Some years ago I shared a platform in the House of Commons with then Secretary for International Development, Clare Short. “Hold the fort, I’ll be back”, she said as she suddenly left to vote on a contentious motion. And so unable to address the remarks she had yet to make on helping poor Africans, I spoke about the genesis of Black Consciousness in South Africa. I suggested there was also a pressing need for psychological emancipation, for shrugging off deference in this class-ridden society. The response was polite.
Things have changed. Film critic and teacher, Luciana Bohne writes:
In “an act of raw democracy,” as John Pilger has characterized it, fifty-two percent of British voters opted for leaving the European Union. A resounding majority of the Labour Party and trade unions voted for remaining. The disparity between the people’s vote for leaving and the vote of the party and institutions, which supposedly represent them, for remaining prompted even left observers to conclude that the people, like sheep, had gone astray and handed racist xenophobes a shameful victory. That is how the liberal commentariat transformed into a scandal the significant first step toward halting the momentum of the EU’s expansion and its enslavement of labour.
People have noticed. At 7.50 am on June 28, five days after the EU referendum, the BBC featured an item filmed at the John Cotton factory in Mirfield, Yorkshire. It prompted this tweet: “Wow. Guy interviewed by @stephbreakfast came from Pakistan 4 yrs ago. Voted leave cause he was sick of competing for jobs with EU migrants.” Which attracted this response: “I bet the BBC were in a quandary, an Asian, Muslim against immigration, I bet the bosses were spitting their muesli.”
Ali told reporter Steph McGovern that he attended an interview for a job paying £25 but was undercut by a Polish applicant who offered to work for £15. This segment vanished from the subsequent broadcast at 8.50 am. Perhaps it jarred with the narrative of working class bigotry doing the rounds.
An avalanche of headlines drew attention to a surge in reports of ‘hate crime’. “Brexit has given voice to racism – and too many are complicit” said the Guardian above an opinion piece by Miqdaad Versi from the Muslim Council of Britain. Here’s the kicker.
To claim these reports are solely due to last week’s referendum would be overly simplistic. Concerns about immigration, and in particular Muslim immigrants, have been simmering beneath the surface for some time. According to the British Social Attitudes, almost 50% of the population believe immigration has a negative impact on the British economy. Similar sentiments may also be found even within some established migrant communities, with individuals fearful that fresh waves of migrants will take their jobs or their children’s school places, as was voiced during the referendum campaign.
Stathis Kouvelakis who served on Syriza’s central committee has written “An Open Letter to the British Left”. He notes:
- It was predictable that the Labour MPs would use Brexit to launch an assault against party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. What is stunning is that they blame him for not doing enough to support an unpopular platform rejected by a significant chunk of Labour voters.
- The claim that Brexit won because the most impoverished, essentially white, racist and ageing part of the working class supported the Leave campaign is false. Objectively it was a class vote overdetermined by Britain’s intense spatial-economic polarization.
- Even when anti-immigration was cited as the main reason for the vote entirely real issues – job and housing shortages, low salaries etc – fueled legitimate but misdirected anger.
- Racism should be understood as “a displaced form of class struggle” emerging when consciousness is at its weakest. Brexit’s racialized outlook simply reflects the ability of the Right to exploit Labour’s neoliberal conversion without resistance.
- The Left’s inaccurate claim that the vote was racist supports a further turn toward an authoritarian and xenophobic form of neoliberalism.
- The result of the British referendum isn’t exceptional at all. For many years the European Union has lost all popular referenda on its proposals and its authority.
- It is not credible to claim that staying in would improve social standards when everyone knows that the EU is designed to relentlessly promote free movement for capital, the deregulation of the labor market, and the privatization of public services.
- Remain would not have been supported by the City, big business and the Tories if it was expected to lead to the relaxation of austerity.
- Despite the denials, this was a referendum about the European Union. It was impossible for the Left to sell a social agenda of workers’ rights that voters knew from experience was a fraud
Kouvelakis invites the British left to join the ‘Plan B’ project launched by French radical Luc Melenchon and other European forces.
The idea is quite simple: the existing European Union bars the implementation of any agenda that would halt — or even moderately slow — the advances of neoliberalism and austerity, as amply demonstrated in Greece. It is therefore absolutely urgent to break the founding European treaties, which enshrine perpetual neoliberalism and negate democracy and popular sovereignty. If this is not possible through negotiations — as once again the Greek case suggests — then a plan B, leading to an exit from the European Union — starting with an exit from the eurozone — is necessary. The plan needs to be specifically elaborated according to the needs of each country and also from the perspective of a genuinely new Europe to emerge from the ruins of the existing, failed European Union. Two international “Plan B” conferences have already been held, in Paris and Madrid, with more to come. I am certain that all the parties involved in the project would be delighted to see comrades from the British left participating in its forthcoming activities and starting a serious conversation about these issues. Such a move would no doubt help build the type of strategic thinking that is so much needed today. It would indeed be sad irony if — in a country with a rich tradition of labor struggles — the Left remained paralyzed under the weight of its own insufficiencies and contradictions at a moment when the dominant class and its political personnel are facing the most severe political crisis of the last decades.
Black consciousness was an indigenous phenomenon prioritising psychological emancipation, supporting independence from patronage and promoting the unity of people against the diversity of apartheid. It was a creative extra-parliamentary strategy in the face of imprisonment and torture, not a racist ideology.
It is striking that racism in Britain today matches the coded practice of liberal English society ensconced on the Berea in the 1960s. It is equally unsurprising that a grassroots network of organisations and activists outside the Labour establishment is spreading. Home and away it’s always been a class struggle.