Britain: The EU referendum and xenophobia - How to fight the Right

As the hour of judgement draws nearer, the campaigns on both sides of the EU referendum have become increasingly dominated by one issue: immigration. On the Leave side, the months leading up to this referendum have seen a ratcheting up of xenophobic and racist rhetoric, with the sole aim of scapegoating migrants and the EU’s free movement of labour for all the ills in society.

In response, many honest and well meaning workers and youth have called for a Remain vote in order to keep out the most extreme right-wing elements in the Tories and UKIP. A vote for Brexit, we are told, will be a boost to Boris, Farage, and the far-right, which will only serve to strengthen xenophobic attitudes and the oppression of migrants. The only solution, therefore, the argument goes, is to back the Remain camp and support the “lesser evil” of Cameron and co. in order to defeat the reactionary Brexiters.

This prevailing mood on the Left is completely understandable, particularly in the wake of the brutal murder of Jo Cox, whose murder was clearly a political act by a neo-fascist. Most strikingly, when asked for his name in court at the weekend, Cox’s killer Thomas Mair stated, "Death to traitors; freedom for Britain”. 

As we have already highlighted, the tragic events surrounding Jo Cox are a clear reflection of the hysteria, xenophobia and racism that have been whipped up by Brexit camp, which found their most clear expression in the pictures of UKIP leader Nigel Farage, on the same day as Cox’s death, standing proudly next to a chilling poster depicting the “threat” of queues of immigrants attempting to enter Britain.

There is no doubt that the Leave leaders in the EU referendum are playing on the worst fears and most backward prejudices within society. And it is also clearly true that workers have nothing to gain from a Brexit led by the likes of Boris, Gove, and Farage. But, we must also maintain a clear head amidst all this chaos and soberly ask: will a vote to Remain really defeat racism and the far right, and help migrants and the wider working class?

“The lesser evil”

A large part of the Left Remain argument hinges on the idea of supporting the “lesser evil” of the so-called “progressive Tories” of Cameron and Osborne, etc. against the most reactionary Tories of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Iain Duncan Smith. Cameron and Osborne may be carrying out cuts and attacking workers already, but things will apparently be even worse under a Boris or Gove led Tory government, we are told. In short: better the Devil you know.

In effect, we are asked to form a Popular Front and carry out a two-stage process: first to defeat the reactionary Leave campaign and keep out Johnson, Gove, Farage, et al.; and then to regroup the Left and the labour movement in a fight against Cameron’s Tory government.

Whilst it is true that socialists cannot support a Leave campaign that is led and dominated by the most reactionary elements in politics, neither can we support a vote to Remain inside a capitalist club that has, in the final analysis, the same fundamental programme and interests at its core: austerity, privatisation, and attacks on the working class. This is vividly demonstrated by events in Greece, where cuts are being carried out under the explicit duress of the EU and its institutions. 

The EU, meanwhile, is clearly no friend of migrants. For those on the outside, it has become “Fortress Europe”, with Merkel signing up to a shameful deal with the authoritarian Erdogan government in Turkey to eject refugees from Greece. Even Schengen agreement and the free movement of peoples within the EU has become a joke, as governments across Europe erect barriers to prevent an “influx” of immigrants. 

In these respects, we would have been in favour of a left-wing Leave campaign, led by Corbyn and the other leaders of the labour movement, that argued against the EU on the basis of an anti-austerity, internationalist, pro-worker programme of socialist policies. In the absence of such a campaign, however, we cannot throw our support behind the reactionary Brexit leadership that is on offer. 

Those on the Left who rightly criticise the Brexit camp for its vile leadership, however, should be consistent and apply the same critical faculties to the leadership of the Remain side. Just as we must accept the unfortunate reality that a vote for Brexit in this referendum would be a vote for Boris and Farage, so we must also recognise that a vote for Remain will be a vote for Cameron and Osborne’s vision for Europe - not a vote for the progressive, social Europe advocated by Corbyn and the Left.

And what, we must ask, does Cameron’s vision for Europe (and Britain) consist of? The truth of the matter is that on every issue, there is no fundamental difference between Cameron and Boris. Cameron wants - and has strongly argued for - an EU that has more privatisation, less regulation, worse workers’ rights, and greater barriers to immigration. As Prime Minister for the last six years, he has sought to carry out this programme in practice in Britain, with endless austerity and attacks on workers, youth, the poor, and - yes - migrants.

On the other side, we have the Tory voices of Boris, Gove, and IDS who argue for...more privatisation, less regulation, worse workers’ rights, and greater barriers to immigration. Where is the difference? At the end of the day, Boris and Cameron are cut from the same cloth - they are two sides of the same capitalist coin.

