Labour’s loss of its heartlands in last December’s general election has been the subject of much dissection, introspection and recriminations. But aside from what it means for the party, the collapse of the fabled, once impregnable ‘red wall’ under the onslaught of a nativist ‘white tide’ has more important and disturbing implications for the place of minoritised communities in England and Wales, argues Faisal Bodi.
The ease with which the wall crumbled in a poll widely seen as a re-run of the 2016 Brexit referendum defied history. Encompassing much of Wales and stretching across the northern half of England, this once impregnable barrier has withstood the ravages of time, deindustrialiation, neglect and even austerity to remain loyally Labour for the best part of a century. And while the decline of industry, trade unions and old-fashioned class-conflict over the last four decades has seen a weakening of the mortar that has bonded Labour to the ‘traditional working classes’, until now, Labour, as the party of the common man, has still been able to count on their support.
In the end it was the power of the forces propelling the Brexit campaign which sealed Labour’s fate in the last general election. Brexit was, is, and always will be a racist right-wing project. The divisive impulses that motivated the poll to leave the European Union have unleashed a latent xenophobia that has long simmered uncomfortably under the surface of British society. With its defiant jingoism and outright opposition to ‘non-natives’, Brexit successfully tapped into this thick racist seam. As many political observers have remarked, Brexit was fought and won primarily on a single issue: immigration. Slogans such as ‘take back control’, repeated against the backdrop of alarmist posters and rhetoric predicting an invasion of migrants into mainland Europe as a stepping stone to Britain, resonated with communities already left behind by economic change and progress. They were dog whistles to a disenfranchised population whose pre-existing prejudices predisposed them to scapegoating.
Academic research supports the view that immigration weighed heavily on decision-making in the Brexit referendum. In “Brexit Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union”, academics Harold D. Clarke, Matthew Goodwin and Paul Whiteley, found that among a majority of voters, hostility to the EU fed into deeper fears about immigration which they opposed on a mixture of economic, cultural and social grounds. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) which would later splinter and give birth to the Brexit Party, successfully exploited these concerns to mobilise the “left-behinds”. The researchers say that it was no coincidence that in the 2016 referendum the vote for Brexit was strongest in areas that had given UKIP strong support in the two years prior. Leave was the preference for working class and poorer voters by a substantial majority.
“Leave’s ‘Take Back Control’ message harnessed the motive power of immigration, an emotionally charged issue that had been baked into British psychology long before the vote was called. These immigration fears, not abstract concerns about a ‘democratic deficit’ that required rescuing UK sovereignty from Brussels bureaucrats, do much to explain why Britain voted for Brexit,” conclude the authors.
Labour pundits and activists pounding the pavements in the latest general election reported much the same level of antipathy to free movement and immigration. Paul Mason was clear that the open racism he had encountered among traditional northern working class communities during campaigning was, in significant part, responsible for his party’s drubbing. “Let’s be frank: a minority of the working class abandoned Labour for authoritarian conservatism and nativism……in towns like Leigh, where I campaigned, the main reason people want Brexit has always been to stem economic migration. We can go a long way to addressing the cultural insecurity of people whose lifestyles and industries have been destroyed. But when they complain there are ‘too many foreigners’ in the queue at their GP surgeries we cannot meet the implicit demand behind it, which is for two queues…,” he writes. The fact that not even a staggering quantum of economic inducements dangled by Labour in front of its traditional base could persuade enough of it to vote red would seem to support this thesis.
The immigration fallacy
This is not to give a clean bill of health to those positioned at the upper half of the socio-economic scale. Research undertaken in 2019 by Protection Approaches found a slightly greater proportion of people in the £25,000 – £50,000 earnings bracket consider minorities to be a threat to Britain than do people who earn less than £25,000. In fact, concern about immigration (‘immigrant’ is often synonymous with ethnic minority) in British society as a whole has risen in line with increased immigration, even if Britons routinely overstate or exaggerate its actual scale.
Since the late 1980’s the percentage of people who believe there are too many immigrants in Britain has never fallen below 60% and has even reached 80%. Opposition to immigration has increased since free movement came into effect following the 1993 Maastricht Treaty, spiking higher when central and eastern European countries joined the EU in two waves in 2004 and 2007. By 2006 “race and immigration” were recorded as the most important issues facing the country.
