Racism and xenophobia are resurgent in the UK, and the centre-left is partly to blame

Rather than engaging with the prejudices and misplaced fears of one section of the working class, the Labour party has given validation to forms of bigotry that have deep roots right across society.

David Wearing
11 July 2016
UKIP's EU referendum poster. Philip Toscano/PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

UKIP's EU referendum poster. Philip Toscano/PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.“I’m not a racist, but…..”; “I haven’t got a racist bone in my body”; “it’s not racist to have concerns about immigration”. We’re all familiar with Britain’s broad repertoire of phrases for denying or downplaying prejudice. But with a fivefold increase in reported hate crimes since the Brexit vote, it is no longer tenable to sweep this issue under the carpet. We have to be honest. This country has a problem.

The breadth of British prejudice

It is frequently said that, because a majority voted for Brexit, racism and xenophobia cannot be a significant part of the picture. This is consistent with the popular misconception that these forms of prejudice are restricted to the margins: a few far-right boot-boys, 1950s throwbacks and a handful of the socially maladjusted. It is a profoundly naïve assumption.

The proportion of people admitting racist views to pollsters is 29%, and given the social taboo around racism, the true number is likely to be higher (recall, for example, the UKIP councillor who said she had a problem with “negroes” because there was “something about their faces”, while simultaneously insisting that she was “not a racist”). A quarter of Britons say immigrants, including any British-born children, should be "encouraged" to leave the country – echoing the standard  ‘send them back’ demand of the far right. A further 30% of those polled could not say that they definitely disagreed with that position. These figures are dismaying, but will only shock those who have never experienced racism, and the widespread complacency about it, for themselves.

Now look at the actual size of the Brexit vote. Taking abstentions into account, 37% of registered voters opted for Leave, and remember that several million eligible adults remain unregistered. It is therefore reasonable to assume a significant overlap between the approximate third of the adult population that voted for Brexit and the proportions that hold racist or xenophobic views (admitted or otherwise).

This is true especially in light of the nature of the Leave campaign. Many sound and principled arguments could have been articulated in favour of a Leave vote, but the official and unofficial campaigns barely made them. Instead, they were loudly and unambiguously racist, from the infamous "Breaking Point" poster depicting a crowd of brown-skinned refugees, to the warnings of criminal Turkish hordes, poised to invade. Despite this, 37% of registered voters still supported Leave, suggesting not only that many of them agreed with the Johnson-Gove-Farage campaigns, but that many others were either blasé about or oblivious to the social dangers of handing it victory.

This is even more worrying when we consider that, at the height of the xenophobic atmosphere whipped up in the weeks before the vote, an MP and leading migrant rights advocate was murdered, with the prime suspect later giving his name in court as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. It would be surprising if the coming trial of this man were to conclude that the demagoguery and the deed were in no way connected, not least given the outbreak of hate crimes after the referendum result was announced. The inability of millions of Leave voters, in the wake of Jo Cox’s death, to take a step back, realise what was happening, and resolve to draw a line, is a social fact that needs to be looked at squarely in the face, no matter how chilling or uncomfortable that may be.

Of course, none of this is necessarily new. Britain has a rich tradition of racism and xenophobia, running right through its modern history. The holocaust of the Atlantic slave trade, the foundation of much of our national prosperity, was justified by its perpetrators through the language of racial superiority. The late Victorian plunder of Africa was carried out by avowed white supremacists such as Cecil Rhodes (whose continued extolment in twenty-first century Britain is defended, in the most fatuous of terms, even by some progressive liberals). Hostility to designated outsiders has been a persistent, recurring theme, from the ‘yellow-peril’ of the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to the anti-Semitism of the inter-war years, post-war racism towards Black and Asian people, and today’s Islamophobia and resentment towards Eastern Europeans. A toolkit of language, tropes and themes is well established in the culture, available to be deployed in new and specific circumstances.

This goes far beyond socially unacceptable speech, or even individual acts of street violence. Today, people from ethnic minorities are twice as likely to be unemployed as white people, and much more likely to suffer serious ill health, to fall foul of the law, or be rejected by prospective landlords. Many vulnerable new migrants, seeking sanctuary or just a decent life, are treated appallingly by the British government. The iniquities are enduring and structuralised, and it takes more than a few bad apples at the margins to maintain that state of affairs.

In denial

Yet the extent of British racism and xenophobia continues to be denied and downplayed, almost as a kind of reflex. There are a few potential reasons for this. For example, while everyone now knows that being a racist is socially unacceptable, the fact remains that we have never had a real, in-depth, national conversation about what racism is, how it manifests itself, and how it has shaped and continues to shape British society. This has left many people unaware that their speech and actions may be prejudiced, and many others ill-equipped either to recognise prejudice or the conditions that give rise to it. So we end up with the perverse situation where the accusation of racism now elicits more righteous indignation than its concrete, widespread existence.

