Post #Brexit vote: taking on the challenge of ‘acceptable racism’

Kat Burdon-Manley analyses reasons behind the vote in last week’s EU referendum and discusses where now

Photo: Steve Eason
Photo: Steve Eason

Racism in Britain has been on the rise since the start of the recession. We have witnessed the increasing popularity of UKIP, the shift to the right and acceptance of racism by the Labour Party and the structural racism maintained and built upon by every Tory party policy. Let us be under no illusions, the violence permeating through this society is not just on our streets, but designed and manufactured in the Home Office, the Department of Education, the Foreign office, and so on. The Labour Party, who are supposed to defend all workers by representing the interest of the working class is failing us. If we want to understand why we are seeing intolerance and bigotry on our streets, look no further than a party putting out anti-immigration mugs in the run up to the general election in 2015.

If we are to take on this monster of our own creation, we need to take on the establishment, and that means this government, that means the European Union and it means the right wing in the Labour Party. We can no longer stay on the side-lines, only operate defensively, we must now come to the forefront of the movement and demand our wealth back from this government who have robbed the weakest and most vulnerable in society. We must stand by those willing to speak out in defence of workers, such as Jeremy Corbyn who is currently being attacked by self- serving and self-indulgent career politicians and Blairites in the Labour Party, who are so far removed from the their members and the constituents they claim to represent.

The racism we see in Yarl’s Wood is violent, the racism we see when a specialist centre is closed for BME women because of austerity is violent, a racism that keeps 40% of BME women living below the poverty line is violent, a racism that allows police and security to kill Jimmy Mubenga, Sarah Reed and Mark Duggan is violent, a racism that implements the PREVENT programme, forcing suspicion on Muslim communities is violent and violence and fascism on our streets is violence.

We are not part of the 48%, we are part of the 99% and the only way we will abolish the hatred on our streets is if we take the power out of the hands of those people who do not serve our interests and do not represent us. Following the results of the referendum has led to a 57% increase in reported violence on our streets, and our duty is to work out exactly how this happened and cut off the oxygen supply at the source.

The results  

Commentators on the referendum have spent the last few days studying the results and the Ashcroft polls, to understand why, when there was so much pressure from the establishment to vote remain, the voters handed back a mandate to leave the European Union.

On the left, commentators, such as John Harris, with his piece entitled ‘If you’ve got money you vote in…if you haven’t got money, you vote out‘, argued that the decline in people’s living standards in economically deprived areas, means that this is more about class and inequality than it is about racism.

Many people on the left are concerned that others on the left are drawing the wrong conclusions; voting leave was somehow an anti-establishment vote. This assertion is far too simplistic. There is no doubt that the leave campaign was run on xenophobic and an anti-immigrant basis, shoring up racism in our communities and emboldening fascists on our streets.

Hundreds of anecdotes are popping up all over social media. Miqdaad Versi has collated more than 100 incidents of racial violence on our streets, post-election. People are being attacked because of the colour of their skin or their immigration status, and the seriousness of this cannot be ignored.

Versi is absolutely correct in pointing out that the shoring up of racism by the leave campaign has resulted in emboldening fascists. In Leeds fascists took to the streets, demanding the repatriation of immigrants . He is also right in pointing out that anti-immigration views have been bubbling under the surface for years, and that the media and politicians have a responsibility to cease fuelling bigotry and division.

However, how far is it going to get us to plead with the establishment – that capped housing benefit, cut welfare benefits by making JSA and ESA recipients pay council tax and forced the poorest in society to pay the bedroom tax – to play nice, when fuelling racism serves their very interests? Cameron doesn’t even agree with the Leveson inquiry proposal that the media take more responsibility in terms of its treatment of minority groups, as Versi astutely pointed out.

What the polls Say

The Ashcroft survey tells us that if you are white you were more likely to vote leave, and if you are from BME communities you were more likely to vote remain. Considering BME communities have been at the sharpest end of austerity, the result cannot just be put down to an overly simplistic anti-establishment vote, so Phil Hearse in his article critiquing Harris was right to point this out.

However, the social attitudes survey from the Ashcroft polls asking people ‘Do you think of each of the following as being a force for good, a force for ill or a mixed blessing?’ then listing multiculturalism, feminism, the green movement, social liberalism, the internet, capitalism, globalisation, and immigration, was crudely put because it says nothing about people’s interpretation of these ideas or their very real experience of austerity.

We have to take a much more nuanced approach. There is no point in saying that half the working class did vote to remain, such as the teachers, doctors and nurses, so this is our side and the other side are a bunch of racists. Otherwise we are not only excluding the most disadvantaged in our society, rather than seeking to understand that the circumstances people find themselves in lead to all sorts of unsavoury conclusions, but we are also weakening our side – the working class. If our solution is one of uniting against austerity, then it is one that has the potential of empowering the whole of the working class, including the most disproportionately affected BME communities.

