The debate around migration in the UK (and indeed much of the Western world) has become so toxic that writing about it feels like stepping onto hot coals.
Not only is immigration an issue that pertains to real peoples lives, but it affects people who are are right here in our communities, and suffering. The ‘native’ Londoner who cannot obtain help with housing from their local council. The second or third generation immigrant who is told to go back to ‘their’ country. The war refugee. All are in our communities. All have very real, very valid problems and grievances.
This is no longer a debate that can go on in an impersonal fashion, in dusty classrooms and lecture halls. The feeling of division, of tribalism, the risk of falling on the ‘wrong’ side and alienating family or friends, is palpable. But so too is the threat of violence, bubbling up, regularly now, on our streets. Ignoring such a difficult issue is a far more dangerous choice than engaging with it, difficult though that may be.
Growing up in a community composed almost completely of white faces, casual racism was the norm. Yet I feel that it was predominantly a racism of ignorance, a racism of absence, of imagining that no one was getting hurt because no one (with the maligned cultural of ethnic background) was present. Hopefully the offending children grew up and went on to make friends with those of other races and went on to seriously question, or at least to conveniently forget, their previous racism.
The racists of London often have more social nous than those children did. They know when it is ‘acceptable’ to air their views, and when it is not. The comments come out in private or in moments of passion and conflict. This is a racism that can develop where there was once friendship, often where there still is friendship. It is a racism that can emerge even when one has grown up side by side with those of other races. It requires massive cognitive dissonance. It is a very dangerous racism and which is in many ways far more frightening that the crude childish version that I used to be horrified by. It is worrying because it is being constantly stoked and reinvigorated by a broken economic system, by broken narratives and by fractured communities, and which can seemingly flourish even when it’s assumptions run against the upbringing and the values of the perpetrator. It is a racism borne of powerful and undeniable forces.
We cannot ignore these issues.
When I left my childhood home and moved to London, I naively thought I was leaving racism, ignorance and all of that unpleasantness behind and entering an enlightened world. The great cosmopolitan city. I now realise that I have in some ways been a part of the problem.
The issues of migration and racism are intimately linked. I now have an indistinguishable English accent (I’ve been here a while, and that’s just how I’ve turned out) and white skin. I am rarely a target for racism (some argue never, because I am in the racial ‘in’ group). Yet I have travelled to this city, squeezed of housing, and fought with the rest for a space in which to live. If I were part of a visible ‘out’ group, visible in public, visible in number, I would be a target. It easy to see how this situation has emerged, wrong though it is.
Racism and ignorance are on a spectrum. The historical, institutionalised and systemic racism all set the scene. A squeeze on resources, austerity, a few adverse events and someone can become radicalised against their fellow man (and woman). The hatred may be irrational or coldly psychopathic. The hater may feel guilty for their hating, or evangelical about it. The situation is complicated by the abundance of those who are sceptical about mass immigration, yet certainly do not consider themselves to be racist. Many conflate these various scenarios, but there is no one scenario. There is no one answer.
The liberal left needs to be more honest. We cannot ‘teach’ these issues away. The hatred is a feeling. It is often immune to facts. Indeed, being presented with facts may sometimes even exacerbate the problem.
Much of the liberal, middle classes seem to have their heads in the sand over this. They fail to see what even some of my immigrant friends have told me. That we are (in their words) ‘letting too many in now’, which is increasing tensions. It is very hard to hear, but hear we must. This perception becomes the reality. The ‘real’ reality is a matter for debate, and a matter of how much store you put on abstract notions of economic growth and hypotheticals whereby more houses are being built.
It is amazing how far people will go to use charts and tables to prove a political point, often using them to ‘prove’ what the ‘normal person’ thinks. Try being friends with the ‘normal person’ and listening to them talk. People often don’t care about the charts and the tables. People go with their instincts and their gut. The right wing press stokes the flames, but they don’t have to stoke hard (of course, they do stoke hard. As hard as they can- which hardly helps matters).
High levels of migration, chronic underspending and a selling off of our national assets all alter the fabric of our communities, enabling a perfect storm. The liberal dogma of the happy clapping Blair years, a smiling face while neoliberal economics ate slowly yet steadily through the fabric of our lives, may be almost as responsible for the racial tension we now find ourselves with as the UKIP, Tory and Coalition years have been. The difference is in the speed of the march toward what now looks like wilful economic destruction and in rhetoric which has replaced shallow slogans and dismissiveness with the openly inflammatory language of the latent facist.
These are not easy problems. There are no easy answers. There are certainly no ‘sticking plaster’ solutions. Lecturing, soundbites and spin don’t stand a chance of cutting it.
Jeremy Corbyn yesterday told how through collective bargaining, wages of Italian and Romanian workers in Fawley Oil Refinery were been brought into line with British workers. They received a retrospective increase. This is a victory for workers, ex workers and would be workers everywhere.
It almost feels as though there could be a light at the end of the tunnel.
The necessary strategy goes far beyond using the ‘right’ language, for example, talking about migrant exploitation instead of just saying ‘immigrants’ (the Ed Miliband position, not always consistently taken. See ‘controls on immigration’ mug)
Rather, it requires real, concrete examples of how the real, material interests of the British worker and the interests of the migrant worker can actually align. It is my view that the answer to the terrifying ‘post Brexit’ reality we find ourselves in is in searching passionately for such examples and acting on them urgently.
If we really think on think on this, we may arrive at two conclusions. One, that the right wing position of simply maligning and shutting out the ‘out group’, while quietly eroding workers rights, is definitely going to make racial tensions worse, not better. We must not, allow this to happen, or we are in effect welcoming a return to the bad old days of overt racism, beatings, people being spat on in the streets (yes, we’re half way there as some of my friends can regularly attest. Thanks UKIP et al).
Allowing ourselves to be useful idiots in the increasingly transparent ‘divide and rule’ strategy of the right is surely the road to fascism. Corbyn was absolutely right to say that voting for UKIP is ‘a counsel of despair’.
The second conclusion should be that there is hope. There is common ground and we must not give up. A grown up foreign policy, a crusade against cronyism, and international workers solidarity are all things to strive for. Yes, old school politics needs to evolve. The areas in which it needs to do so involve working patterns, technology, womens equality and so on. But the research showing that where labour is strong, ordinary people fare better, has not changed.
We must find ways to show solidarity with our fellow workers in Poland, in Romania, in Greece. We can let go of the dual fantasies of both communism and ‘the invisible hand’. Democratic, mixed economies work, and make up the clay from which our societies are shaped now. Investment, small and medium sized business and entrepreneurism all must be firmly established within language of the left. Perhaps there are ways of supporting the development of European economies who now suffer such chronic, crisis led outward migration.
We still need the ‘Third Way’ that never was, a creative, pragmatic policy making approach which sidelines some of the outdated, divisive notions of left and right, but which this time recognises the reality of structural economic problems and which isn’t a flimsy veneer for the privitisation creep and asset stripping which has characterised recent years. With the numerous economics forums and conferences hosted by John McDonnell, we have seen some signs of such a new, much needed politics.
Migration should be a choice. It should never be a requirement for anyone. By repackaging the mass movement of Labour as an unmitigated good, neoliberalism has sold us a pup and it has used left wing, social liberalism as the vehicle with which to do so. It is a positive that any individual who wishes to leave their home country in search of work may do so. It is not a positive that many need to do so in order to eat, to support their families or to escape war.
Even within the UK, where investment is a 1000 times higher per head in London that it is in the regions, it is tragic that some are forced to leave their families in search of increasingly poorly paid and insecure work, while battling what is looking more and more like Rachmanist housing policy, just to avoid being left to rot in deserted terraces on shrinking social security payments. Let’s have open borders, open cities. But let’s not allow neoliberalism to make mass migration a necessity.
Jeremy Corbyn has shown this week that there is no need to malign the migrant worker in order to defuse the anger that has marched us into Brexit. Instead, we simply need to support him (and her). That he has done so with an appeal to traditional left wing values shows that he is not the elitist, ‘metropolitan liberal’ that many think he is. His intervention shows that many of us lefty liberals have some serious thinking to do. Some of the answers to the seemingly intractable challenges of our times have been staring us in the face.
It is now time the liberal left rejected the fake feminism, fake anti-racism and fake anti-ablism weaponised by the neoliberal movement, all while it’s agents in government impoverish the very groups it claims to champion. It is time for us to get back to real action that works, supporting one another through the unions while retaining the very real, modern values of equality that come not from identity politics but from genuine solidarity, both material and otherwise.
None of this on its own will solve racism or any of the other unwanted isms, but if there is one thing the last year in politics should have taught us, it is that some of the empty liberal rhetoric of the ‘new’ left has us all used and abused and turned on each other. It is time to get back to our roots and to something real that works. The word is solidarity.
The problem of attracting a UKIP voter back to Labour is not just one of politics, but one of trust. The issues run deep. But in his recent piece on strengthening workers rights, Corbyn has shown some promising hints that the left has the real answers.