This is particularly true in the dominant political discourse, which may in part be due to the disproportionate number of white people of non-migrant background working in Westminster and Fleet Street. Those who have not been subjected to a prejudice themselves are more likely to be naïve about its persistence, and reluctant to acknowledge its extent (a phenomenon women are all too aware of, from their experiences trying to highlight instances of sexism). For example, around the time of UKIP’s triumph in the 2014 European elections, the Guardian published a string of articles, all by white journalists, informing their readers that various things weren’t racist.  This is distinct, of course, from the members of the same political and media class who are actively engaged in firing up anti-immigrant sentiment for political ends.

Racism-denial cannot be disconnected from the resurgence in racist attitudes over the past 15 years, reversing the progress of the preceding decade. Right-wing politicians and media have actively pushed an anti-immigrant agenda, but too many supposed progressives have allowed this to go uncontested, or even gone along with it. A discourse of scapegoating immigrants and minorities has been given virtual free reign, where previously it might have been more strongly challenged. The negligence of parts of the centre-left has been key to this dynamic.

Allies disarmed

A new conventional wisdom which casts hostility to migrants as an expression of ‘legitimate concerns’ from the economically ‘left behind’ has played a major part in disarming those on the left whom migrants and people of colour might have hoped to count upon as allies. Many instead have chosen to deny the prejudice inherent to anti-immigration politics, to dismiss anti-racists effectively as snobs, and to portray Brexit as an authentic ‘working class revolt’.

The ‘left behind’ narrative contains some truth, but it obscures more than it reveals. Research shows that right-wing authoritarian attitudes are far more strongly correlated with the preference for Leave than income or class. 81% of people who think multiculturalism is a “force for ill” were also Leave voters. Meanwhile, many deprived urban areas opted very strongly for Remain, and  Leave was opposed by two thirds of Asian-British and three-quarters of Black-British voters, both disproportionately disadvantaged groups. Brexit can only be stood up as a ‘working class revolt’ if one equates working class with white and non-urban. And it can only be labelled primarily as a protest from those ‘left behind by globalisation’ if one ignores the fact that many of the main targets of this protest – migrants from the global south and Eastern Europe – fall precisely into that category.

Opposition to immigration and the EU occurs on a cross-class basis – the Brexit vote was 59% middle class. The specific section of the working class most susceptible to these views tends to reside in areas where migration is low. These people have highly legitimate grievances about economic issues, but not about EU immigration. As researchers at UCL and LSE have shown, recent migrants do not push down wages or reduce job opportunities, are net contributors to the exchequer, and boost the economy by spending on goods and services.

But incorrect assumptions about immigrants, which of course feed on prejudice to some degree, have been successfully mobilised by the political right, and even echoed in parts of the left. In terms of the latter, some point with alarm to ‘the numbers’, placing the blame for social injustice on the wrong amount, and kind, of humans rather than the wrong economic system. Others, with unforgivable thoughtlessness, propose an ‘emergency brake’ on immigration, effectively corroborating the demagogues' scare-story of foreigners as a threat to the nation.

Labour’s role

Perhaps above all, Labour’s role in the rehabilitation of racism and xenophobia has been crucial. This is partly down to the mistaken view that UKIP is mainly a threat to Labour rather than the Conservatives, and that UKIP’s social base matches that of the left, rather than that of the hard right. Hence the Labour establishment’s impulse to bid for the xenophobic vote, regardless of the social costs.

In addition, the ‘legitimate concerns’ narrative embraced by the Labour right-wing allows migrants to serve as convenient scapegoats. New Labour’s abandonment of anything approaching class politics, and refusal to offer a structural critique of neoliberal capitalism, has left it unable to provide any explanation as to why many people’s economic conditions have become harsher and more insecure. The obvious and factually accurate response to the current mood – that exploitative bosses, landlords, tax dodgers and a system built around their interests are to blame for our problems, not migrants – is a line that Labour’s ancien regime simply cannot and will not adopt. Their goal is to manage the status quo, not attempt to change it.

So ‘listening to people’s concerns’ on immigration serves as a substitute for doing anything that might address the real, structural issues (both economic and social), and allows Labour MPs to tell themselves that they’re still standing up for the people. But when Labour agrees that immigration is a problem (which inescapably means that immigrants, as people, are a problem), and adopts the politics of the right – sometimes even the language of the far right – there will, inevitably, be consequences. Now, xenophobic politics are no longer fighting on contested terrain, but prospering in the comfortable realm of common sense. Now, ‘everyone knows’ that immigrants are the problem. So rather than engaging with the prejudices and misplaced fears of one section of the working class, Labour has given validation to forms of bigotry that have deep roots right across society. The effect has been to lay out a big discursive welcome mat for the likes of Nigel Farage, which in turn has led to Brexit, and everything that comes with it.


Instead of thinking about how the Leave vote is in large part a legacy of their own actions, however, the Parliamentary Labour Party has decided to pin the blame on one of the very few politicians – Jeremy Corbyn – who has seriously taken up the issues of economic insecurity and xenophobia. If Corbyn is deposed, Labour will likely revert to playing its previous enabling role, reinforcing and accelerating the current frightening trends, when it should be fighting against them. A big question then for Labour and the wider left, in the post-Brexit environment, is which side of this battle it wants to be on.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData