Brexit: Blame austerity, not immigration

The vote to leave the EU was a revolt against the status quo. What comes next is yet to be determined.

Since British voters took the dramatic decision to leave the EU in the referendum on June 23, the entire British political establishment has been shaken. The result of the referendum was a shock even to those who orchestrated it. With all the lies, bluff and bluster of the campaign over, Britain’s future is now up for grabs.

Prime Minister David Cameron, a key figure in the Remain campaign, has announced his resignation. His Conservative Party is split down the middle. The Conservative Leave campaign figures are plotting to collect their spoils, knifing each other in the back in the process. But the majority of Conservative MPs backed the Remain campaign, representing the interests of British and European big business. Home Secretary Theresa May plans to exploit the opportunity, spruiking her ‘hardline’ image on immigration alongside a loyal commitment to the British capitalist class, in her bid to replace Cameron.

In opposition, the Labour Party is even less united than the Conservatives. The ‘Blairite’ right-wing of the Labour Party has seen the Brexit chaos as an opportunity to oust leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn was voted Labour leader in a huge upset last year, with enormous support from Labour Party members. A longstanding socialist who ran for the leadership on a progressive platform of building affordable housing, scrapping tuition fees, bringing transport and utilities into public ownership and increasing the minimum wage, Corbyn’s victory was an upset to the status quo. Since the referendum, establishment Labour Party figures have shown they are willing to inflict enormous damage in their own party to be rid of him.

So far Corbyn has resisted their petulant demands for his resignation. After the referendum and within 24 hours of the attempted leadership coup, Corbyn was bolstered by a 10,000 strong spontaneous rally in his defence. Further rallies of thousands have followed around the country. His opponents would struggle to rally a few hundred in support of their pro-establishment, pro-austerity policies. Corbyn remains the preferred leader amongst Labor members, with his closest opponent, Angela Eagle, significantly behind.

Yet Corbyn’s position is far from safe. He unenthusiastically supported the Remain campaign, opening himself up to criticism from both frustrated Remain voters and betrayed Leave voters. In May, 72% of Labour Party members approved of his performance as leader. Now, just 51% do. Yet the brewing battle inside the Labour Party has encouraged 60,000 new members to join in the past week, many joining to support Corbyn. His ability to mobilise this support on the ground, and neutralise and sideline his opponents in the Parliamentary Labour Party, will ultimately determine his fate.

The Leave campaign was led by Conservative MP Boris Johnston, who has since been sidelined by his own allies, and UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who has since announced his departure form politics. Many argued in the days following the referendum that the Leave vote would strengthen these right-wing figures. In contrast, the questions thrown open by Brexit have exposed their populism as inadequate. Their inability to articulate what happens now in post-Brexit Britain has helped create a sense of chaos and uncertainty. Within hours of the referendum the official Leave campaign had wiped its key campaign promises from its website and backtracked on the popular promise to dramatically increase spending on the National Health Service (NHS). Now, the official message coming from the Conservatives is that Brexit means more cuts and more pain.

Austerity or immigration?

The main focus of the debate around the referendum has been immigration. So much so that the Brexit vote has been explained as to representing a tidal wave of racism and xenophobia among ignorant working class voters who probably don’t deserve a place in the democratic process. This assumes that the 52% of the population that voted to Leave bought the racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric from UKIP and the Conservatives hook, line and sinker. But this is not that case.

One of the few appealing arguments of the Remain campaign was fear of empowering racists and xenophobes by voting Leave. This fear was real and the nightmare is now being lived by the many immigrants and people of colour who have reported a dramatic increase in hate crimes over the past week. Immigration and Brexit has been the singular focus and rallying point of the the far-right in recent years. A victory for their position on the EU has undoubtedly boosted their confidence and this is being asserted in public spaces in the most vile way.

The immediate response must be to organise anti-racism rallies across Britain, uniting both those who voted Remain out of fear of racist backlash and those who voted Leave for reasons other than the racism expressed by UKIP. There is no more urgent task than this. And the political content of this stand against racism will determine its success or failure.

In the days following the referendum thousands of people joined a rally at Westminster chanting “migrants in, racists out”, “no more hate” and “we love you EU”. People were clearly upset and angered by the Leave victory. Remain campaign leaders, including Conservative MPs addressed the crowd to denounce those expressing anti-immigrant sentiments and to pledge allegiance to the EU.

The hypocrisy of this is astounding. The same politicians who made reducing immigration a staple election promise were now railing against the very idea. The media who had routinely provoked anti-immigrant hysteria were now shocked and appalled at the rise in xenophobia. The entire establishment that had supported and helped implement the EU policy of shutting its borders to refugees were now championing the right of the free movement of people!

The reality of the EU

In the lead up to the referendum the Remain campaign whitewashed and distorted the reality of the EU. They claimed the EU is an entity that unites people across borders with the goal of prosperity for all. But it was the exposure of the EU as an institution run by an unaccountable elite in the interests of the 1% that ultimately led to the Leave campaign gaining traction.

