After Brexit: the received ideas of racism and nationalism

It's time to challenge 'common sense' on immigration.

Simon Hardy
25 July 2016

Received wisdom tells us that a swan can break your arm. Image, Pjt56, some rights reserved.

Writing in the 1870s, the French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote a series of short satirical pieces, published as the Dictionary of Received Ideas, in which he mocks the conventional everyday wisdom that many French people believed but had no proof of. He called these Received Ideas because almost everyone believed them, but no one could quite say where they first heard them any many had no actual direct experience of them. He brilliantly exposed the ridiculous fads and trite sayings that were common across French Society.

In Britain there are similar ‘received ideas’; whenever anyone mentions a swan someone will say “be careful they can break your arm!” How many actual arms have been broken by swans is unclear. Other examples are familiar — it is common practice to call British émigrés ex-pats (particularly the ones living in Spain), though no one knows why any more.

A major theme of the dictionary was an attack on inherited prejudice and misinformation. Today in the aftermath of the EU referendum campaign and its results, we can see the terrible consequences of similar problems in our own society. What swung the referendum vote was the received ideas in Britain that fester among many people; the ways of explaining their poverty, the ways of making sense of the decline of their communities. That immigrants “take all our jobs” or “lower wages” are routinely spoken of in workplaces, in pubs, living rooms, political meetings up and down the country. 

What makes them dangerous is that they are common sense ideas — the economy has a certain number of jobs to go around, so more people means less jobs for the rest. Likewise it is common knowledge that foreigners are willing to work for less money (also that they are harder working, more industrious, more obedient), so that must also have an impact on ‘native’ wages. It is these 'common sense' views that are the Achilles heel of all attempts to build a progressive movement in this country.

These received ideas are regularly expounded in the mainstream press. Tabloid papers on a daily basis use these arguments as if they were simply unarguable, uncontroversially obvious to everyone.

The bitter fruits of these views that circulate around our society (indeed nearly all societies) were tasted during the referendum campaign, when Vote Leave tapped into the bubbling discontent, the poisonous sense of alienation, of anger to create a climate of fear that surged them ahead in the polls. When Nigel Farage unveiled his infamous Breaking Point poster, the Sun’s response was instructive. Their editorial criticised the racism implicit in the poster, but concluded that opposition to immigration was not wrong, only that the Sun’s position was based on the simple problem of numbers. The far right racists make immigration an issue of “culture” and this sometimes seeps into the right wing press, but largely the primary line of attack for racists is the maths angle. There are just too many people. In a subsequent poll 28% thought that the posters were ‘fair’.

The 3.8 million people that voted for UKIP in the 2015 election are primarily motivated by concerns around immigration. As are most Tories. Many Labour voters think the same, though they still vote Labour out of class loyalty. The fascist movement, small and divided it may be (though as the assassination of Jo Cox shows, they are willing to commit horrific acts in the name of their cause) are more than happy to ride the wave of mainstream thinking about immigration, for them it is the gift that keeps on giving.

And we mustn’t forget that the Remain Vote was itself predicted on implementing the Cameron ‘new deal’ with the EU, the key points of which all obsessed over the question of migrants access to benefits. The deal that Cameron wrung out of the EU to sell to the British people sought to discriminate against newly arrived EU migrants to placate the nationalist vote back home. The key argument from the Leave campaign was that this discrimination does not go far enough, only a complete ending of so-called open borders offered a solution.

Giving ground…

If we want to build a more socially just society then not just tackling but undoing and reversing the dominant — indeed hegemonic — received ideas around immigration is absolutely essential. Simply put, if we don’t win the argument then it will be almost impossible to build on other more progressive issues. UKIP shows the contradiction — many of their voters describe themselves as ‘left wing’, they are pro NHS, they want a greater distribution of the national wealth to workers, they believe that there is one rule for the rich and one for the poor and that big business and managers are ripping off working people. This is a constituent base for the left — but with one problem, they have been convinced that the primary mechanism used to keep them down is ‘uncontrolled immigration’. They both blame the bosses for their situation and foreign workers. In that contradiction UKIP eat away at the Labour voting base, consolidating a right wing politics that is attracting a huge following — because it seems like ‘common sense’.

