Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


Building a progressive majority: Left strategy after the Brexit vote

After the EU referendum we are seeing both horror at anti-migrant sentiment and pandering to it, writes Joseph Todd – but only a radical economic offer can carve a way through

June 27, 2016
6 min read

As the recriminations start to fly and the dust continues to swirl, two competing Brexit narratives have begun to emerge.

The first brands the Leave vote as inherently xenophobic and racist. Farage, Johnson and Gove have given political expression to an undercurrent of working class racism, one that is rooted in British identity and small-C conservatism. The regional, small town and rural working class voted in their millions to ‘send them home’ – be it Eastern Europeans, Muslims or black and brown people – and reclaim ‘Britain for the British’.

The left’s response, according to this narrative, should be to fight racism and xenophobia on all fronts. Pro-migration and anti-racist movements need to be strengthened. Rising fascist sentiment must be militantly policed. A culture war must be pursued where metropolitan tolerance triumphs. We must battle to keep Britain in the EU, whether it be through the signing of petitions or calling demonstrations in London. The resurgence of working class racism, the reassertion of ‘British’ identity, must be vehemently opposed.

The second narrative runs a little differently. Yes, they admit, immigration was a central issue in the referendum, but at its core the Leave vote was anti-establishment. It was a revolt by the working class, motivated by decades of industrial decline, economic marginalisation and an uncaring metropolitan elite. Every expert roped in by the Remain camp only served to reinforce their resolve to leave. The barrage of condescension and scaremongering made their position all the more resolute.

Our response, according to this narrative, has to be one of understanding and reconciliation. We must recognize that ‘the elite’ does not – in their eyes – constitute only bankers, politicians and European bureaucrats but also the metropolitan, middle class, educated, progressive sections of society who voted overwhelmingly for Remain. Those who for years have implicitly or explicitly denigrated the working class as racist, homophobic and sexist. Who, along with politicians, have ignored their concerns. According to this narrative, such behaviour must change. Working class concerns must not be laughed at or patronisingly thrown aside – but taken very seriously. This would entail the construction of a progressive, long-term migration policy and a radical economic offer to devastated post-industrial communities, with a firm commitment to listening to the economically marginalised and habitually ignored.

Racism and economics

As is usually the case, both of these narratives are partial, simplistic and not as opposed as they first appear. While immigration was the largest motivating factor for Leave supporters, to simply equate concerns over immigration with outright racism and xenophobia is misguided. The working class en masse aren’t irreparably racist. Aside from the fact that large swathes of the working class are BME or migrants themselves, concerns over immigration are so often intertwined with economics.

The refrain on the doorstep, again and again, was ‘I’m not racist, but I just don’t think we have enough jobs, homes and school places to go around’. Here we see the decades of anti-migrant propaganda take effect. ‘Immigrants’ are painted as the cause of economic insecurity because the status quo cannot blame capitalism. Immigration is the scapegoat at which they relentlessly hammer away. The implications of this are important. If you tackle the underlying issues, the consequences will disappear. If you solve the economics, then anti-immigrant sentiment will fade.

However, we must recognise that some anti-immigrant sentiment is driven by racism rather than economics. Indeed, this is true of every strata of society and not just the working class. Farage and his inner UKIP circle – let us not forget his ominous, terrifying, and blatantly false statement that victory was achieved ‘without a bullet being fired’ – must be described as proto-fascist. The catalogue of attacks, intimidation and verbal abuse that has emerged after the referendum is xenophobic, racist and disgusting. The groups who openly perform Nazi salutes on the streets of Dover are fascists on British soil.

But we must realise that these groups represent a minority – a minority that is distinct from the majority of the working class, whose anti-immigrant sentiment is fuelled by economics rather than racism. To tar these two groups with the same brush would be to re-affirm the urban, middle class, educated ignorance of working class concerns. It would be to prolong the culture of disregard that allowed the far right such a victory in the first place.

A radical offer

Recognising this distinction, our strategy becomes two fold. First, the Labour Party must flesh out an economic offer to the northern, marginalised, post-industrial regions that overwhelmingly voted Leave. This offer must be radical. It must come soon. It must differentiate a left Labour opposition from the rest of the metropolitan elite.

At the same time, we must assert the importance of migrant and refugee rights. We must extol the benefits and value of immigration without relent. We must build a counter-narrative that connects economic marginalisation with austerity, the rich and global capitalism instead of immigration. We must mobilise against fascist marches and racist attacks.

On these issues, we cannot compromise. Concern over immigration is prevalent amongst the working class. But the root of this concern is economic. If a radical manifesto is put in place, anti-immigration sentiment will begin to fall away. And shorn of a wider anti-immigrant sentiment, the racist and fascist elements would be left isolated, outnumbered and vulnerable.

These concurrent strategies allow parliamentary and extraparliamentary forces to complement each other. While a left Labour opposition should be outlining radical economic policies and holding a firm line on immigration, anti-fascist, direct action and socialist groups should be mobilising heavily and regularly on the streets. Thankfully, the latter has already begun to happen, with a pro-migrant demonstration on the day of the result.

Corbyn, McDonnell and the Labour leadership – once they see the other side of this unwinnable coup – need to play their part. To form a progressive majority they have to unite two distinct constituencies: the young, metropolitan, university educated and the marginalised, small town, working class. The former they’ve largely secured – although keeping a firm, progressive line on social issues while also introducing rent caps would be key to enthusing them – while the latter have the potential to drift towards UKIP or abstention. This is where redistributive, socialist policies can trump the base xenophobia and racism stoked by Farage and the press. If Corbyn is going to build a progressive majority in Britain, the adoption of a radical economic policy must be his next move.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite