“It might be in my party’s interest for him to sit there, it’s not in the national interest and I would say, for heaven’s sake man, go!” David Cameron
For observers of British politics, it might not come as a surprise that the press and most of the politicians in the country have taken advantage of Brexit to launch a comprehensive assault on the very possibility of an anti-racist social democracy. There are multiple parties involved in this assault, making for a curious, yet on reflection entirely understandable, list of allies.
We had David Cameron, former Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party who by calling this referendum to resolve an intra-party dispute, had brought the very union of nations that comprises the United Kingdom into doubt. On his last outing at the Prime Minister’s Questions – an increasingly frivolous forum where one hears howls of laughter when a colleague brings up the rise in child poverty in the country – David Cameron spoke on behalf of the “national interest” to demand that the leader of the opposition Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, resign. “For heaven’s sake man, go.”, thundered Cameron, with cheers erupting in the hall and across the twitter feeds of English journalists. Not just journalists, but political and public figures across the political spectrum agreed. For the national interest, Jeremy Corbyn simply has to go. Cameron had honourably resigned upon losing the referendum. Why didn’t Corbyn?
Then we have much of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the group of Members of Parliament who won their seats campaigning for Labour in the last general election, but are now attempting to assert dominance over the broader Labour movement and party members who by and large prefer Corbyn to any alternative leader (Times/Yougov poll). The week after the referendum, the PLP voted 172-40 to pass a no-confidence motion in Corbyn as leader of the Labour party. Their leaders in the Shadow Cabinet (ostensibly appointed by Corbyn as an act of intra-party unity) had spent the previous weekend resigning periodically for maximum public effect. The Labour party is now in disarray. Corbyn has forced many Labour MPs to undermine their opposition to the real architects of the Brexit disaster, the Conservatives, by training their sights on him. For the national interest, for the country to have a functioning opposition the man who was apparently the cause of this disaster now has to go. For heaven’s sake, he has to go. This plea is now being seen across the British press as a question beyond narrow political concerns, a matter of basic human decency. Something to be done for the national interest. What nation are Cameron and the Parliamentary Labour Party speaking for? To what sort of nation does Jeremy Corbyn pose a threat?
In his political career, Tony Blair perfected the politics of centrist triangulation: Labour was going to hold the ‘reasonable’ centre ground between extremists on the right and extremists on the left. In this view, for a parliamentary party to do well in the current, admittedly right-wing, media environment, it would have to make concessions to the Thatcherite narrative, now taken up overwhelmingly by the Murdoch-press, that immigration has overwhelmed English society. Neither the extreme position that all immigration is good, nor the extreme that all immigration is bad: Labour would be the party of reasonable “controls on immigration”. In the 2005 general election, the then Conservative leader Michael Howard took the extreme right position arguing that it is “not racist” to put a cap on asylum applications and overall immigration, that crime was getting out of control – both highly racialized forms of political rhetoric. Howard was much criticised for releasing a poster that whistled the point home: “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” Blair was . He responded by setting the very first speech of his re-election campaign on the white cliffs of Dover: the arrival point for many asylum-seekers and migrants into the UK. This wasn’t simply rhetorical posturing: Blair personally oversaw the militarization of borders against migrants and the expansion of detention centres for hosting asylum seekers while their claims were processed by the state. One of these detention centers was Yarl’s Wood: notable for allegations of racist abuse and sexual violence against its women detainees. This system of detention centres has grown to be the largest in Europe, close to 50% of those who are detained are later released. The cruel irony was that as Blair’s a crackdown on asylum-seekers from around the world ensued, the 2004 enlargement of the EU would bring about a large influx of migrant workers from Eastern Europe into the UK.
In the 2015 general election, the Labour leader Ed Miliband was determined not to allow the Conservatives hegemony over this racialized immigration narrative. He attacked David Cameron for failing to cut net immigration to the tens of thousands, for making promises that he could not keep. Despite trying to take up a position on immigration amenable to the right-wing press, Miliband lost handily. Cameron had taken from Blair his penchant for emphasising his managerial competence over all else – “the long-term economic plan” was a notable Conservative slogan for the campaign. Yet Cameron hasn’t slept on his promises on “controlling immigration”. His administration has overseen a massive ‘crackdown’ on immigrants across classes: from a law that would deport highly skilled non-EU migrants if they earn less than £35,000 per year to immigration raids on suspected EU migrants living on welfare, immigration raids that he and Home Secretary and current PM Theresa May once personally oversaw. The Labour Shadow Home Secretary at the time, Yvette Cooper, was true to her centrist instincts in her response. She argued that the Conservatives had not gone far enough.
As has been written elsewhere, the Brexit referendum largely played out in the press as a vote on the country’s control of its borders: how many of them could we let in? It was a question of national interest: every leader was asked about their plans to solve the “immigration problem”. Throughout the process, Corbyn was exceptional in insisting that no limits for immigration could be countenanced, even if Leave won. The other notably pro-refugee MP was Jo Cox – allegedly assassinated in her constituency by a neo-nazi activist.