There is a reason why the most marginalised in our communities are more receptive to anti-immigration rhetoric, than they are about rallying around a stronger economy, and its disempowerment.

People in places such as the Rhondda, fought to keep their hospital, maternity and neonatal clinic open, when they were being attacked by severe cuts to services. Many would have been victim to the bedroom tax and many council tenants, people on welfare benefits, including housing benefit, were more likely to vote leave. Do these same people harbour sexist ideas? Considering women are disproportionately affected by austerity, the very finger of insinuation should be pointed back at those who inflicted such misery in the most deprived areas of the country in the first place.

Terms of progressive reference, such as feminism may, linguistically speaking, mean something totally different to the majority of those with a university degree, a higher degree and those in full time education, than it does to someone whose formal education ended at secondary school, who was more likely to vote leave and answer the leading question as to whether he or she thinks ‘feminism’ is a force for good or ill, in the negative.

These same people who voted leave also clearly had a problem with capitalism, but without knowing more than that, we are none the wiser. We can speculate: people may have a problem with capital because they don’t see any investment in their areas and the only jobs are the kind that the Job Centre make you volunteer for, or you have brought up your family in a council house and now you are being asked to pay the bedroom tax, which you can ill afford.

The Welsh vote

Working class people from the C2DE groups have played key roles in their struggle to save hospitals in places such as the Rhondda, where 53.7% of people voted to leave the EU. So we have communities stripped of industry, not the least bit convinced by the ‘remain’ campaign’s assurances that the economy will be better in the EU, because why would this matter to people who are not benefitting from ‘economic stability’. Not only are they not benefiting but they have pretty much nothing to lose.

The Rhondda has the lowest economic activity in the UK, at 25.7% and one of the highest rates of unemployment, at 6.7%, and only 3-4.9% of the population is from an ethnic minority. There have been gradual increases in the number of ethnic minorities moving into Wales, which has more than doubled since the 2001 census to 2011: 4% of the population of Wales is from an ethnic minority group.

Even where we have seen an increase in ethnic minorities moving into towns such as Merthyr Tydfil, the relative difference it made to the vote compared to Blaenau Gwent, which is one of five places in the UK with the highest proportion of white British people, was marginal. Both towns voted to leave with high margins: 56.4% and 62%.

In Cardiff, we see a vastly different situation, where there is a much higher proportion of ethnic minority groups, 8%-19.9% and where only 40% of the population voted to leave. Cardiff is a university city, with the coming and going of thousands of students each year, has one of the oldest established Somali communities in the world, outside of Somalia and is home to a whole host of different ethnic groups, cultures and traditions.

This sample is reflective of the results right across Britain: in the areas with newer BME communities moving into traditional white British towns, the vote was leave and in multicultural cities and areas the vote was remain. However, Scotland and Northern Ireland were the exceptions to this conclusion.

The shoring up of divisions in our society

To call people socially conservative or holding right wing views, without any further analysis other than from the results of a bunch of leading questions, as we saw in the social attitudes survey, is not going to get us any closer to identifying the real issues and posing a counter narrative to tackle people’s fears around immigration.

Unite was right to publish a migration myth buster, prior to election day, recognising that neither campaign opened up a space to tackle anti-immigration rhetoric. However, when unions are so weak and those who voted leave are less likely to be in a workplace that recognises a trade union, then we could find ourselves going around in circles, the left speaking to the enlightened leftie ‘progressives’, rather than opening up a space that deals with the real issues to hand, and taking on the racist policies, which also form part of the package of austerity.

Women and particularly BME women have been at the sharp end of austerity. The pay gap between men and women is 14.9%, 64% of women are low paid workers, 40% of BME women live below the poverty line, lone parents are more likely to live below the poverty line and 95% of lone parents are women. Those most hit by cuts to the public sector were women: 73% of women affected, compared to 27% of men.

So yes, Hearse is right in pointing out that multi-cultural areas are some of the most economically deprived, absolutely, but if you have been at the sharp end of racism, whether it’s your family who has been impacted by continuous changes to immigration policy, or the removal of education maintenance allowance, which disproportionately affected BME communities, cuts to specialist services where support staff understand your culture and religion and have training in areas that are more likely to affect you as a working class BME woman, then voting for remain in absolute opposition to xenophobic campaigns, shoring up racism towards ‘the other’ may be where your fight starts. Remain for these groups potentially captured that, particularly as the leave campaign was so hostile to immigrants.

Hearse is also correct to point out that the leave vote won because of the immigration issue and the shoring up of divisions in our society, by populist parties such as UKIP, running their xenophobic and anti-immigrant campaigns.

But this cannot be separated from the tangible issues affecting working class communities. Now I know Hearse is aware of this and has written about it, but his article washes over it, whereas Harris deals with the question; if you want to know why primarily, but not exclusively, white working class people arrived at this decision, ask them.

We will get no-where fast, if we fail to address why the majority of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers and casual, lower grade, pensioners – particularly state pensioners – and welfare recipients were more likely to vote leave. Or why we are in a situation where large numbers of people from the C2DE groups vote for the Tories and UKIP?

Blame is being directed at migrant workers for cuts to public services, unemployment and homelessness, and this correlates with the data from the Ashcroft survey in relation to leave voters’ attitude to immigration. But is staying in the EU a bulwark against racist immigration policy?

A noble institution?

We know that the EU bows to the most reactionary of member states, when deciding immigration policy. The most controversial decisions, such as the EU/Turkey deal, to push back migrants from Greece, to Turkey is in clear contravention of our international obligations of the principle of non-refoulement.

Recently  an appeals court in Athens decided a Syrian refugee should not be returned to Turkey, because it cannot be considered a safe third country. Turkey does not guarantee the rights contained in the refugee convention and neither does it recognise the principle of non-refoulement, therefore Syrian refugees can and have been sent back to Syria from Turkey, where Syrians are fleeing for their lives. Spain entered a bilateral agreement with a third country, Morocco, to contain and push back migrants from Algeria, which is essentially the outsourcing of EU borders to a non EU country. A comprehensive study from Medecins Sans Frountieres into the conditions in Morocco and on the Morocca/Melilla border – the North African gateway into Europe – paints a picture of the daily gang raping and trafficking of women and the torture of women and men.

So disgusted were they by the European Union’s deterrence and push back policies at our borders, Medecins Sans Frountieres took the decision to refuse any funding from EU member states and institutions. This speaks volumes about how the EU bows to the most reactionary of currents and waves of increasing racism and hostility to refugees seeking humanitarian protection from some of the wealthiest countries in the world.

It is ingrained into EU policy that the EU is there to facilitate and not interfere too much in the immigration policies of member states, even when such policies fly in the face of the most basic international humanitarian obligations. The proponents of exiting the EU, on the left, did so because they hoped an exit would weaken the EU and thus its ability to carry out attacks on migrants and workers alike, such as the Eurozone’s undemocratic attacks on the working class in Greece and Ireland. Now, while this was probably the only realistic way we can weaken the EU at this point, millions of migrant workers, whose livelihoods depend on their status in the UK, were unable to vote. Many more, were evidently and rightfully concerned about the rise of racism and the emboldening of racists on our streets.

What do we do

Many on the left are saying that the Labour Party, with Jeremy Corbyn at its head, could be used as a vehicle for change. Corbyn did not bow to pressure from the main campaigns and his own party, to scaremonger about immigrants, which would not have been the case if the right in the Labour Party had beat him to the leadership position. On the day Corbyn was elected Labour Leader, he was on the streets supporting refugees. He is now facing his own internal crisis, with a coup against his leadership and against the democratic decision of the membership.

There has been an exodus of 40 members of the shadow cabinet, who were either sacked or resigned their positions and a vote of no confidence in his leadership by his MPs. But there was also a rally of thousands of people in Parliament Square on Monday evening in support of Corbyn’s continued leadership. How many other leaders can galvanise that level of public support over night?

At this time, we need to get out on the streets and defend him – he could be the only voice for the attacked, excluded and disenfranchised and for all migrant workers, who he refused to sell out in the run up to the referendum.

Going further

The racism on our streets and the racist policies that run through the very veins of our society need to be challenged. We need to develop our anti-racism and respond to the current waves of racist incidents around the country, while building our movements strength to take on the violence at our internal and external borders. The violence in Yarl’s Wood, which reflects the greed, intolerance and hatred of the leaders who claim to represent our interests. The racism of Fortress Europe, responsible for thousands of deaths every year on the Mediterranean and the Aegean and the exportation of borders into North Africa.

When it suits the government, racism is turned on us to divide us, but when the market requires immigration to meet its needs, we see Boris Johnson and his ilk trying to shove the genie back in the bottle. When things are getting out of control, and the immigrants we rely on our being attacked on our streets, the politicians act innocent and this is what we need to exploit. We need to show these politicians up for who they really are and point out their racism. This means Cameron’s refusal to support the Leveson inquiry’s proposal to force the media to be more responsible when it comes to how it represents ethnic minorities. Cameron knows he needs racism but only just enough to maintain control and weaken the very people he seeks to exploit, the working class.

The leave campaign provided a platform to fear-mongers and bigots, which is not just causing racist attacks and violence on our streets, but it has also legitimised these views so it has become acceptable to air racist views in public. Some have said that they are starting to hear people saying racist things on public transport, and then questioning whether that was always there and they are only just noticing it now. But this has not just happened over night. The acceptable racism can also be found if you look at the policies that discriminate against minority groups on a daily basis, and our challenge is to take it on through our movements, our anti austerity campaigns, in our communities and that is the only way we will win.


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