The British left: mourning and organising after Brexit

The vote by 17,410,742 British people to leave the EU has left the country, the EU, and the world in shock. As we recover from this shock, we must act together to define a post-Brexit world.
Attempting to describe the racism
Our understanding of the effect of Brexit must start with the lived experience of ordinary people. The referendum has caused great trauma to many. Political instability and economic uncertainty reign. There has been a fivefold increase in racist violence across the UK. Shops are smashed and firebombed, people of colour are racially abused on public transport, and fascists openly target Muslims for racist abuse.
I asked a friend of mine, who comes from an EU state and lives in the UK, how Brexit was affecting her. She worries about her parents, who are non-EU citizens. ‘[The government] say everything will remain as it is. But how will they justify our access to health care [etc] if they make non-EU nationals pay for it?’
A Muslim, she compares living in Britain today to the aftermath of 11 September 2001. ‘We will end up focusing on identities. I feel like my generation lost out on the opportunities to discover who we could be – in a multicultural sense – because we ended up clinging to a part of our identity that was under attack.’
Racism and the white working class
In the build up to June 23, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in broad daylight by a white working class man called Tommy Mair. He is a fascist who reportedly shouted ‘Britain first!’ as he shot her dead. While Cox was white, her attacker seemingly singled her out because of her refugee and migrant solidarity work.
Mair’s fascist ideology would be more shocking if it didn’t derive so much of its legitimacy from the establishment. The British Empire has always used mainstream, government-sponsored racism to pursue and reproduce its economic model.
Over the centuries, this economic racism has taken many forms: Blair’s draconian introduction of ID cards for asylum seekers; London’s ‘institutionally racist’ Metropolitan Police murdering people of colour and consistently getting away with it; Gordon Brown’s support for ‘British jobs for British workers’; the Conservative Party’s openly racist, Islamophobic campaign against Muslim mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan; and the deep foundation of racism that enabled the British Army to destroy Iraq, although the wish to depose Saddam Hussein, a dictator, was seen by some as legitimate.
Yet despite this ruling class racism, the left must not close its eyes to working class intolerance. The simple fact remains that racism and xenophobia are gaining traction in working class communities. To confront it unflinchingly, we must contend with its logic and its origins.
The leave vote was highest in the de-industrialised towns of the North of England. Leave polled 70% in Hartlepool and 61% in Sunderland. In the 1980s, these areas suffered the decimation of their mining industries. Their economies have never recovered.
In 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher was elected, 13,212,000 people were members of trade unions. By 2013, that number had shrunk to 7,086,000. For more than a generation, workers in the deindustrialised parts of Britain have been deprived of the working class power and internationalist traditions provided by unions. Communities facing chronic unemployment have been left dependent on diminishing back office civil service jobs, working tax credits, and other disempowering government subsidies.
Let us be blunt: if the left fails to organise an alternative to this economically bleak environment, the white working class will turn to fascism. The populist fascists in Ukip already know this, and have spent decades comforting the disenfranchised with clever and convincing rhetoric.
Squint, and Farage’s anti-globalisation, anti-poverty message looks almost left wing. The sting in the tail is that his project needs racism to function. To safeguard its pay and conditions, Farage tells us, the white working class must turn against working people of colour.
The alternative is to unite all workers behind a positive political project of equalising wealth and power. But uniting British workers with people beyond its borders has always encountered a centuries-old political obstacle: imperialism.
In struggling to organise our communities against post-Brexit violence, we must depart from the premise that a migrant is a worker. Defending migrants therefore means defending workers.
The national divisions and borders that separate the working class are a product of various empires. These borders serve economic purposes. We must identify and oppose those economic purposes, and replace them with our own internationalist, equalising agenda.
The struggle to dismantle those borders is inseparable from the struggle to inhibit, and then to expropriate, those who hoard the wealth of empire.
For some on the left, there is a necessary choice between combatting racism and supporting working class leave voters. Such leftists are wrong to suppose a contradiction.