The Left is right to denounce the xenophobic rhetoric of the Brexit leaders. But we must not forget the equally horrific demonisation of migrants, racist language, and anti-immigrant statements coming from David Cameron and the other Tory leaders of the Remain campaign. “We’re building an immigration system that puts Britain first”; “UK Muslims helping jihadis”; a “swarm” of migrants is trying to “break into” Britain; Sadiq Khan “supports ISIS”: all of these, and much more, have been said by the Prime Minister or attributed to him by the Tory press.

As many Tory and Labour critics have already pointed out, the only reason why Boris is supporting Brexit is because he has his eye on the top job in British politics, and he sees a route there over Cameron’s dead body. Meanwhile, Cameron’s pro-EU credentials are equally as weak as Boris’ anti-EU ones, with the Tory leader stating earlier in the year that he would support a vote to Leave if he could not support the “reforms” to the EU that he wanted - reforms ultimately designed to attack workers and migrants.

Farage and UKIP, meanwhile, are fundamentally no different to much of the Tory backbench. Indeed, Farage himself is a former member of the Conservatives, whilst UKIP’s only electoral successes have come from defecting Tory MPs.

What we have, then, is not a battle between reactionaries and “progressives”; a battle between the far right and moderates - but a battle between two wings of the Tory Party. That is the real choice on offer in this referendum, and workers and migrants have nothing to gain from a victory of either side in this contest.

Right-wing Remain

The Left within the Remain camp must take a long hard look at who is really in charge on their side. Corbyn has correctly distanced himself from the Remain Tories of Cameron and co. Unfortunately, however, we must be honest and say that a vote to Remain will not be a vote for Corbyn’s “social Europe” of stronger workers’ rights, more freedom of movement, and greater environmental protection, etc., but a vote for Cameron’s Europe of the polar opposite: attacks on trade union legislation, the scapegoating of migrants, and the ratcheting up of privatisation and deregulation.

In reality, Corbyn has become a lone voice within the leadership of his own party on this question. With the exception of the Labour leader, the Labour Remain campaign is dominated by Blairites who have far more in common with Cameron than Corbyn. On all the main questions - of cuts, privatisation, and immigration - they agree with the Tories.

For example, Corbyn has been consistent in his correct assertion that migrants are not to blame for the shortage of housing and jobs or the strain on public services, whilst also rightly arguing that we must explain and address the issues that lead to migrants coming to Britain in the first place - that is, because of war and poverty. In this respect, the Labour leader has been by far the most consistent politician in defending the free movement of peoples, strongly holding his ground when under pressure from the BBC’s Andrew Marr recently.

Corbyn’s right-wing colleagues in the Labour leadership, however, are indistinguishable from the Tories - both of the Brexit and Remain variety. The Blairites have been unanimous in their calls for Corbyn to “take a tougher line on immigration” - in essence, a support for the idea of “Fortress Europe”. Speaking to the BBC, Tom Watson, the Labour deputy leader, justified the need for Labour to shift to the right on the question of immigration. "For the last decade, I would say that immigration has been the backdrop to every election we've had in Britain," Watson said. "I think a future Europe will have to look at things like the free movement of labour rules."

Alan Johnson, the leader of the “Labour In for Britain” campaign, made similar comments on the question, stating that: “There's three types of immigration: there's immigration from outside the EU, there's illegal immigration, and there's free movement. Of those, free movement gives us the benefit of the single market. Our argument is remaining part of the single market helps us to control the other two forms of immigration. If we leave, the situation is going to be worse.”

Elsewhere, in a moment of déjà vu, Gordon Brown, the former Labour Prime Minister, weighed in on the debate in order to try and win the referendum for Cameron, with demands to counter the “pressures on our public services from all forms of immigration”. 

If Brexit wins and the chorus of voices scapegoating migrants becomes louder, the blame will lie entirely with the right-wing Labour politicians who for years have pandered to UKIP and the Tories by calling for a “tougher line on immigration”, and in doing so have legitimised the anti-immigrant stance put forward by both UKIP and the Tories. This culminated in farcical pictures at the last general election of Ed Miliband standing next to a monolithic stone tablet declaring his pledge for “controls on immigration”. And that’s not to mention the infamous “controls on immigration” mug.

It is this constant drift to the right, left unchecked by any genuine alternative from Labour’s right wing, that has allowed for the whole debate to now be dominated by the most unsavory characters in British politics and their racist and reactionary rhetoric. The way to combat the right wing of Boris, Gove, and Farage, therefore, is not to side with the other right wing of Cameron and the Blairites, but to stand aside from both reactionary camps and fight for an independent class perspective - for a working class alternative of internationalism and socialism.

Fight xenophobia! Fight the far right! Fight for socialism!

All the chickens are now coming home to roost for Cameron and the racist ruling class. Right-wing politicians and the Tory press have spent years blaming migrants for the problems caused by the very system they defend. In doing so, they have conjured up reactionary forces that are now beyond their control and created Frankenstein’s monsters in the form of Farage and the far right.