The EU was established to create a single market across Europe, allowing big business to overcome the limitations of smaller national boundaries and legal and tax barriers. The free movement of goods, money and labour was designed to meet the needs of business. To do this, draconian restrictions on tax law, labour laws, government provision of services and government spending were introduced. The EU goal was an unrestricted neoliberal free market, with coinciding political and social integration to reinforce it.

However, when the effects of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 ravaged the European economy, the savagery of the EU elite became clear. The gambling debts of failed banks were nationalised at the expense of European taxpayers. Meanwhile, state assets were privatised at bargain rates. When the public debt piled up austerity was mandated by the EU elite, unaccountable to anyone. Even when populations voted in referendums against EU diktats, like the people of Ireland did against the Lisbon Treaty, or the people of Greece did against the EU directed austerity, they were ignored.

The anti-worker, pro-austerity nature of the EU has led to extreme disunity across Europe. Hostility towards Greek workers, violence against refugees and the dramatic rise of the far-right across a number of European countries demonstrates this. The idea that EU is a bastion of progress and inclusiveness, while the desire to Brexit is reactionary, is farcical. Brexit must be seen as a direct product of the failure of neoliberal Europe, intensified by both EU and British elites.

The local British elite aren’t any better. They were pioneers of neoliberal Europe, implementing polices over the last three decades that working class communities are still suffering from to this day.

The EU did not force the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to smash unions and drive down wages, deindustrialise Britain, privatise the public services and sell off public housing. As a matter of fact Thatcher was a key architect of Europe’s single market, with some in the Conservative Party calling it “the Thatcherisation of Europe”. Blair remains so committed to the EU that he is advocating for another referendum to ‘correct’ the Brexit vote.

It is this implementation of neoliberalism both in Britain and across Europe that has led to the devastation and disillusionment that led to Brexit. However, because the political establishment has happily blamed the negative impacts of neoliberalism on just one specific aspect of the single market – the free movement of labour – how this devastation is understood is distorted. For decades politicians have blamed the loss of decent jobs created by deindustrialisation and a shift to non-unionised industries on different sections of the working class. First it was union members. Then it was unemployed workers. For a while it was students and young people. Now it is EU workers and refugees.

Immigrants as scapegoats

The centrality of economic factors in the Leave victory echoes what many Leave voters themselves have claimed: that people voted primarily against elites who have gotten rich while ordinary people have suffered. That this is viewed by many, even a majority, through the lens of immigration rather than simply neoliberal capitalism cannot be denied. But understanding the core motivation is crucial to understanding which direction things are heading and whether working class people can be united across post-Brexit Britain.

Polling on attitudes to migrants before and after the referendum brings into question the narrative that racism and xenophobia are the cause of the Leave victory. In recent years polling has suggested that only 24% of people think immigration has negatively affected their local community, while 71% say immigration has either had a positive effect or no effect on their local area.

In fact, concern about immigration barely rated as an issue (less than 10% of people rated it a top 5 issue) until a sharp jump beginning in 2000. This culminated in almost 50% of people rating immigration as a top 5 concern at the onset of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. This suggests that concern about immigration is less motivated by personal prejudice and more by economic grievance.

Polling in the past week reaffirms this lack of widespread personal hostility towards actual migrants (as opposed to the concept of immigration) as 84% of British people support letting current EU migrants remain in Britain. This includes 77% of Leave voters. Only 16% of people think EU citizens should leave.

Of course, the reasons that make people hostile to immigration don’t change the experience of those on the receiving end – those worried they will be forced to leave Britain or those who are victims of hate crimes. What it does suggest is that what is now being expressed and directed into anti-immigration sentiment can be rearticulated and redirected into a pro-worker, anti-racist, anti-establishment sentiment. With the voices on the left of the Labour party, like Jeremy Corbyn, failing to give voice to a left Leave campaign, it’s not surprising the rhetoric of the right-wing dominated so heavily.

After the referendum the political establishment is incredibly divided. But so too is the working class. Older working class voters outside of London voted overwhelming to Leave the EU. Young people and people of Asian or African backgrounds voted overwhelming to remain in the EU. Workers in Scotland saw another opportunity at independence and voted to Remain. In Northern Ireland reunification with the South is being raised seriously for the first time in years.

Now that Britain is on the road to Brexit the politics that dominates the next period will determine the future of Britain, maybe even the EU itself. Only by directly addressing the economic concerns that fuel anti-immigration sentiment, while immediately mobilising against the rise of racism and the far-right, can working class people unify to fight for a pro-worker alternative to the failures of the EU.

At a rally yesterday Jeremy Corbyn gave a glimpse of this direction when he said “hatred, xenophobia, racism, violence within out society will not build one house, will not educate one child”. Building a movement around a socialist program of investment in jobs, affordable housing, free education and reversing privatisations is not only possible, it is essential.


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