The importance of political language is hard to underestimate. Language is used not only in the most practical sense, as a verbal or written carrier for ideas, but to persuade, attract or disconcert. The rhetorical tactic of dog-whistling (using a turn of phrase or argument that appears innocuous, but has resonances with reactionary politics) has received much attention in relation to discussions of immigration.
‘Legitimate concerns’ is an innocuous-sounding turn of phrase given the current political climate, when it feels like changes are happening at ever-increasing speed, and many things that for decades or hundreds of years have been taken for granted are transforming, in ways not everyone believes are for the better. ‘Legitimate concerns’ are the anxiety of the everyday citizen in the whirlwind of systemic, geopolitical and demographic changes and debates that surround them, but they struggle to keep up with. Or at least, this is how we are supposed to understand it.
In an article a few months ago, New Statesman staff writer Helen Lewis associated criticism of the discourse of ‘legitimate concerns’ with the informal, broadly left-wing discourse on Twitter:
‘There’s a meme on Twitter among what I think of as the Woke Left : a group that’s hard to define, but one you might associate with some or all of the following concepts: open borders, tone policing, privilege, “sex work is work”, no platforming, Corbynism.
The meme is this. You put heavy quote marks around the phrase “legitimate concerns” – maybe make it “““legitimate concerns””” if you really want to have them rolling in the aisles – particularly when it comes to discussions of immigration. The implication is that there are no such things as legitimate concerns . Those who claim to have them are probably, underneath it all, just racists, albeit with a more sophisticated vocabulary than your average EDL thug.’
Lewis’ article is a peculiar one. Besides the strange and loaded stereotyping of parts of the left and the unhelpful vitriol, Lewis unfortunately does not acknowledge that the narrative regarding ‘legitimate concerns’ predominantly originates with the organised right, and top-down parliamentary politics, rather than from the people that it claims to speak for.
However, despite its flaws, Lewis makes an important point in her article. She argues, correctly, that the best way to counter ‘concern’ tropes is by examining, understanding and dissecting them. Crucially though, any serious analysis of the discourse around ‘legitimate concerns’ must ultimately locate the way in which it serves reactionary and racist agendas. In the remainder of this article I will focus on the political discourse surrounding events of the past few months, especially the arrest, incarceration and release of Tommy Robinson and the discourse around immigration. I will aim to unpick the ramifications of the terminology used by both the right and left, as well as looking at alternative ways the left can express itself.
Of course, there are many things in this country and the world to be concerned about, genuinely, but the concept of ‘genuine’ or ‘legitimate concerns’ is a well-established dog-whistle which builds on existing broad issues, whilst inventing a specific type of problem and pinning culpability on a minority group.
Genuine concerns are presented as the worldview of the ‘everyman’, what we are all thinking, but the liberal establishment doesn’t want to hear. Often they are intangible, presented as emotional or common-sense. They show significant similarities with other political manipulations of language, such as ‘the silent majority’ or more recently, the ‘white working class’ – a phrase to which I’ll return. It works both as a way of cynically justifying oppression under the guise of freedom of expression, and as a tool to introduce an opinion as a generally-held belief.
The implication that people who hold these views are being silenced by political correctness is a crucial element of the trope. Yet recourse to ‘legitimate concerns’ is most often made by those who are in possession of power in the very institutions that are supposedly doing the silencing: members of the parliament, established journalists or media personalities with sizeable traction. We rarely see a grass-roots movement or unaffiliated individuals talk about legitimate concerns, but when it happens it is sometimes articulated by voices on the left, who argue in good faith, but have slipped into the muddy waters of rhetorical manipulations. These ‘concerns’ are then used to oppress, by force or by policy. This, I would argue, is why it is unacceptable to use the terminology in discourse on the left.
‘Of course’ we would all be fearful of being blown up on the tube on the way to work, and therefore we must counter terrorism by introducing surveillance on racially profiled individuals and their families from primary school onwards.
‘Of course’ no one wants to see wages decrease, therefore we have to send all the immigrants who are supposedly the cause back home, and close our borders.
In countering these arguments, leftists have to resist the framing of these ‘debates’ as well as opposing the ‘solutions’ argued for. Repeating an element of reactionary rhetoric necessarily implies that making such statements is reasonable. Expressing issues through the prism of ‘genuine concerns’ often makes them take on a backward, patriarchal cast of ‘protecting the women and children’, or the economic concerns around sustaining the nuclear family.
