After Brexit, Let Us Fight Racism

On polling day, last Thursday, a horde of sunburnt, smiling Labour Party volunteers hit the streets of Plymouth, our medium-sized coastal city near the southwestern tip of Britain. We knocked on door after door and made the case for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union.

Knocking on doors in the weeks leading up to this referendum, which posed the question — should we leave the EU, or stay? — was very different, for me, from any other election that I’ve participated in. At the door, people were curt, tetchy, wound up — even our supporters. A few greeted us with grateful, fearful relief. Behind one out of every five or ten doors, though, was someone — almost always a white person — who was, to a greater or lesser degree, racist.

“Immigrants are overburdening our social services and taking our jobs,” said the tiny grandmother with a silver halo of curls. “Why let all the Turks come here when their country enters the EU?” said the handsome young man, his adorable, grinning toddler peeking out from behind him. Some people unleashed their fear or anger on us without a second thought; one man cracked open his window and leaned down, eyes sparkling with hate, to tell me to burn at the stake.

We were mobilized to knock on doors for Remain for many reasons. Some of us were young people, hoping for the continued economic and social opportunities of a common market and freedom of travel. Others wanted the Labour Party to play a more central role, encouraging voters to support the EU but to fight to make it more democratic and focused on the rights of working people. Others, like me, were there as antiracists.

Though I excoriated the EU for its imposition of austerity on countries like Greece and Portugal, I could not stand with a campaign for Britain to leave based on xenophobia and fear. Leave leaders wanted to fight scarcity by kicking immigrants out. I supported Remain to fight their lies; I knew that our society is falling apart — but this is a result of the decades of brutal cuts of Tory and New Labour austerity.

It is not the fault of people who come here for a better life.

***

Although those who’d championed the Leave vote had made statements about the economy, the Leave campaign had mainly used racist and xenophobic tropes to spearhead its arguments. A prominent Leave argument, for instance, claimed that the money saved from leaving the EU could fund our national health service, ignoring the fact that it was suffering because of sustained cuts, not because of overburdening by immigrants. One of the best-known Vote Leave leaflets drummed up fear of a Turkish migrant invasion if Turkey were to become an EU member state, highlighting its proximity to Syria and Iraq.

“Take our country back” might have been a slogan about wresting control from European bureaucrats, but on the doorstep, it meant: Take our country back — from immigrants.

Nigel Farage, head of the anti-immigrant UK Independence Party, said on Friday that a revolution had been won without a single shot being fired. This disgusted me; indeed, three shots were fired — into the face of Labour MP Jo Cox, assassinated just over a week ago by a man who cried out, “Britain First,” as he stabbed her, and shot her with his homemade gun.

The same day, Farage had unveiled an election poster entitled “Breaking Point,” depicting a river of refugees entering the UK; the poster was reminiscent of the propaganda of British fascist Enoch Powell, who said in the 1960s that migration would unleash a “river of blood.” Farage’s poster was, perhaps, more explicit than had been stated before, but as writer Alex Massie said, when you shout “BREAKING POINT” over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks.

***

On polling day, after a long day campaigning, exhausted Labour activists showered off the sweat and changed for the count. When the votes for Leave and Remain were, finally, nearly finished being counted in the echoing sports hall, the sunburnt volunteers stared into their phones, watching the results come in nationwide.

Plymouth had, as expected, gone 64% for Leave. But Sunderland had gone 61% for Leave. It had been a Labour heartland, a bellwether; anything over 56% was a problem. When one Labour councillor, our numbers man, heard that result, the pit of his stomach dropped. The Leaves kept falling, across the country, and despite narrow Remain results in cities like London, Glasgow, and Bristol, by the beginning of the false dawn, it was confirmed: The country had voted to leave the European Union.

Many of us shook or cried. An activist with American connections showed me her phone, as her friend texted her in incredulous shock. An idealistic young councillor gazed wonderingly around him. “Everything looks different,” he said.

My husband and I drove home as the birds began to wake up and call. I looked at my Facebook for a half hour, reading the tears and sadness of my friends, wrote an anguished poem, and fell asleep.

Not even Jo Cox’s death had turned the population toward Remain.

When morning broke on Friday, the world had changed. An organization that helps immigrant and refugee families in Coventry reported that children were being asked by their schoolmates when they would have to go home. Elsewhere, Polish people received notices slipped into their homes, telling them to leave. A Welsh Muslim businesswoman who had campaigned for Remain was told to pack her bags and go home soon after the outcome of the vote had been declared.