And the problem is that these views are now so dominant that the opportunist Labour MPs — terrified of losing votes — have bent the knee to the false god of ‘tackling immigration’. Gordon Brown’s intervention into the referendum was to put the blame on Albanian immigrants. Other MPs followed suit in the following days, admitting that even if Britain voted to remain the government should renegotiate the open borders of the EU. This isn’t surprising, Brown’s British Jobs for British Workers slogan preceded a worrying trend in strikes by industrial workers against EU workers, dividing the workforce along national lines. Unions have generally been timid about tackling these lies — in the referendum, scandalously, UNISON’s leaflet on the EU question didn’t mention immigration once, limiting itself to concerns around workers’ rights — implying the British trade unions would be so helpless without the EU that we would be all back in the poor house. Thanks UNISON.

So when Gramsci made the distinction between common sense (widely held ideas) and good sense (right ideas), it is time for us to focus on a good sense campaign that reaches out into UKIP heartland communities to defeat these received ideas of racism and nationalism and win people back to a progressive, left wing view.

The campaign we need

What might such a campaign look like? It would probably be mostly led by the left, but it would have to rely on the mass organisations of the trade unions and the Labour party. Only they can get the millions of leaflets and pamphlets out there, hold the kind of mass meetings that would attract hundreds of people. Only they can tackle the daily hate spewed out by the mainstream press and convince people that the right wing propaganda is biased.

The myth busting UNITE leaflet on EU migrants rights is a good start. But we need to go further — we have to put the argument out there that the commonly held views that foreign workers drive down wages or take jobs is simply untrue. It is based on a false economic premise that the economy is somehow static with a fixed number of jobs. Since this contradicts reality so strongly, it is an argument that can be refuted relatively easily.

No credible study yet published has shown any correlation between immigrant labour and a reduction in jobs or a reduction in wages. By May 2016, 6.8% of the British workforce were from the EU, yet studies done by the LSE and the Migration Observatory at Oxford University have found no significant effect on jobs for ‘native born’ British workers. The Good Sense reply to common sense thinking is that more people creates more jobs, since you need more homes, schools, shops and so on.

And although there has been a historic drop in the level of wages in the last few years, it does not correlate to levels of immigration. EU immigrants were coming to Britain during the boom years in the 2000s and wages rose. The LSE study concludes that the drop in wages was caused by the Great Recession after the financial crash of 2008.

Other studies have found that there is either an increase in wages during times of immigration or a small decrease — the conclusion can only be that the effects are so minimal that it is impossible to say that always and everywhere immigration reduces wages. For instance; “Dustmann, Frattini and Preston (2008) find that an increase in the number of migrants corresponding to one percent of the UK-born working-age population resulted in an increase in average wages of 0.2 to 0.3 percent. Another study, for the period 2000–2007, found that a one percentage point increase in the share of migrants in the UK’s working-age population lowers the average wage by 0.3 percent (Reed and Latorre 2009). These studies, which relate to different time periods, thus reach opposing conclusions but they agree that the effects of immigration on averages wages are relatively small.” [source]

study by the Bank of England published in early 2016 concluded that in a few sectors (low skilled service and construction) immigration may have contributed to a decline in wages of around 1.8% overall, but it was almost impossible to tell if that was caused primarily by immigration or by a whole host of other factors, including the rate of inflation. Again, the good sense response is to say “Join a trade union and level everyone up to the same wages and conditions.” A minimum wage of £10 and hour and the return of the closed shop would halt any potential undermining of wages in the future.

But tackling these arguments alone will not be enough. They cannot be confined to the Guardian or the rearguard actions of a few progressive NGOs. Unless the trade unions and Labour are bolder in their positive vision of the future the sense of unease or outright betrayal that many feel in the ‘abandoned’ post-industrial towns across Britain will not go away, leaving people vulnerable to the predators of the right. A Britain with stronger trade unions, well paid jobs, more time off work, better city planning and decent, cheap homes is one that can inspire millions. We just have to convince people that it doesn’t have to be built on the broken backs of immigrant workers.

Crucially, that means not just fighting to protect the rights of migrants who are already here, but to secure the same rights as were enjoyed pre-Brexit. How that plays out will be a complicated political issue but should be taken as a principle in the fight over the exit negotiations.

Whatever the future holds in an increasingly uncertain time, the anti-immigrant racism in the British working class will be an Achilles heel that frustrates attempts to create social justice and could fatally undermine a left Labour leadership. The time has come to build a movement — not a front or an ad hoc alliance — a genuine movement that reaches into every home and workplace and exposes the received ideas for the nonsense that they are.

This article is part of our Reset series. Chip in here to help fund the conversation about how to change Britain for good.

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