism.

 

This is not a problem confined to Britain. The decline of mainstream politics is more general. In the Spanish state support for what were once the two major parties has fallen to below 50 percent. In Greece, the traditional party system has long since fallen into disarray. In Ireland, support for the three biggest parties has fallen by 25 percent since 2007.

 

We should not surrender the critique of institutions such as the EU to the likes of UKIP, the French National Front or the German Alternative Für Deutschland. The British vote ought to lead to a European-wide renewal of the radical left argument to break up the EU.

 

What are the next steps we need to take in Britain?

 

Here the role of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will be crucial. Sadly, in the referendum campaign he did not stick to his historical position of opposition to the EU, and this limited the breadth and penetration of the Left Leave Campaign. Instead Corbyn struck a deal with his MPs to support Remain.

 

But unlike some in his party, he stopped well short of endorsing the EU in its current form and refused to share a platform on this issue with Cameron. As Socialist Review went to press, the right-wing of his party were striving to oust him from the leadership, launching a long-anticipated and long-plotted coup attempt.

 

The idiocy of the Labour right is beyond compare. When Cameron steps down he will be replaced by a Tory prime minister who has not faced an election and has no mandate to drive through further austerity. This is the moment for the left to unite to demand a new general election — and to renew the fight over austerity and racism.

 

The potential audience for this is certainly not confined to those who supported the Leave campaign. Very large numbers of those who identify with the left voted to Remain and did so for principled anti-racist reasons. They are our allies in the struggles to come.

 

Placing ourselves firmly on the side of those defending Corbyn from the right-wing in his own party, and calling for extra-parliamentary struggle to win the kind of reforms he espouses, will help to reorient a divided socialist left. But as well as drawing in Remain voters, this strategy must also connect with millions of Leave voters who feel crushed by austerity and neoliberalism.

 

Two pillars of our approach already exist. Stand up to Racism has been at the centre of large mobilisations in support of refugees and against racism, notably the 50,000-strong march in September of last year. The People’s Assembly has called a number of huge demonstrations, most recently a protest of 150,000 in April. These two organisations should be built everywhere.

 

There will also be strikes in the coming weeks, including the one called by the National Union of Teachers for 5 July. Industrial action will in the current climate be highly politicised.

 

Above all, the left has to avoid passivity and despair.

 

The process through which Britain disentangles itself from the EU will be long and complex, and will be presided over by a capitalist class and by politicians who are badly bruised by losing the referendum. There will be opportunities for the left to shape events if it can come together to seize them.

 

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