The not so United Kingdom has voted to leave the EU. It honestly doesn’t matter what individuals did with their ballots, or why. On a purely intellectual level each of the three options (to leave, remain or abstain) were valid. However we do not live on a purely intellectual plane and this result has very tangible repercussions for people’s lives – mostly the lives of migrants. Although Brexiteers may say, “If you don’t want the racists to be the face of today’s result, then don’t let them”, this does not reflect the picture most people have woken up to.
Most European migrants have legitimate concerns about what it means to stay in Britain now. The instability of the country, and the extremely racist laws and taxes that non-European foreigners have to face are now looming upon us. Just because people believe their reasons to Brexit weren’t racist does not make the face of Brexit any less racist and xenophobic. The left has consistently lost the battle on migrant rights, whether it is detention centres, sky high fees or the more recent costs to apply to come to the UK – NHS surplus charges etc.
Racism and xenophobia are not new in Britain and we need to get our act together to make sure they don’t continue to reign supreme. It is entirely possible for the British working class to be anti establishment and racist. Not only is it possible it is a fact. We now need to double our efforts to confront the system which has contributed to the formation and growth of xenophobic hatred as well as the manifestations of these ideas wherever they occur. We now, more than ever, need to get out into the council estates and the working class neighbourhoods and away from the university lecture rooms, to hold open assemblies in the market places or on the estates about how to move forward, to bring out the anti-racist sentiments, to challenge the narratives of divide and rule.
We’d be fools if we believed that this was a working class uprising against neoliberalism, or a “Lexit” as some have tried to paint it. The UK left has not won the hearts and minds of 17 million people, Britain voted for a variety of different reasons, the loudest of which was immigration. I’m not going to jump into the debate as to whether it was an stupid or intelligent vote, but I do think that there was A) a lot of disinformation and B) no side presented any convincing arguments. I myself didn’t decide which way to vote until the morning of the vote. My vote was not based on what I thought was an informed decision about the implications of a Brexit for Britain, Europe and the world, but was mostly based on the fact that I did not want to bolster the racist campaign that I saw being pushed through all sorts of channels.
What this referendum has highlighted the most is the need for organised efforts of the progressive forces in this country to communicate with its working class.
We have seen over the past several decades the steady decline of the left’s ability to engage on any debate at a national level in a significant way. This includes the stop the war movement, which was a campaign that initially managed to harness the energy of a mass movement but more recently has had nothing to offer but obsolete ideas and structures. Neoliberalism is winning because there is no credible alternative, and every important political event that I have seen in my lifetime has highlighted how the collective imagination of our society is shifting more and more to the right because the left cannot engage with people on their level. We keep talking in a language that is not communicating with anyone other than the people we have already convinced. People do not look at rally events and think “I’m not decided on this subject let me go and see what they have to say”. They go because they already have an opinion. We have to stop preaching to the converted. The people who we need to communicate with not going to be found marching the streets within a few square miles of parliament square; they won’t join the fight until we go to them and convince them to join.
In the meanwhile people like me, who had thought that we could make Britain our home, need to take a long hard look at what this result means for our lives. Whether there is still a role for us to play here politically or if our life will end up being the struggle to remain. And if it is the latter then we need to ask are we most effective here? As a friend of mine said to me earlier today, “it’s time for the liberal and hard left to understand that it’s arrogance needs to change. When disenfranchised people start to identify with toffs and members of the establishment as their saviours, then surely something needs to change in the way we engage and enact with our politics.”