We must fight to overcome the growing poverty of the British working class. At the same time, we must fight the architecture and administration of the British Empire from which the British working class still derive benefit. And we must confront the minority of people who voted leave for racist reasons, using logic where possible, and force where necessary.
The landscape has changed, the struggle continues
For sections of the anti-imperialist left, Brexit was only the latest in a long, unbroken chain of traumatic experiences at the hands of the British state and the EU. Asylum seekers and migrants fleeing Britain’s wars never had the benefit of EU rights. Thousands of them still drown in the Mediterranean.
While we mourn new traumas caused to EU citizens living in Britain, we must attempt to direct that pain towards increasing anti-racist consciousness.
Anti-imperialist campaigners continue the work of increasing that consciousness. It is now, in this most politically volatile moment, that we must direct our time, resources and skills towards strengthening their power.
Movement for Justice by Any Means Necessary are composed substantially of refugees who have only ever dreamt of EU rights. They persist in their vital work of mobilising black and brown anger to topple Britain’s horrific system of immigration detention. The anti-raids network continue to agitate against immigration raids and build an anti-fascist culture at the local level. And anti-racism groups like Hope Not Hate organise community responses to racism across the country.
If you weren’t already, it’s time to get involved.
The establishment-sanctioned remain campaign was openly backed by capitalists ranging from David Cameron and Barack Obama to Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan. The referendum was fought and conceived by two wings of British conservatism. Whichever side won, workers and the poor were guaranteed to keep losing.
Labour’s remain campaign, dominated by the Labour right, was fraught with a classism ranging from the subtle to the overt. That classism ultimately reflected the views of many remain voters.
The anger directed by traumatised remainers at the ‘stupid’, uneducated leavers has revealed a deep, latent anti-working class prejudice. If the only way socialists can find to oppose racism and Brexit requires us to insult people less well educated than us, then we urgently need to rethink our approach.
We must avoid homogenising complex groups that are large and diverse. We cede too much to reactionary racists if we allow ourselves to imagine that any vote for leave was necessarily racist.
Our ideological enemies have wasted no time in claiming ownership of the post-Brexit landscape. Nor can we. We must remain sensitive to the massive increase in racism suffered by people of colour and EU citizens. But that sensitivity must not blind us to the opportunities posed by Brexit, however dearly bought.
Silver Leaving
A minority of left wing commentators have pointed to positive consequences: crippling damage to TTIP, the imminent possibility of Scottish and Northern Irish independence votes that threaten to break-up the UK’s imperial metropole, and the potential weakening of British and NATO imperialism.
David Cameron has resigned and Boris Johnson has pulled out of the resulting leadership election. Nigel Farage has also stepped down. British conservatism is in crisis.
Greece is a country that was destroyed by troika-imposed austerity. I spoke to a Greek friend of mine living there. ‘On the political level’, she told me, ‘there is a clear attempt to present Brexit as a revolt against EU-driven austerity.’
Since the result, SYRIZA MPs and MEPs have sought to reopen a discussion about the institutional structure of the EU. Many Greeks acknowledge that Brexit was mainly a victory for the xenophobic and racist right. However, many Greeks are hoping that the result will help to pioneer a progressive, anti-austerity discourse.
As of yet, however, my friend notes that there has been no direct reference to issues such as the restructuring of Greek debt.
‘Brexit is viewed neither as a victory nor with trepidation,’ she tells me. ‘It is definitely treated with caution, given the state of uncertainty it introduces.’
Corbyn and the #ChickenCoup
While sections of British capital will clearly benefit, the referendum has left the ruling class in general disarray. In this situation, a united Labour Party might be expected to defeat the Tories in an impending general election.