Legitimate concerns: a phrase the left should not attempt to reclaim
Tommy Robinson has been presented – with a worrying degree of success – as the voice of the people, a genuine working class lad who’s not afraid to say it how it is, who is defending our women and girls from the frightful Other and refuses to back down from the attacks of the state elite or the bourgeois media. Except, of course, he is not even called Tommy Robinson, he is a business owner as well as a landlord, he is supported by the likes of Steve Bannon – and, therefore, serious money – he has a conviction for assault and fraud and his latest arrest for live streaming as the defendants of a high-profile child sexual abuse case were arriving to court was a cynical ploy set up to demonstrate how he is supposedly silenced by people in high places. In reality, he could not care less about the victims, otherwise he would not have risked the trial’s collapse by broadcasting the faces of the alleged perpetrators. This incident highlights the structure of legitimate concern arguments in general: does the state use persecution to suppress those who point out systemic injustice? Absolutely. Is Tommy Robinson one of these people? Absolutely not.
It is easy to see how a topic like child sexual abuse, which elicits such a strong emotional reaction, could be used to further an anti-immigrant political agenda, especially when nativist racism is so prevalent. This is where the complexity and malice of the ‘legitimate concerns’ arguments lie. It is not up for debate that child sexual abuse exists, or that women are sexually harassed or assaulted by men. One problem is that those who challenge the racist rhetoric around ‘grooming gangs’ are accused of dismissing the issue of child abuse altogether. This is a feature inscribed in the structure of the legitimate concerns narrative.
The line of thinking in the Tommy Robinson case was that the courts were more concerned with the anonymity of the alleged perpetrators than bringing justice to the victims. Robinson and his supporters argued that the defendants’ identities are protected because of their ethnic backgrounds, that ‘political correctness’ and minority rights are more important to the establishment than innocent children, rather than acknowledging that it was simply a feature of the justice system, which is meant to guarantee a fair and unbiased trial.
Sensationalised media reports and the careless portrayal of events have played into the interests of the far right. Age-old prejudices about the supposedly cultural nature of child sexual exploitation in Islam have reemerged, and yet again, panic has been whipped up about those who ‘come here to rape our women’. This would be a simple answer, but there was little talk about the more complex causes, such as the inactivity of social services and cuts to youth facilities and services which left these girls – many of them with difficult home lives they were trying to get away from – vulnerable.
The trope of dark-skinned men preying on innocent white women has been around for centuries to serve as a scapegoat to maintain slavery, lynchings or violent border controls. It is more important than ever that we do not fall for these simplified and malicious half-truths, but unfortunately, the renewed debate around Islamophobia and the so-called grooming gangs has seen some of these ideas incorporated into leftist discourse.
On 14 July, far-right groups called a demonstration demanding freedom for Tommy Robinson, who was at the time still in jail. Many sections of the left, in more or less loose cooperation, turned up to counter the gathering. Among the counter-protesters there was a group of men carrying a banner demanding ‘Paedo gangs & racists off our streets’. Red London, who are mostly known for their meme page of ‘edgy’ Stalinist shitposting, then shared a photo of the banner to their audience of tens of thousands. While the page is not exactly known for its nuanced analysis, it is troubling to see a group actively participating in the organised left adopt uncritically the language of those they have turned up to counter.
In support of the same counter-demonstration, the Morning Star published an open letter signed by former YPG volunteers that has partly fallen into the same trap. The letter overall stressed the importance of diverse, international working class solidarity, but in its closing arguments, presumably in an attempt to speak to the ‘general public’, the writers of the letter cite a number of right-wing tropes as ‘genuine concerns’ including those of the organised child molestation gangs:
‘If you have genuine concerns over grooming gangs, place the blame on the New Labour and Tory governments that allowed and encouraged disregard for working-class women and girls, and support a socialist answer to classism and neglect, and proper funding for social services.’
The letter correctly places the blame for what happened in these towns on the defunding of social services and austerity, but fails to confront the racism inherent in the disproportionate focus on ‘grooming gangs’ relative to the huge majority of child abuse. The use of the phrase ‘legitimate concerns’ as an expedient is an attempt to engage with people in terms dictated by the right, and in so doing leaves too much unquestioned.