The question of whether hostility to immigration, especially of the levels facilitated by free movement, is necessarily an expression of racism is a fraught one. There can be no doubting that the issue is a gravitation point for out and out racists who use its emotive appeal to stoke people’s prejudices and fears. But there are also those who claim that their opposition has nothing to do with racism and is instead motivated by social and cultural imperatives. Too much immigration too quickly, they say, threatens social cohesion.
This argument is the easiest to dismiss because underlying it is a “reactionary populism which demands the restoration of a mythical golden age of sovereign nation-states defined by cultural and racial homogeneity”, in the words of Brendan McGeever and Satnam Virdee. It is the image constructed in the famous Hovis advert from 1973 (revived in 2019 suggesting it carries a renewed appeal in contemporary times) depicting a Britain of yesteryear that is idyllic, wholesome and also, even if subconsciously, white. The nostalgia is also laden with admiration for Britain’s brutal, militaristic, racist, colonial past – even before Brexit 59% of Britons felt the Empire was something to be proud of (YouGov 2014). Since the beginning of the so-called ‘war on terror’ politicians of all stripes have regularly exploited this nativist sentiment to attack multiculturalism, suggesting that the emphasis on diversity has been at the expense of national unity.
The second grounds invokes the concept of natural justice. It suggests that immigration of the type facilitated by free movement of people, goods and services, disadvantages those already suffering most the shortages and delays of a crumbling public service system. It is an act of harm inflicted on the poorest people already settled here to heap yet more bodies onto an already creaking employment sector and public services. Interestingly, this view also finds some degree of support amongst minority ethnic and religious communities. Many working class voters who deserted Labour at the 2019 general election express resentment for both the parties that support free movement and the newcomers it has brought in.
I find this argument just as unacceptable as the first. Hostility to immigrants on account of a policy over which they have no control is irrationally misplaced. And no matter how much it is dressed up in the language of fairness one cannot help feeling that it originates in a sense of racial privilege that positions some groups, on account of their status as ‘indigenous’ or ‘here first’, higher in the pecking order when it comes to the allocation of state resources.
Labour at the crossroads
Addressing the economic resentment that is vocalised in the language of racial hatred and prejudice is a huge challenge for Labour, even more so as the scale of the election defeat increases pressure from within the movement to rethink its stand on immigration to reclaim the working class. For the so-called “Blue Labour” activists/academics such as Goodwin, reformulating policy to take into account its impact on communities is an urgent imperative. Labour simply cannot afford to ignore the strength of (white) working class feelings on the issue if it wants to become re-electable. However, as critics have charged, this would amount to embracing the politics of appeasement.
Yes, Labour must reconnect to its working class in a new post-industry, post-unions era but it cannot simply throw minorities under the bus, either out of expediency or principle. Approximately one in five ethnic minority voters prefers Labour at the ballot box compared to one out of 20 who vote Conservative – in fact their collective vote is the deciding factor in many constituencies. More importantly though, Labour needs to articulate convincingly the truth that it is the logic of unchecked capitalism, not immigration, that is the real enemy and come up with workable policies that empower and improve the life chances of those who feel left behind.
In his post-election obituary of Corbynism Paul Mason charts this as the way forward: “We are now fighting a strong and virulent nativism: the assumption by older white workers that their family history entitles them to go to the front of the queue for public services, and veto over who can live and work in their community. This ideology is growing all over the developed world, and if the election shows one thing it is that pure cultural liberalism has no effective answer to it. The antidote is to create a community based around citizenship: where the fact that you live and work in Britain entitles you to use services and benefits from day one, and where refugees and migrants are welcomed into a single civil society, composed of diverse groups that respect each other. If we create agency in the diverse communities we represent then, even if their cultural values and lifestyles diverge, there is a chance that – at the crucial moment of the next election – their separate narratives converge into a single story: of hope, social justice and a plan to meet the climate emergency.”
What next for minorities?
