The death of Jo Cox shows it’s time for Lexit supporters to reconsider the implications of supporting a vote that will intensify the trend of racist rhetoric and violence The so-called “Left Leave” or “Lexit” campaign claims that the mainstream Leave and Remain campaigns are equally racist and equally responsible for fomenting anti-migrant racism. This is not true, and is meant to neutralise the charge that the Leave camp is driving racism and reaction to greater and greater heights as we approach 23 June.
Falling behind in the polls, the official Leave campaigns decided to gamble everything on an offensive against immigration, which produced an immediate turnaround in the polls. This reached a highpoint when Nigel Farage’s “breaking point” poster last Thursday, showing a long line of refugees, was released just hours before the murder of MP Jo Cox. While there is no direct link between the two events, the growing upsurge of angry racism whipped up by the Brexit campaigns is undeniably connected to her death.
The response of Remain politicians to the Leave campaign’s advance in the polls, particularly Labour figures like Ed Balls and Tom Watson, was to compromise and argue for concessions on the free movement of labour in the European Union. The Lexit camp, under pressure after Cox’s death, has seized on these comments to claim they prove that racism is being pushed equally by both sides. This is not true; worse, the Lexit campaign against its claims has not provided a consistent opposition to Brexit racism.
The freedom of movement of labour in Europe, and the rights of EU migrants, guaranteed by EU member states, is progressive and a fundamental principle for all internationalists.The Lexit campaign denies this. It dismisses EU migrants’ rights as “the so-called freedom of movement”. The campaign as a whole implies that because the same rights are not accorded to non-EU migrants, then freedom of movement is actually a racist, “Europeanist” privilege – rather than a progressive right which we should fight to extend to workers of all nationalities.
They have to deny the progressive character of the free movement of labour in order to remove it as a reason to vote Remain, but in doing so fail in their duty to defend it, and help to further confuse workers trying to figure out where the truth lies, caught in the crossfire of both official campaigns’ inflated arguments. The Lexit camp find themselves failing to stand up to the attacks on the right to free movement just as they are ramped up by those using openly racist rhetoric to secure Britain’s exit from the EU.
Worse, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is also motivated by practical, opportunistic reasons – i.e., by the fact that for years their Lexit allies (the RMT, the Communist Party of Britain and Socialist Party) have been attacking EU migration as “social dumping”. Dismissing the right of workers to travel freely across borders, a fundamental principle for socialist internationalists, becomes the precondition for a united Lexit campaign.
So it is particularly cynical that calls from Labour figures like Andy Burnham or Paul Mason last week for freedom of movement to be renegotiated, were held up as examples of the Remain camp’s racism.
The strategy of the Tory right and UKIP has been to get a referendum and make migration and “taking back control” [of our borders] the centrepiece of the Leave campaign. As the inflammatory and racist poster from UKIP shows, attacking immigration, with more or less explicit racist overtones, is the principal calling card of the Brexiteers.
A second priority of the Leave campaign has been dumping EU employment legislation; but obviously this is not the argument used to persuade workers to vote for Brexit. Ninety per cent of the pro-Brexit newspaper headlines have been nationalist appeals attacking immigration. The Lexit camp also deny that the EU plays any role in underpinning workers’ rights in Britain. Of course we should reject the TUC’s spineless crediting of the EU for protections won by workers’ struggles here and in Europe, but again the Lexit camp then exaggerate further – they deny that the EU has extended rights won by workers in one country across Europe under pressure from the European labour movement, or that these rights underpin those in Britain and act as a block to the plans of Boris Johnson and Co to take an axe to our rights as workers on the scale that they want.
A vote to leave will be a Brexit not a Lexit, given the momentum and media coverage of the right versus the tiny Lexit camp (compare the insignifigant Trade Union and Socialist Coalition vote to UKIP’s projected 12 per cent in the last election). The referendum has lifted the lid on undercurrents of plebeian racism and nationalism and has generated a massive step forward in its virulence. A victory for Leave would boost its confidence and consolidate this even further, and demoralise those rejecting racism and nationalism.
The Leave campaign is the cutting edge of this process, its driver, and almost certainly a dangerous precursor to a stronger far right. Even a Remain would leave the dangerous legacy of bitter racists, emboldened by the presence of old fashioned racism in the political mainstream. It threatens to create more Jo Coxes.
Of course, the Tory-Lib Dem “Britain Stronger in Europe” are not innocent of fomenting anti-migrant racism; they themselves have made renegotiation of migrant rights part of their pitch. But it is nowhere near as prominent in their campaign as it is in the arguments of the Leave campaigners, and they have been constantly pressured to go further by UKIP’s aggressive focus on the issue. The social-conservative Cameron government has pushed anti-immigrant racism and has attacked multiculturalism. But whilst still committed to the EU, this has its limits. Even here it was driven in part by the rise of UKIP.
We don’t have to excuse their racism, let alone accept the concessions to it advocated by the Blue Labour and the Labour right wing, to note that the Tories are conceding to UKIP, and that their bland bourgeois political establishment prescriptions are convincing few of the poorest and most desperate. It is not the Remain campaign that is driving the radicalisation and mobilisation of racists – it’s the Leave campaigns. Immigration is central to the latter and secondary to the former. What is more, attacks on freedom of movement are stridently opposed by Jeremy Corbyn and his wing of the Labour party.
It is dishonest and disingenuous for the Lexit campaign to deny that the Leave campaigns are driving the rise of racism – and that they are forcing the official Remain side to make concessions to it. The death of Jo Cox ought to be a wake-up call. Instead they ignore what it reveals about this referendum; its lessons are something to spin away.
Of course the forces in the Lexit campaign are committed anti-racists who will have to unite with internationalist forces in the labour movement to oppose racism and the fascists whatever the results of this damaging referendum.
But, without an ounce of pessimism or despair, we have to recognise that the conditions for a struggle against racism and in defence of migrants have been worsened, and will become even more unfavourable in the event of a Leave vote, which will express the growth of racist and nationalist division within the working class in Britain.
While we must do everything to concentrate our forces against austerity, we will find ourselves forced onto the defensive against a virulent and officially sanctioned racism.
We urge principled socialists and anti-racists considering Lexit to reconsider the consequences.