People like me were warning that the EU referendum would be a racist carnival of reaction. But events have proved that the carnival is by no means over.
It would be wrong to say that the Referendum was a referendum on immigration. There were other issues and dynamics going on. But we can safely say that for a substantial proportion of those voting to leave the EU it was primarily that and that substantial proportion is probably greater than 50% of those voters. But it did not stop with the success of Brexit. On the contrary, the shadow of hostility and fear about immigration, is now more firmly fixed in the political landscape than before, particularly in relation to the fight over the Labour party. The Corbyn leadership is accused by the right-wing of the party, especially in the Parliamentary Labour Party, of losing contact with Labour’s working class base and not listening to the class. This is pretty rich coming from those who followed the Blairite flag to win over ‘middle England’ by abandoning any pretence of representing the working class, or even that such a class, and especially the class struggle, existed. But what they mean now is that the current leadership has not listened to the class about immigration, that the way back to its working class roots which they abandoned is to say that there is too much uncontrolled immigration, that they will strengthen ‘our borders’ and so forth. The media jump on this band wagon interrogating Jeremy and his supporters about what they are going to do about immigration. Prior to the new Labour leadership, ‘controlling our borders’ had been a Labour Party mantra spouted by Yvette Cooper.
I wrote above that there were other issues and dynamics. Indeed, this was very much a class battle but fraught with confusion. The Brexit vote was highest in those parts of the country where the working class has been hit hardest over decades – austerity, poverty, bad housing, low pay, unemployment, precarious contracts – you name it. Much of the Brexit vote can be seen as striking out against all that. And it is Labour councils and, previous to that, Labour Governments who have presided over this misery, rather than organising a fight back and a programme to address these problems. By rights it is the Corbyn leadership who should be drawing these people but unfortunately in many cases it is profoundly tangled together with opposition to immigration.
Both wings of the Tories have come together under Teresa May and are clear that they will try and ‘bring immigration under control’. As Home Secretary it was May’s project to make the UK as hostile as possible to migrants; so much for her apparent concern that the Tory party was becoming ‘the nasty party’. This objective of creating a hostile atmosphere has been a key part of the project of both the Remain and Leave Tory led campaigns.
So immigration is once again bang in the middle of the political discourse, a stick to beat Corbyn and all progressive forces.
The Tip of the Iceberg
So is it any wonder that this has led to an upsurge in hate crime? In the days following the referendum people were shouted at in the street, on the busses, things like ‘we voted Leave, so now you must leave!’ People wore t-shirts emblazoned with such messages. Racist slogans were painted on places such as Polish community centres. There have been arson attacks, Muslim women have had their hijabs torn off and shouted and asked “are you still here?” In the 5 days following the Brexit result there was a 57% increase in the amount of recorded hate crime.
We need to be careful on how we interpret this. Reported and recorded hate crime only shows the tip of the iceberg. There is always far more which isn’t reported or the authorities fail to record as hate crime. This has a lot to do with how people see the authorities – often fear, especially for migrants who are worried about their immigration status. There is no doubt that there was a very real increase in what was happening on the ground after Brexit but I strongly suspect that once there was a strong message from the media, the police, and other public bodies about hate crime people started to come forward. Not just to talk about what had happened in the past couple of weeks but throughout the referendum campaign and its toxic prelude. The same thing happened after the publication of the enquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence, when the message went out to report hate crime and a promise to do something about it from the Police, the Home Secretary and the local authorities. There was money to pay for ‘Report It’ posters and leaflets in many different languages for a period in the late 90s and the beginning of the new millennium. Hate crime has always been there. People need to be encouraged to come forward.
This point maybe driven home by the fact that an organisation monitoring Islamaphobia – Tell Mama – recorded a 135% increase in incidents reported to them in 2015/16 compared to 2014/15. These figures of course pre-dated the Brexit spike. Similar things can be said on attacks on disabled people and LGBT people where the numbers reported and recorded are tiny but vox pop research shows that nearly every LGBT and disabled person has experienced a hate crime.
What to do?
I have argued that immigration remains at the centre of the political battle ground. Bad expectations have been raised in terms of strengthening borders and substantially reducing immigration, expectations which probably will not be met, leading to potentially more violence against migrants, ‘foreigners’ and then every group facing prejudice.
We must in turn make immigration at the centre of our politics but in a totally opposite way; challenging the legitimacy of immigration controls which criminalise people because of where they are born, their parents are born, the language they speak, the colour of their skin. We fight for class solidarity against nationalism and racism. We reveal the real causes of unemployment, poverty and so forth and expose the myths about migrants and refugees.
We must argue for and support community self defence and trades union defence against the perpetrators of hate crime as well as making appropriate demands upon the authorities.
Finally, we must fight for a party which will offer a socialist way forward to tackle issues of jobs, housing, austerity, low pay and precarious contracts. We need a party with the policies and the political will to fight against the capitalist class. Whether the Labour Party rejuvenated by the Corbyn leadership can be that party remains to be seen.