For the here and now though, Britain’s minorities must brace themselves for authoritarian, majoritarian government by a party whose lurch to the right has made it indistinguishable from the extremists inhabiting the outer edges of the political spectrum. If that ideological alliance was not evident in the run up to the 2019 general election when Nigel Farage withdrew his Brexit Party from over 300 Tory constituencies to help the incumbents, and far right rabble rousers such as Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson endorsed the Conservatives, it was certainly underlined after the poll when the neo-Nazi organisation, Britain First, exhorted its supporters to join the party to help shape it from within.
For all Farage’s protestations and “misgivings” about a Boris Brexit, he and his bedfellows on the right see in the current prime minister a demagogic strongman formed in their own image, leading an inner coterie intent on reshaping Britain along the fault lines of race and religion. Remember, this is a Tory party described by its own ex-chairwoman as institutionally Islamophobic, one which stubbornly refuses to embrace a widely accepted definition of Islamophobia and has already backtracked on promises to launch an independent inquiry into the problem, and which is determined to continue the war against multiculturalism and minorities through its ever-widening Prevent anti-extremism programme and ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies.
In pursuing their agenda, the Tories will be able to count on the support of at least one important and powerful racial/religious minority. During the 2019 general election campaign Britain’s Jewish community, or at least the part of it represented by the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, effectively endorsed the Conservatives by saying that Labour’s anti-Semitism problem made it unfit to govern. The intervention was the culmination of a long-running campaign seeking to undermine the dominant pro-Palestine Corbynite wing of the party. It did not go unnoticed that Mirvis’ attack on Labour effectively exonerated Johnson and fellow Tories for a litany of racist abuses against Muslims and people of colour.
Johnson infamously referred to Muslim women wearing the burkah as resembling bank robbers and “letter boxes”, a remark for which he was referred to the Equalities Commission, and described black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”. Michael Gove’s 2006 anti-Muslim polemic Celsius 7/7 is premised on the belief that Islam poses an existential threat to European civilisation. Not coincidentally, one of its chapters is entitled ‘Trojan Horse’, the same name given in 2014 to the fabricated scandal about a supposed plot by Islamists to take over several inner-city Birmingham schools. Gove’s wife, the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, has called Islamophobia “clever and funny”.
To date the fight against racism in Britain has, in the main, seen Jews, Muslims and other racialised minorities put aside their differences to tackle a common threat. However, with their unashamed backing of the Conservatives in an election fought largely on the terrain of immigration and race, a large segment of British Jewry have adopted the short-sighted position that serving Israel’s interests trumps the need to maintain the integrity of any alliance in the anti-racism struggle at home. How those who have been swept under the bus now react to their betrayal will determine the make-up of the anti-racism movement in post-Brexit Britain.
Not surprisingly, the right-wing pro-Zionist mainstream media made as much hay as possible under the sun of Labour’s alleged anti-Semitism, seizing and manufacturing every possible opportunity to uncritically repeat the accusations. Like sharks drawn to a kill, they tore lumps out of a victim already presumed guilty at the same time as they turned a blind eye to the Conservatives’ woeful record on Islamophobia.
Despite Muslims outnumbering Jews by 10 to 1 and there being no suggestion that anyone in the current Labour leadership has made any openly anti-Semitic remarks, the disproportionality in coverage between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism has been glaringly obvious, suggesting that one type of racism is more unacceptable than the other.
Framed by an alliance of politicians and willing journalists, the issue of immigration has been forced up the agenda under successive Conservative governments since 2010. The Migration Observatory, an independent think tank, found a substantial increase in the volume of articles about immigration published in the national British press between 2012 and 2014. When British newspapers have chosen to describe immigration in some additional way over the 2006-2015 period, about 15% of the time they explicitly used the modifiers ‘mass’ and 12% of the time “illegal”. When the press explicitly described immigrants and migrants during 2006-2015, 3 out of 10 times (30.4%) it was with the word ‘illegal’. And when news articles explicitly used a word to describe ‘immigration’ in the first five months of 2015, about 6 out of 10 times it was with a word related to its scale or pace. Is it any wonder then that Britons overestimate the number of immigrants in the UK by over 50% (31% compared to the actual incidence of 13% – Ipsos Mori 2013)?