Many, many people had voted Leave across Britain for reasons of genuine anger at a seemingly unresponsive European Parliament in Brussels, or as a displaced cry of frustration at a Conservative government that has cut housing and healthcare, policing and probation and education. But, as one phrase that went viral said, while not everyone who voted to leave was racist, all the racists voted Leave.

The morning after the vote, this message appeared on a Labour Party city office’s answering machine:

“Congratulations on your stupid fucking campaign. I voted Labour so you wouldn’t let the foreigners in. I don’t want my kids grow up speaking Hindustani and have no fucking job.”

Not everyone who voted Leave was a racist, but now — apparent even a handful of hours after the vote — we know that the vote has empowered racists in our society. Those of us who voted Remain, not out of love for the European Union, whose institutions have ravaged countries like Greece and Portugal, but out of fear of the racist messaging that was catching fire in the forgotten working class communities of Britain, wept when we realized the result. Our Plymouth numbers man held it in until his wife woke up, and then they sobbed together. Many of those who had worked hard for weeks found that they could not collapse in bed after the count, and woke in heart pounding alertness after only a few hours sleep.

***

Jeremy Corbyn, the crusading left wing leader of the Labour Party, elected as leader last year on the fiery surge of social media activists choosing someone who would tackle austerity head-on, wrote a conciliatory note to Labour members the morning after the vote to Leave:

“After yesterday’s European referendum, politicians of all parties must listen to and respect the vote. Millions of voters have rejected a political establishment that has left them behind. Communities that have been hardest hit by government cuts and economic failure have voted against the status quo.

The first task is to come together and heal the divisions. Our country is divided and things need to change. Politicians on all sides must respect the decision of the British people.”

My stomach churned at parts of this statement, especially the uncritical respect for the vote — the vote had been based on lies. Just after the result was announced, Farage said that the promise to fund the NHS, despite being plastered in letters three foot high on the Leave battle-bus, was “a mistake.”

But I was especially chagrined that Corbyn had not mentioned race or immigration — at all — in the member letter.

Yesterday, in a press conference, he redeemed himself. He emphasized, in detail, the ways that the Labour heartland communities, which voted for Leave, had been left behind by brutal Tory policies from Margaret Thatcher forward, and he did not concede one inch — even under persistent questioning by journalists — to those who use immigration as a debating point.

He said:

“We have to make sure that the [EU] negotiations deliver the protections this country needs: working rights, environment, human rights . . .
Across many parts of Britain, there is a feeling of powerlessness. Communities that have been abandoned — abandoned from the mining industry’s destruction onwards — where high skilled unionized jobs have been lost in the 1980s or ’90s, and have not been replaced, or have been replaced by insecure employment . . . it’s many of these communities, former industrial heartlands, that voted to leave the European Union. These communities have taken the full force of austerity and government economic failure . . .
The Tories’ choice to make deprived communities pay for the crisis not of their making has opened the door to a nastier, more divisive form of politics — that has sought to blame immigrants, not government.”

In this speech, my husband and I finally found a bit of hope and release. We held each other, weeping, as journalists offered him chance after chance to endorse quotas or restrictions on migrants. He refused, and stuck to his message: Migrants contribute to our society. They are welcome here.

Still, my husband and I got a disagreement. My husband said that to win, Labour should appeal to the material grievances of the communities that voted to leave. I argued passionately for the centering of immigrants and refugees, the migrant carers, the sex workers, those who are most vulnerable to the racists newly empowered by the vote.

That evening we drove the numbers man home after gathering with other activists for mournful drinks in a local pub. He told us that both of our aspirations were necessarily true, that it wasn’t a choice: We had to do both. He remembered a time, 30 years ago, when to be foreign in Britain was interesting, not threatening. We all hoped that that time would come again.

Today, I can at least breathe. But my husband, full of thoughts and nerves, only slept for two hours last night. Report after report of racism inspired by the Leave vote continue to roll in. Perhaps we will be able to sleep when we commit not to pandering to the racism and lies of the leaders of Leave, but to the truth, piercing and clear:

We must stand with Corbyn, and in our workplaces, and in the streets, for all of our rights — migrant, native born, black, brown, and white. We must show the world that we are still Europeans, ready to build the Europe of justice of which we dream, and for which we must continue to fight.

***

Lead image: Courtesy the author/The Numbers Man

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