Backing a vote to Remain, however, will not defeat right-wingers such as Boris and Farage, nor will it give a boost to those fighting for migrants and against racism and xenophobia. Regardless of the referendum result, the Tories will be in a state of crisis, as David Cameron pays the price for appealing to prejudice and stirring up the most backward layers of society in his attempt to stay in power and distract workers from the real cause of housing shortages and unemployment: his programme of austerity.

Mass migration and the fears amongst ordinary people based on the myths of immigration are both the result of genuine problems, the root of which lie with capitalism. On the one hand, there are millions of men, women, and children who have been forced from their homes by imperialist wars, civil wars, terrorism, climate change, and poverty - all symptoms of the senile capitalist system and society’s decay. 

On the other hand, the support for Brexit and the anti-immigrant mood that does exist amongst ordinary people is a reflection of real concerns over jobs, housing, and public services - problems that neither Tories nor Blairites have offered (or can offer) a genuine solution to. Those who vote for Brexit or UKIP are not simple racists, but working class families who are looking to give the Establishment a kick in the teeth and have their voice heard. As the Financial Times (15th June 2016) comments, a “mistrust of the elite has built over decades, fuelling an anti-EU insurgency”.

These fears, concerns, and moods will not be laid to rest by well meaning calls to Remain, but only by the leaders of the labour movement standing out and offering a real - bold, socialist - answer to the questions that fuel these sentiments. The only way to combat anti-immigrant rhetoric and bigoted political figures such as Farage, meanwhile, is not to support the “lesser evil”, but to take away the fertile ground in which they thrive.

Socialists must never get sucked into supporting the politics of “lesser evilism”. Throughout history, without exception, support by the Left leaders for the “lesser evil” has always paved the way for the rise of the greater evil. By subordinating the working class and the struggle for socialism to the demands of the “progressive” capitalists, the leaders of the labour movement only serve to disorientate workers and youth and in turn strengthen those right-wing demagogues, populists, and charlatans who offer up their quack remedies and reactionary poison as a solution.

It is precisely the programme of the “lesser evil” - in this case, Cameron and Osborne - that has given rise to the risk of Brexit and support for UKIP and the far right. The craven and servile behaviour of the Blairites, who have constantly fallen over themselves in their attempts to prove what “responsible statesmen” they can be, meanwhile, is what has allowed the mainstream debate to shift so far to the right in recent years. Jumping into bed with the “progressive” Tories now will not resolve the situation, but only exacerbate it further.

Hope and despair

Paradoxically, it is precisely at this time when the rest of the Left is full of despair that the Marxists are full of optimism about the future of the class struggle. Whilst many look at events across Europe and the USA and end up weeping and shouting about the “threat of reaction and the far right”, we see a more positive - albeit contradictory - situation. Where some focus only on the rise of Le Pen or Trump, we highlight instead the inspiring movement of workers and youth against the El Khomri labour law in France and the radicalisation expressed by the Sanders phenomenon in America.

In Britain, many workers and youth are understandably concerned by the support for Boris and Farage. But we must not forget the incredible Corbyn movement that began only 12 months ago, which drew tens of thousands into political activity, and which still holds an enormous potential power today if organised around a bold socialist programme.

We must not be impressionistic in our analysis or empirical in our response. We must neither be drunk with euphoria in the face of victories, nor paralysed by despair and demoralisation in the wake of defeats. Rather than being taken in by ephemeral moods and temporary swings to the right, which are hysterically used to justify temporary alliances with the “lesser evil” of the “progressive” capitalists, Marxists must analyse the situation objectively and look at the long term processes at play.

Above all, we must calmly and soberly tell the truth: without a fundamental transformation of society along socialist lines, all the rotten symptoms and plagues of capitalism’s decay - of xenophobia, racism, and the far right - will never be cured.

100 years ago, Europe was caught in the midst of a wave of nationalism and chauvinist hysteria as Social Democratic leaders in every country supported their own national bourgeoisie and called for workers to rally to the “defence of the motherland”. By 1917, however, this reactionary mood had turned into its opposite, with the Russian Revolution marking the beginning of a European-wide revolutionary movement that recognised no borders.

The conditions for an explosion of the class struggle are being prepared today in Britain, in the USA, and across Europe. A new world slump is on the horizon, whilst none of the contradictions that created the previous crisis have been resolved. The ruling class, meanwhile, is split and is unable to rule in the old way - the feud within the Tories over this referendum is a clear indication of this. The only thing that is lacking is a revolutionary leadership to offer a way out of the impasse.

We refuse to back either reactionary camp in this whole farce of a referendum. Instead, we call on Corbyn and the leaders of the labour movement to stand up and fight boldly for a real, socialist alternative. No to the bosses’ EU! No to Tory Austerity Britain! For the Socialist United States of Europe!