If ‘scale’ has framed one side of the immigration debate, the other scaffold has been ‘undesirability’. The Migration Observatory found that when newspapers mentioned either EU or illegal immigration between 2006-2005, the majority (approximately 70%) tended to focus on perceived problems rather than achievements. The increasing conflation of immigration issues with welfare fraud in the popular press has also exacerbated negative attitudes towards migrants in an audience largely dependent on the media for information on the issue.
Islam and Muslims have received special attention in Brexit Britain. An anti-Muslim meta-narrative constructed around issues such as grooming gangs, no-go areas, Muslim women’s attire, imposition of shariah law, takeover of schools and terrorism has resulted in 56% of the general public believing that Islam poses a serious threat to Western civilisation (Populus 2016) and the same number believing that Islam is incompatible with British values (Comres 2016). The British public hugely overestimates the number of Muslims in the country: on average, the public think that around one in six Britons are Muslim, rather than the actual incidence of fewer than one in twenty (Ipsos Mori 2016).
A study by the Muslim Council of Britain of over 10,000 articles and clips referring to Muslims and Islam in the last quarter of 2018 found that 59% of all articles associated Muslims with negative behaviour. Our own report from 2015 explained the otherisation of Muslims and its consequences by reference to its location inside a Domination Hate Model of Intercultural Relations by which the Muslim minority becomes victim to the social attitudes of the majority – learned through government policy and the media they consume – and this is then expressed in acts of hatred, hostility and violence.
With the PM reneging on his pre-election promise to launch an inquiry into systemic Islamophobia in the Conservative Party and appearing equally keen to kill off Leveson Pt 2 which promised to make the media more accountable, the signal has already gone out to the media magnates that business should continue as normal (it was surely more than coincidental that Johnson’s first soiree after the election victory was at a party held by the Tory-supporting Russian proprietor of the London Evening Standard). Having repaid his friends in the media, Johnson’s next task will be to ensure that the areas of the country that turned blue for him remain so. That means actualising the kind of racist Brexit and immigration policies they voted him in to deliver.
For racialised minorities things are set to get a lot worse before they get better. Nearly a decade of Tory and Tory-led government has seen them ‘otherised’ and their voices marginalised to the point where Muslims in particular have effectively been cast out of public-policy making and consultation. “We are living in a moment described as an environment of hate against Muslims,” wrote IHRC in a briefing published last year. “This environment is the product of the cross fertilising and mutually reinforcing of anti-Muslim racism, and political, media and policy discourse. Attacks on Muslim civil society organisations must be understood as part of this climate which is part of the deeper crisis of the political and social culture we live in.”
Authentic and independent Muslim voices that do not conform to preconceived official strategies or desired policy outcomes have been pushed to the margins through delegitimization in the media, denial of funds and outright exclusion. It has become standard practice to ignore genuine Muslim voices in consultations that directly relate to their communities. Instead officials now seek to co-opt deferential and conformist elements that can serve as a rubber stamp for government policy. The era of Uncle Tom is back with a vengeance.
The challenges presented by the new alliance of right, far right and Zionist politics are formidable. Clearly, minorities’ ability to affect policy is hugely attenuated by the closure of channels for genuine civil society participation, as is the ability to direct media discourse. But rather than being a reason to abandon the battlefield it should spur groups who believe in social justice and multiculturalism to greater action. Statistics suggest that turning back the white tide will be a generational endeavour driven more than anything else by the passage of time. There is little mileage in focussing on the older half of the population, the lost generations fixated on restoring an imaginary white utopia. Instead we must redouble our efforts and concentrate them on the under 40’s who are overwhelmingly less predisposed to anti-immigrant, right-wing narratives, exposing racism and highlighting the dark places it leads to.
There must be a special focus on winning back the ‘white working class’, the new social category that the right has successfully racialised and managed to isolate from the rest of the working class. The shit show that is Brexit will do the rest. Nationalist fantasies will be dashed against the reality of maintaining markets in the EU, continued immigration to fill labour shortages, and an economic downturn for which neo-liberal economics has no answers for those that will be hit the hardest. As events take their course, we must all hope and pray that when the political fraud of Brexit is finally exposed and when immigration can no longer be blamed for all the nation’s ills, it will concentrate minds on finding real solutions to the actual problems facing the nation rather than usher in a new, altogether uglier round of scapegoating.
Faisal Bodi is a former journalist, writer and co-editor of The Long View.