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  

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences