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Category :Thoughts

As the debris of Britain’s decision to #Brexit continues to settle, the race to prove why this quite shocking result in fact confirms what you personally believed all along is well underway.

There will be a lot said about a massive geopolitical upheaval that was set into motion by Cameron’s attempt to get a minor internal political win. There are even rumours that a personal animus with Boris Johnson is what motivated both men to rend a large part of the political consensus. But I’m choosing instead to concentrate on two things: free movement and Labour’s response.

Free movement is one of the few redeeming factors of the European project. The EU is, as was correctly argued by the Leave side, a bureaucratic mess with a serious democratic deficit. It is also, as many of the naive #Lexit tweeters claimed, neoliberalism enforced by institutions. It uses its hegemonic position in international politics to be massively destructive to the developing world. It is a driver of privatisation, of war and of austerity. Those things are all true, but yet free movement is still something worth fighting for.

The reality is that the Left in the UK has been entirely negligent on the EU. The general arms-length apathy towards Europe that typifies the British is not exclusive to the right. The Left’s reaction to the EU has been no better than the ‘They’re going to ban pints!’ newspapers splashes typify the tabloid press – it has been facile and sparse.

Perhaps it is the lack of regular referendums on EU matters in the UK that has driven this apathy, but there is very little active mobilisation on EU issues on the left. The far-right then, is the sole domain of street protest against EU policy. That is an indictment. For the UK Left to then argue for a ‘Lexit’ is negligent and self-indulgent in the extreme. You cannot concede the entire debate to the far-right for decades and then expect to swoop in and carry any weight in the opinion forming process.

That is why Brexit is not about left issues. It is not about neoliberalism – as far as the debate goes – it is about immigration. Now, some on the left are arguing that since immigration panic is a product of neoliberalism, we must merely explain to  voters their misapprehension and the lightbulb moment will ensue. That’s pie in the sky nonsense. Neoliberalism may have gutted economies and left people hurting – but the cultural and political reality that has led to Brexit and to the current scapegoating of immigrants is deep rooted. It is born from the deep British cultural desire to return to imperial pomp, it is rooted in the failure of the British to denazify the middle classes post-World War II, and it springs forth from very real material pressures that the right are bringing to bear.

So then, the response. A strong anti-imperialist movement is well overdue in the UK. Nothing permanent will be accomplished until British society is stripped of its imperial remains. However, that’s a long term project. In the short term, free movement must be defended – both theoretically and practically. Street fascism must be combated. The benefits of immigration must be hammered home. But most importantly, the UK Labour party must be brought to heel.

Already there are rumblings in Labour about ‘getting serious on border control’. My entire life, Labour have been saying they’re going to get serious on border control. One of my earliest memories in life is sitting with my dad in the front room watching Have I Got News For You and Ian Hislop burning some gormless Blairite for his racist stance on immigration. So then, Labour have already drifted rightwards on immigration, and have well done for over a decade. And yet as they drift right, they haven’t picked up much additional support from racists? Why might that be? It’s because of a massive liberal misinterpretation of how the far-right operates.

The far-right in the UK are actually and actively advocating pogroms against minority groups. They want foreigners forcibly ejected from the country, in greater numbers than they already are. The violence of the immigration officers is well documented – and the Labour right thinks this is not enough? To feed the bloodlust of xenophobes? Because liberals settle in for their West Wing box sets and think politics is all a game they don’t understand what is at stake. The far-right play for keeps. You can’t meet them half-way, they won’t compromise. If you engage on their conceptual turf at all it becomes a farce. Thomas Mair says death to traitors, what will the Labour Right response be? “Death to some traitors? If they’re on a watch-list”?

The far-right plays off fear, it sucks more and more people into its malaise. The unique and toxic combination of British society has created a situation where it is well able to fester. By legitimising the premises of their arguments, that immigrants are different, that there’s a threat from immigration, that we need to take steps to secure ourselves, you don’t pick off those on the fence. You embolden the hardcore to reach more audiences. The entire debate slips rightward.

There are some things that are just the right thing to do. There are some stands you just have to take. ‘Electability’ is a joke concept if the cost is fascism. The cost of pandering to racists is not worth the risk.  What’s the point in being elected if the result is mass disenfranchisement and a newly emboldened far-right.

Brexit is a tragedy for the Left, make no mistake about it. Maybe in an alternative timeline where the left wasn’t decimated after the 80s, where strong arguments were made – starting decades ago – about why the EU is bad we could have had a ‘Lexit’. Maybe in a world where the main press and the tabloids had a left-wing bias instead of a right-wing one, we could have had a sensible discussion on the pros and cons of the European project. But that is not the world we are living in.

Instead Brexit is about English nationalism exerting itself, it is about terrifying and otherising immigrants and it is about the far-right stretching its muscles. That must be resisted. And if the Labour party want to jump into that mix too, then they will have to be resisted as well.