VoteIn might have better arguments, but it is failing those it needs to reach

The arguments made at the openDemocracy-sponsored VoteIn rally were, at last, convincing. But is the campaign refusing to engage with Brexiteers’ grievances?

A.M. Poppy
31 May 2016

High Street, Chipping Barnet, October 2015. Wikicommons/ Philafrenzy. Some rights reserved.At last the lineaments of the argument in the Brexit/Bremain debate are becoming scrutable.

So far, I have maintained that the referendum is a dispiriting conundrum. The clinching arguments were elusive in an opaque campaign thick with venom and misinformation. Until openDemocracy joined with Another Europe is Possible to get Yanis Varoufakis and DiEM25 to London to launch a Vote In campaign this weekend, calling for a new, social Europe.

Varoufakis spelled it out simply: “Sovereignty is and ought to be paramount.” A sovereignty that resides in the people making decisions democratically, to be fought for at all levels – from the local, to the European level.

Meanwhile, a vote to leave would not result in any of the promised benefits, and Brexit might precipitate the disintegration of the EU. The ensuing “vortex of deflation” would unleash forces of reaction that would “consume all of us progressives”.

So, said the rally, it is up to us to make the case in the coming weeks and campaign like hell to persuade people.

But I am doubtful about the strategy. On the day, my sense of the In campaign alienating the people it needs to reach strengthened.

“Our campaign engages honestly with all sides of the argument,” said Varoufakis. Much sanctimony was aired in the room about respect for Brexiteers’ points of view. However, as John McDonnell admitted: “We think they’re wrong”. Working class objections to mass migration were countered, denied, dismissed. Never countenanced: never acknowledged: never respected.

Throughout, the depredations of mass migration were couched in distancing academic language, used as a springboard for a lecture of how good it really is for us, and how xenophobic to decry it.

Varoufakis said: “I think we should be concerned that the undisputed net benefits of migrations are very asymmetrically scattered throughout society.” 

Caroline Lucas MP managed this: “It’s perhaps easy for politicians to forget that rapid changes in population can cause localised pressures on services and that employers can drive down wages when the workforce expands rapidly. But do you know what? That’s true whether people are moving from Leicester to London just as much as from Krakow to Coventry.”

It’s easy for politicians, perhaps, because they have not gone up and down their high street handing their CVs to the shopkeepers in a last attempt to get work and never gotten a call back. So let us challenge all politicians with the following thought experiment:

Put yourself in the shoes of a local man unable to get even a van driver’s job. Not because the pay doesn’t add up; though wages haven’t risen in years and it is standard practice to demand unpaid hours (this should be illegal surely but is publicly known - see Will Self’s column). But because the boss knows you won’t accept the terms, and he can offer the work to migrants off the coaches at Victoria station, and advertise in Poland to fill filthy jobs. Leicester blokes would be just as ineligible as you. And you know it. You don’t need to be patronised with talk of “localised pressures” and “a rapidly expanding workforce”.

But you are, and then you’re lectured on the “net contribution of £22 billion in the last 10 years” made by migrants who strengthen the economy (that’s Clive Lewis).

Where is that “asymmetrical scattering” argument when you need it? Once your plight is depersonalised and trivialised, it is soon denied entirely and you are, backhandedly, branded a racist. Clive Lewis again: “I’m clearly not saying that all Brexiteers are racists”. But the Brexiteers’ position “exposes the immigration argument for what it is: a xenophobic political tool to enable the UK to opt out of the most modest protections that the EU offers. That’s it.”

Put yourself in the shoes of a London nursing-home carer whose daughter can’t live nearby because there is no housing for her. An option in Luton is offered by the council; take it or leave it.

Lewis will tell you: don’t blame migrants for a housing shortage, “blame a Tory government that forced the selling off of council homes and never allowed them to be replaced.” Wait a minute, you might think, what of the 13 years of a Labour government in there somewhere? 

You will notice that problems with public services, housing, and pay are all blamed on right-wing Tory austerian xenophobes with whom you are summarily lumped.

Put yourself in the position of a widow who has lived on the same street all your married life. Now you don’t recognise most of the people around you, the languages spoken at the bus stop are unfamiliar, and your sense of displacement is real. What do the Vote Inners offer you?

An admonition. From John McDonnell: “I’m proud of being the grandson of a migrant worker! […] The nature of British people is to be extremely welcoming to incomers. People want to get on with each other and live in peace and harmony.”

Well hooray for that, and Amen!

But the Vote In campaign could do so much better than vilify those who harbour legitimate grievances about the damage they see to their livelihoods, neighbourhoods, and services resulting, quite obviously, from mass migration.

Heterodox economist supremo Ha-Joon Chang doesn’t beat about the immigration bush (23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism Penguin books, 2011. Thing one and Thing three):

Wages in rich countries are determined more by immigration control than anything else, including any minimum wage legislation. … the ‘free’ labour market, which, if left alone will end up replacing 80-90 per cent of native workers with cheaper and often more productive, immigrants. (p5) All societies have limited capabilities to absorb immigrants, …. Too rapid an inflow of immigrants will not only lead to a sudden increase in competition for jobs but also stretch the physical and social infrastructure such as housing and healthcare and create tensions with the resident population… If there are too many immigrants coming in at the same time the receiving society will have problems creating a new national identity without which it may find it difficult to maintain social cohesion. (p27)

But we could try.

Noone at the rally did. John McDonnell for instance: “Of course migration on any scale presents problems of integration and pressure on public services,” he intoned. “But all of these problems can be readily overcome.” And that was that. He did not say how. His next sentence was: “The vast bulk of the evidence demonstrates that migrants pay more into the economy than they take out.”

Where were the promises of stringent enforcement of a higher minimum wage? Of strong measures to expand unionisation to all workplaces? Of the requirement that companies employ directly not through agencies and gang masters? Of a helpline to dob in exploitative employers?

Where were the proposals to end the free market in housing that has turned much of London’s new-builds into investment vehicles for laundered money and offered no rental protection at all? Where the promise to end the artificial limits on council house building and retention? 

Where was the promise to flood the health and education sectors and local authorities with resources to meet increased demand? Nowhere! 

My anti-austerity hero Paul Mason suggested modest attempts at some of these measures this week. To be propounded by Labour after the referendum in the event of a Bremain vote. In which case, he said, “the plebeian end of the Leave campaign” would “react badly” to losing the referendum.

Why wait until then? Why wait for the plebs to rebel?

By blaming Tories, and smearing the victims of immigration we are shovelling thousands into UKIP’s distasteful camp.

A nasty, neoliberal Establishment might be carried to a successful Brexit by the working classes. Whom should the Left blame then?

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