Predictably, the Blairite right wing of the Labour Party chose this moment to launch their long-awaited coup against the social democratic leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
After orchestrated resignations by shadow cabinet ministers, 172 Labour MPs backed a motion expressing no confidence in Corbyn. Only 40 stayed loyal to his leadership. The coup plotters chose a non-binding motion instead of triggering a definitive leadership election because they know Corbyn will ‘easily defeat’ any direct challenge by appealing to the Party’s membership. John McDonnel, the shadow chancellor and Corbyn’s closest ally, described the no confidence motion as ‘a lynch mob without the rope’.
With the support of 59.5% of the membership and the country’s ten largest trade unions, and with 60,000 new members signing up since the coup began, Corbyn enjoys the biggest mandate of any leader in Labour Party history.
If remain had won, the Labour right had counted on having a few more years to depose Corbyn. Brexit has thrown up the possibility of a general election in mere months. The Blairite plotters knew this risk, and there were public reports of their intentions weeks prior to the referendum.
The politicians and spin doctors of the Labour right claim to be afraid that the socialist Corbyn is unelectable. In reality, they are afraid that he will win a general election.
Chilcot: a ticking bomb
The timing of the coup is doubly significant. The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War is released on Wednesday. Because they voted for the illegal war, many of Corbyn’s recently resigned front bench will be directly implicated. In over three decades spent in Parliament Corbyn has never voted for war, although he faced criticism from some quarters for allowing a ‘free vote’ on Syria, resulting in 66 Labour MPs supporting military action.
Blairites fear that Corbyn is about to stand up in Parliament and call for Blair to be prosecuted for war crimes. If Corbyn succeeds in doing so, he will cause untold damage to Blair, his allies, and the entire political project of the imperialist Labour right.
Against a Parliamentary Response to Brexit
The coup lays bare the historic problem of the Parliamentary Labour Party (‘PLP’): a near total lack of accountability to its members and the trade unions.
When the Conservative Party is weak, the capitalist class switches to using various mechanisms to apply crushing pressure to the PLP. Without a rank and file trade union movement capable applying pressure in the opposite direction, and without the ability to recall wayward Labour MPs, these workers’ ‘representatives’ are in reality free to do the bidding of capital.
We must not therefore allow the PLP to misdirect our gaze away from efforts in our local communities and workplaces. But we should lend critical, pragmatic support to the reformist, social democratic project of Corbynism even while recognising its serious limitations. A Corbyn Labour government will expand the progressive limits of capitalism, resulting in material improvements for substantial stakeholder groups, albeit mostly in Britain. We would be blind not to act accordingly.
For some on the anti-imperialist and revolutionary left, that critical support extends to Labour Party membership. For others, it means only paying the £3 necessary to ‘support’ the Labour Party in any internal leadership election. For others still, no formal affiliation is required to continue the work of fighting racism and imperialism and building the labour movement.
Hope out of turmoil
Since the global economy stopped working in 2008, the liberal status quo has been decaying. If the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the outbreak of world war two in 1939 are anything to go by, it takes about a decade for a global political economic paradigm to shift after a global financial meltdown.
The heirs to the crumbling liberal projects of today will be those who organise and struggle most fiercely for their vision of a new world.
The fascist vision promises dignity to a racially defined, hyper-masculine, heterosexual working class. This dignity necessarily comes at the expense of migrants and people of colour. But fascism is powerless to challenge, and can only reconstitute, the dominance of globalised capital.
The left faces the challenge of providing an alternative vision. Ours is the same vision for which socialists have always fought: to overcome the forces of hatred and despair in the name of the dignity and material equality of the global working class.
Such a vision might sound grandiose. But the messy, practical reality of our fight happens, and is now unfolding, in workplaces and communities around the world.
Brexit will only be a defeat if we concede defeat. The post-Brexit world will only belong to the right if we on the left fail to claim it for humanity.
So organise and fight as if you mean to win. Join or establish a trade union. Join migrant solidarity groups. Organise to confront racism wherever you encounter it. And dismantle the apparatus of imperial war.
Out of the ashes and trauma of Brexit and Baghdad, and by working together, we will build a more equal world for everyone!

Gastbeitrag von Franck Magennis

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