Gary Linekar at an event at Fulham FC where refugee children take part in a football training session. Gary Linekar at an event at Fulham FC where refugee children take part in a football training session. Source: Hammersmith & Fulham Council - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The solidarity for Gary Lineker’s stance on refugees shows the ruling class’s racist agenda can be defeated, argues Chris Nineham

What a pleasure it has been to see the racists in the Tory party and the establishment humiliated by Gary Lineker’s stand and the groundswell of solidarity that followed. The affair has visibly pushed the racists back. On Tuesday, Suella Braverman was pressed even by members of her own party over how her policies would affect child refugees and pregnant women arriving in the country.

Members of the Tory clique heading up the BBC are now fearful for their futures as cabinet ministers fail to offer full public support. Suddenly, opponents of Braverman’s scapegoating of refugees are starting to get a little bit more of a hearing in the media.

The Tories will press ahead with their brutal policy. The ‘small boats’ is an issue which can fire up their base. They believe it can also gain wider traction, divert attention from the mayhem the rest of their policies are causing, and take some of the wind out of the working-class fightback.

Solidarity wins

Everyone who opposes them and their bigotry, however, is standing taller after last weekend’s events. It is worth trying to draw some lessons from the whole affair.

The first is that solidarity wins. It was effectively rapid-fire, wildcat strike action that brought BBC management to its knees. The management collapsed so quickly because action spread fast and hit output hard. The context of wider working-class resistance to the government must have made a difference here. Gary Lineker would no doubt have taken his stand in other circumstances. But it is probably fair to say that those at the BBC who bravely withdrew their labour in his support were emboldened by the wider strike wave.

It is also true that strikers across the country will be that much more confident because of the action they have taken. And because they won. There is a nice irony here because there can be little doubt that the Tories have doubled down on refugees in the last few weeks partly to try to undermine the working-class combativity on display on ‘walkout Wednesday’.

Nasty but weak

There are lessons about the government too. The events of the last week have shown that this most repressive and reactionary Tory regime is also vulnerable. It has been pushed back on its favourite battlefront, attacking defenceless refugees. 

The Tories’ vulnerability is partly a result of the clumsiness of their class war. The hypocrisy of suspending Lineker in the name of impartiality when you have packed the BBC board with Tories was just too blatant. The danger was that the appearance of BBC neutrality was about to crumble. 

There is a pattern here. Few Tories are displaying the finesse sometimes attributed to the British ruling class. The hard right in the Tory party wields a lot of power and their ideological aggression is matched by a hateful personal and political arrogance personified in Boris Johnson. Meanwhile, a prime minister who spends tens of thousands beefing up the local power grid to heat his swimming pool, when people are shivering in their flats and workers are striking against plummeting wages, is a liability.

The myth of the racist majority

Lineker and his colleagues may have made good. But it is hilarious to hear members of the richest ruling class this country has ever known calling out football commentators for being overpaid and privileged. What they really don’t like about Lineker and co is that their working-class background and continuing contact with working-class people mean they still have a sense of decency and some idea of what most working people think.

The truth is that popular support for the Tories is draining away. The most recent polling shows them trailing an astonishing 26% behind Labour. Their attempt to present themselves as champions of ‘hard-working families’ and form a cross-class alliance with a section of the working class has collapsed on contact with reality.

This is largely of course because their 2019 promises to ‘level up’ and deliver change for ordinary people were never much more than that, promises. Successive prime ministers have barely bothered to make plans for levelling up, let alone roll out actual initiatives.

It is also true that underlying social attitudes are very different from the media stereotypes. Over the last few days, the idea of a working-class full of little Englanders obsessed with immigration has been exposed as a myth. 

It is the political class and their media chorus who can’t stop talking about the little boats, not the mass of the population. Despite the fact there are almost no voices in the political mainstream who are opposing the anti-refugee hysteria, according to YouGov, at the end of last year, immigration was a ‘top three’ issue for only 32% of the population. Both health and the economy scored much higher. The environment was on level pegging.

Amongst those who disapproved of the government’s handling of asylum and immigration, the same survey found the biggest complaint was that the system was being run in ‘an incompetent and or chaotic way’. The next biggest criticism was that the system ‘treated people unfairly or cruelly’. This thought was held by more people than were concerned that ‘they are letting too many people in’.

Of course, the relentless media focus on the small boats has an impact over time, especially when the ‘leader of the opposition’ plays along. There is a significant racist minority amongst working-class people. Right now it is growing. Far-right and fascist groups like the Patriotic Alternative are at this very moment doing their best to mobilise that opinion, creating real dangers.

All the same, polling over the weekend showed that 53% of the population opposed Lineker’s suspension as against just 27% who supported it. Support for Lineker was massively higher amongst Labour voters (75%) than amongst Tories (36%). 

No doubt some backed Lineker in the name of free speech or because they hate the Tories rather than fully agree with his stand. But the last week has shown that there is a basis for a movement that can isolate the right even on the subject of refugees.

Learning lessons

This is where the lessons of the Lineker affair come in. To build this movement we need the kind of defiant stand taken by Gary Lineker and his supporters, not the whimpering of the Labour leadership who criticised Braverman’s plans only as ineffective, and initially joined the chorus criticising Lineker.

It is only by standing firm on the arguments that we can win them. We need to call out the Tories for the vicious racists that they are. We need to be clear that Lineker was right to raise the alarm by making comparisons with the 1930s. We have to oppose the relentless dehumanising of refugees and keep pointing out that they are desperate people, fleeing war, persecution, and social collapse.

But we also need to link resistance to the Tories’ racism with the continuing working-class revolt. That means never letting people forget that the state of this country is caused by the policies of the Tories and the greed of their billionaire backers: the very people who want us to turn on refugees.

The most serious fallout for the Tories would be if millions of people came away from the last few days understanding that attacking refugees is a class policy designed to stop working people from getting their due. The Lineker affair was a good start – we need to follow through.

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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