The Labour parliamentary rebels insist that Corbyn’s lacklustre defence of the European Union during the campaign was a big reason for its loss. In what way? By refusing to accept controls on immigration, the Labour rebels allege, Corbyn weakened the case for Remain and thus doomed the Remain campaign to its narrow loss. By consistently asking voters to focus on issues of housing, labour rights, and austerity instead of blaming foreigners, Corbyn revealed that he was “out of touch” with the core Labour vote in the north of England. This argument is contradictory. Corbyn got at least 63% of the Labour vote to choose remain, far outstripping the 42% of Conservative voters who stuck with their leader. Those who voted leave were by and large not Labour voters and if they were, they had been alienated from Labour for many years now – as Tony Blair had long ago explicitly turned away from the working class and towards the middle class to build his electoral coalition. These voters likely didn’t vote in general elections and were in geographic regions long ignored by Westminster social and economic policy since the 1980s (as Will Davies argues here). Corbyn’s critics somehow wanted him to appeal to both the long alienated, disenfranchised people who “care about immigration” and the core Labour vote who “don’t care about immigration”.
As documented above, the Labour centre and right who have undertaken this coup have been complicit in trying to stoke and take advantage of the immigration hysteria brought up by the right-wing press over the last few years. Even now, their political instinct is to go right and say that “we must listen to people’s concerns that immigration is a real problem” and suggest that Corbyn is an out-of-touch metropolitan elite. This framing ignores that a big working-class problem in the country is not getting deported. It assumes that the working-class vote that Labour has famously lost since 2005 is homogenously white and racist (even if not explicitly so, but implicitly, willing to blame immigrants for their problems), that it will continue to listen to the Sun’s lies no matter what. This picture also assumes that multiculturalism in Britain was bestowed by the urban middle class and is now under threat by the provincial working-class, not won by the struggle of black and minority political organisers supported by Corbyn, McDonnell, and Diane Abbott amongst many others precariously ascendant on the Labour left. The English working class is not a cultural monolith and is not doomed to hate foreigners forever. Corbyn is the first leader in many years and the only major public voice to unambiguously defend migrant rights.
Given the massive lurch to the right occasioned by Brexit, given the fact that attacks on white and brown migrants, German, Polish, Hungarian, and Pakistani migrants across the country are escalating: do we want a Labour party that will triangulate to the center to become ‘electable’? Especially if the center always seems to be moving irresistibly towards ‘acceptable’ levels of xenophobia? If there was ever a moment we needed a strong race and class analysis, a strong message against racism and a leader who is against using “concerns about immigration” for short-term political gain, it is now. There is only one leader who demonstrably has been making that case – and for making that case he is being pushed out. Jeremy Corbyn.
The Labour party in the UK has spent far, far too long conceding the rhetorical and ideological ground to the right. This process of concession and “reasonable” politicking has led to the ruling out of left positions in political debate. In this way the centre-left set in motion a process that made itself an irrelevant electoral choice. If the consensus was already in place that immigrants are the problem and we need to cut welfare, why would anyone vote Labour? They might as well vote Conservative, in that their leaders are seen to be far ahead on the issue, and more forceful than Labour in making their claims. Furthermore, the Parliamentary Labour Party have no alternative leader. The record of the names that have come up suggests that they are going to capitulate to the racist framing that negotiating for immigration controls with the EU is the most imperative political choice on the table at this moment. Not only is this a capitulation to the right-wing press, this would make impossible the UK’s access to the EU single market. The EU’s negotiating position is clear: there will be no access to the single market without free movement. Corbyn’s bold and principled defence of migrant rights also has the advantage of being the position most likely to minimise the disastrous economic fallout of the country’s decision to leave the EU.
The Parliamentary Labour Party are not going to make Labour electable (not least to the enthusiastic base of the party that joined the party to support Corbyn), and they are only going to dilute what the party stands for. For the Labour right and the Tories, “listening to concerns on immigration” means implementing harsher and harsher policies for immigration and limiting asylum applications further – implementing what they were already going to do and have been doing for years. For voters who are concerned about this, it means simply worsening the circumstances that they are responding to (the de-industrialisation of the English north) with xenophobia and division.
“Listening to concerns about immigration” can also mean making a populist case for the redistribution of wealth and power as Jeremy Corbyn has done. It can mean having a conversation and respecting the opinions of one’s fellow citizens. Respecting voters as human beings who can change their minds when presented with a good, moral case. The problem with centrist triangulation is that this politics has never had that belief. The British right have never triangulated. Brexit was a marginal position when the referendum was called. It took a sustained campaign by four newspapers, and a whole load of lies telecast mostly unchallenged on broadcast media, amidst much else of course, to change people’s minds into thinking that leaving Europe was the right thing. Triangulation to an imagined centre is not going to win votes and is morally and politically suspect. Whatever comes next has to start with Corbyn.