It’s Not Migrants – It’s Your Boss
This year, with the continued prominence of the left due to the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn, continued austerity and the ever more catastrophic Tory government, has seen the introduction of a new flavour of ‘legitimate concern’ – ‘do you not care about working class people?’ That being, of course, the mythical white working class. It is painfully obvious that we, as the left, are not good enough at picking up on these. The kind of thinking summarised by the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’ still has influence, ignoring the systems in place that leave British workers unemployed, while simultaneously create increasingly unsafe and exploitative work environments for jobs filled by migrant workers who can be exploited more intensely. Every few months, an article appears detailing the alienation of majority white workers’ in workplaces where most of the workers are now migrants.
Helen Lewis’ New Statesman article addressed the issue of immigration, although with a rather soft touch, citing statistics about the migrant workforce driving down wages, arguing that it ‘feels to some voters as though their communities are changing rapidly’ if too many children in local schools are learning English as their second language, also known as ‘demographic anxiety’ in the land of euphemisms. On a simplistic level, both of these statements are true (at least can be under certain circumstances) – wages go down if there are enough people who ask for less pay for the job; if people from elsewhere move into a certain area, demographics will change. Only one of these, decreasing wages, can be cited as a problem by any self-respecting leftist, as there should be a total and uncompromising understanding among us that ‘demographic changes’ is not something bad or threatening.
Yet we are not in a laboratory experiment where there are only two variables – the number of jobs, and the number of workers. The effect of immigration on wages can’t be isolated from other factors – primarily, who is doing the employing, and the capacity of workers to organise collectively. Even so it is unavoidable that we provide a solid analysis of how workers’ rights movements can be in solidarity with migrant workers.
As someone who’s ‘on the inside’ of this debate – a migrant who has participated in the discussion within the ‘migrant workforce’, but also socially and practically embedded into British political organising and higher education – the question of immigration is a lot more about systems than individual actors. As Lewis mentions, in many cases, eastern European and other workers are brought into the country by employers, as they were at other times, for example, from at the time British colonies. This recruitment and invitation of foreign workforce is a tactic for reducing labour costs and is sometimes in response to a perceived or real shortage of staff in education, the NHS or sandwich factories and meat packing plants.
Capitalists are always looking to reduce their costs and it is, undoubtedly, beneficial for them to employ workers that are able to do the same work, but are willing to accept lower wages than native workers. Migrant workers may come to the UK because the wages paid for ‘unskilled’ labour are higher than in their home countries. In jobs that require years of expensive training, such as medicine, it is an obvious win for the UK to invite professionals whose education has been paid for by a different country.
Employing migrants is also a convenient way to undermine unions and relax regulation and safeguarding within the workplace. These workers often arrive without much social networks, little or no knowledge of employment law around contracts and recourse against mistreatment, and in many instances, are tied to their employers by visa restrictions. As the recent Windrush scandal and the appalling discussion of immigration policy in the context of Brexit has shown, migrants are merely seen as a ‘human resource’ rather than actual humans. It seems to be a widely held consensus in relation to the foreign workforce that they must immediately leave as soon as they are not needed, which is part of the appeal for capitalists and countries in the imperial core alike.
This shows the flaw in Lewis’s argument. If we take the idea of working class solidarity seriously, we must not entertain misconceptions about immigration, just because they seem intelligible in a certain light. The problem of the relationship between wages and the migrant workforce is one to be solved by uncompromising anti-capitalism, and working class solidarity. It isn’t to suggest, however, that the complaints of British workers about decreasing pay or unemployment are invalid, but it is also unfair to presume that the real reasons for these issues are beyond their capacity of comprehension. Instead of appealing to a vague sense of xenophobia and ‘demographic anxiety’, we need to address the wedge that is intentionally driven between different factions of the working class by inviting migrant workers to unions and engaging British workers in the common struggle.
Against Fuelling Divisions
From time to time, voices from within the left emerge critiquing its inability to capture apolitical people with emotionally-operative, simple slogans as the right apparently does. I would argue that to counter the effect of these slogans, we need even more emphasis on uncompromising, rigorous analysis, clear voices speaking out against the straight-faced bullshitting. The supposedly level-headed legitimate concerns, while they may sound reasonable and even convincing, are not impossible to debunk in a way that people who they are targeted at will understand – not to mention that arguing that the majority of the working class is too stupid to not fall for simplistic lies is an offensive misconception. What we need now, more than ever, is real cooperation, trust and support of the real, diverse, international working class against divisions by not only violence but intentionally planted false information.