By Ana Oppenheim
On December 9, right before Parliament votes on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, the far right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (better known as Tommy Robinson) will be leading a demonstration under the slogan of “Brexit Betrayal” – demanding that May’s deal is voted down in favour of an extra hard Brexit.
It’s clear to me how the left should respond. When fascists take to the streets to demand more borders (and let’s face it, this is what they care about, far more than customs union arrangements or whatever), they should be countered with a large mobilisation calling for the opposite.
However, this position proved less obvious than I had expected. Two demonstrations have been called in response, neither of them explicitly raising freedom of movement as a slogan. The first one, a unity march organised by Stand Up to Racism, merely states that regardless of one’s position on Brexit, everyone should stand together against Yaxley-Lennon’s racism.
The alternative one, hosted by a coalition of groups including Momentum, Plan C, and Another Europe Is Possible, has a slightly clearer political narrative. Titled “No to Tommy Robinson, No to Fortress Britain,” it notes that “the Tory Brexit deal is an attack on everyone, and especially on migrants” and that “it is more urgent than ever that we fight against Fortress Britain: against the hostile environment, immigration raids, detention centres and deportations.”
These statements are welcome – however, on their own they’re insufficient. In response to a clear policy demand, positive rhetoric is not enough. Migrant workers whose rights are under attack would welcome a more concrete expression of solidarity. That’s why, as part of the latter counter-mobilisation, Another Europe is organising a bloc with the additional slogans of resisting Brexit and defending free movement.
This has been met with controversy. We’ve heard accusations of splitting the anti-fascist movement and of allowing the far right to own the pro-Brexit narrative. Here, let me make a few things clear. AEIP have not called a separate demonstration but are actively mobilising for and helping organise the Owen Jones-endorsed “No to Tommy Robinson, No to Fortress Britain” march. We’re raising our own slogans as part of it, just like CLPs will be bringing Labour banners, and Kurdish solidarity groups are coming with theirs. Neither have we said that Leave voters can’t be part of the anti-fascist movement – of course they can and are.
However, many of us have been disappointed by the reluctance of large parts of the left to oppose the massive expansion of border controls which can be decided by Parliament within a matter of days.
Is it fair to say that Brexit – not a hypothetical Lexit, led by a socialist government in an irresolvable conflict with Brussels, but the Brexit that’s happening here and now – is a far right project? Callum Cant, in a video for Novara Media, says that no – after all, 52% of voters don’t belong to the far right. However, that does not mean that the Leave campaign wasn’t racist. Trump, Bolsonaro, Law and Justice in Poland – all won elections, for a variety of reasons from dissatisfaction with the status quo and appealing flagship policies to straight-up bigotry. However, the fact that most of their supporters are not fascists, doesn’t mean that the results of their victories won’t disproportionately impact groups already marginalised in society.
Let’s be honest – principled Lexiters, who want to abandon the EU because of its neoliberal policies and shameful treatment of refugees (although how Brexit would help those fleeing war remains unclear) were a tiny minority in the referendum. Racist and anti-migrant slogans were front and centre of the Brexit campaign, which those of us on the receiving end remember very well. And we’re equally aware of the impact that a hard Brexit would have.
It’s frustrating to see a section of the left act as if Brexit was a symbolic issue without material consequences. Ending free movement – the principal demand of the Leave campaign – would mean building more borders, separating families and leaving over three million EU nationals at the mercy of the Home Office. In the name of keeping foreigners out, leading Brexiteers are more than willing to sacrifice other people’s jobs and livelihoods. It’s no wonder that a growing number of trade unions are coming out for a fresh referendum – including the IWGB which represents primarily precarious migrant workers.
The far right doesn’t only win by being able to mobilise large numbers in the streets. It wins when their policies are accepted by the mainstream, when its demands are implemented. When Hillary Clinton recently said that to combat the rise of fascism, progressives must curb immigration, the left rightly united in condemnation. Now, when a demand raised by the far right and backed by the political establishment, is threatening millions of people’s right to freely live and work in the country we’ve chosen, it’s time for the left to respond: not just with nice words, but with action and policy.
Whether you’re Leave, Remain or on the fence, by all means come oppose Tommy Robinson on December 9. But after that, let’s talk.
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