Peter Bowing

Fight right-wing populism! Fight Brexit!

Peter Bowing

THE DECISION BY THE MAY GOVERNMENT to plough on towards a hard Brexit is injurious to business, but it is even more harmful to ordinary working people:

  • Economic pain: sterling down, lower investment and the prospect of tariffs.
  • Workers’ rights: a bonfire of EU-created employment rights expected.
  • Mass insecurity: for millions of EU residents in the UK and for UK citizens in other EU states.
  • Locked in: British citizens will have no right to live and work in mainland Europe.
  • Scotland: to be taken out of the EU against its will.
  • Northern Ireland: a ‘hard’ border will threaten the peace process.
  • Racism and xenophobia: stimulated and legitimised in Britain.
  • European identity: undermined and fractured.
  • Pan-European socialism: a united fightback across the continent undermined.

The May government is today the willing vehicle of UKIP-inspired right wing populism, the poisonous ideology which has brought about the Brexit nightmare. But while the formal raison d'etre of UKIP has always been the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, that alone could never have motivated millions of ordinary people to back Brexit with such appalling enthusiasm.

 “Taking back control”, the defining slogan of the Brexit campaign, was never mainly about transferring to London full control over food labelling. No, taking back control was shorthand for cleansing Britain of ‘foreignness’, and junking tolerance and liberal values. Brexitmania is a movement primarily within the white ‘indigenous’ English (and to some extent Welsh) to affirm their dominant status within ‘their’ community and in ‘their’ country, against outsiders, who were taking ‘their’ jobs and making demands on ‘their’ housing and ‘their’ social services.

Initially, Brexit propaganda targeted East European EU citizens in the UK, but behind that lay racist antipathy to anyone not white British. Thus the defining moment in UKIP's campaign was Nigel Farage standing in front of a poster showing long queues of Syrian refugees in Slovenia - an issue nothing to do with Britain’s EU membership. But that did not matter. The point was to promote racist fear of ‘the other’, and the message hit home.

The causes of the current explosion of right wing populism are various, but one idea needs dismissing. It is false to claim high numbers of non-British EU citizens in a locality caused a high Leave vote. It did not. Those areas with the highest number of non-British EU citizens, such as London, Manchester or Bristol, voted Remain. UKIP propaganda was most successful wherever multicultural communities were lacking, not where they existed.

Right wing populism is the opposite of everything socialists stand for. The Labour Party is not the party of British working people; it is the party of workers in Britain, irrespective of race, ethnic background or nationality. Socialists support multicultural and cosmopolitan communities across the UK, and defend the free movement of EU citizens as a basic acquired right. There is no such thing as a ‘left wing Brexit’ because Brexit is a tool of the right to restrict individual freedoms and social solidarity in favour of authoritarian nationalism, xenophobia and ethnic chauvinism.

While Prime Minister May does have a mandate to pursue Brexit, it does not bind the Labour Party to anything. If a majority in a referendum had voted for capital punishment, would Labour then support it? Of course not. Labour policy is made by its members, not by national referenda.

Sadly, Labour has backed the triggering of Article 50, in a misguided attempt of stave off UKIP’s advance in northern seats. Yet, the more right wing populism is accommodated, the more acceptable and stronger it becomes. The more Labour capitulates to UKIP’s agenda, the more it betrays the young, and the multicultural and progressive communities in the metropolitan centres across England.

On Labour’s right wing, politicians have been quick to accommodate themselves to the xenophobic upsurge. Rachel Reeves among others has sung the praise of immigration controls on EU citizens. Andy Burnham, Labour’s candidate for Mayor of Manchester, has chided Labour for prioritising access to the internal market over free movement. But the left, too, has not disentangled itself entirely from the right wing populist offensive.

Labour should lead the Liberal Democrats, Greens and SNP in opposing Brexit. Insofar as Brexit is unstoppable, we should strive to remain in the European Economic Area (the so-called Norway solution), and with that retain free movement. And, if Britain does in the end leave the EU, which seems likely, we should work with the left across Europe for Britain to rejoin.