Suella Braverman at Westminster, September 2022. Photo: Number 10/Andrew Parsons Suella Braverman at Westminster, September 2022. Photo: Number 10/Andrew Parsons

Lindsey German on racist scapegoating and how we fight back

Tory racist scapegoating isn’t exactly news. But the last week has taken it to new levels with the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, describing refugees and asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats as an ‘invasion’ – a word immediately echoed by fascists and far-right figures across Britain. Her choice of this term came only hours after a far-right racist threw petrol bombs at a migrant holding centre in Dover, an act which the police have now deemed to be terrorist.

There can be no doubting the intention of this language – it is to deliberately use the issue of refugees to stoke racism and to deflect criticism away both from the appalling treatment they receive in this country and from the wider economic and social crisis engulfing the Tories.

This is the pattern across Europe, as right wing and fascist parties make gains in Italy, Denmark and Sweden during recent elections, their programmes blaming migrants for crime, lack of housing and other social problems whose origins lie elsewhere. Just this week a French far-right MP told a left-wing black MP in Parliament to ‘go back to Africa’.

Braverman is of course notorious for her ‘dream’ of deportation flights leaving for Rwanda. She has been warned by civil servants about inflammatory language, but this is not about a slip of the tongue. She is deliberately using such language to widen her support base and to strengthen right-wing narratives in mainstream politics.

Both she and the other Tory minister in a storm over language, Gavin Williamson, have been appointed to high office by Rishi Sunak, because he relied on them to get elected as prime minister. Braverman had to resign over a security leak only six days before her reinstatement, and Williamson has been sacked twice from previous ministries.

This says it all about the supposed integrity of the Tory government. Its treatment of refugees is perhaps the nadir of the record. Stories this week of Manston refugee centre crammed to nearly treble its capacity, with instances of serious disease, overcrowding and violence; allegations of two cases of rape and assault on young people at a hotel for asylum seekers in east London; hundreds of child refugees missing, stories of refugees bussed to central London then abandoned without money, food or warm clothing all point to a thoroughly inhumane and brutal system presided over by successive governments.

The problems with the asylum and refugee system do not lie with those fleeing war, persecution and desperate poverty. They lie with a system of borders and restrictions which keep the poor out of the richest countries, which set up deliberately harsh conditions to greet those who do manage to get here, often in dangerous and frightening conditions, and which pays a fortune to various subcontractors who run the security, camps and hotels in which they are housed.

Refugees are not ‘illegal’ as the right wing narrative has it – under international law they have the right to come here. It is the government acting illegally which is the problem. It is now being challenged in court by the PCS union and Care for Calais who have done much to roll back the worst of Braverman’s plans, as have many other campaigns and individuals. They deserve full solidarity and support.

Even if this were not the case, it is a disgrace to humanity to treat those people crossing the channel in boats this way. We can all condemn people smugglers, but they only exist because of the creation of ever more reinforced borders and ever more filth spewed from those politicians and their friends in the media who tell us that these people fleeing in desperation are the source of all our woes.

The reality is that their situation and the one that we find ourselves in are the creation of the same thing: an exploitative capitalist system which demands the free movement of capital but denies the same to human beings, and in which everything is subordinate to profit. That’s why we have a cost of living crisis, a housing crisis and a supposed refugee ‘problem’ while the rich get ever richer. We must not allow those same people to divide us through scapegoating.

But the movement fights back

The People’s Assembly demonstration on Saturday gave clear signals of support for the refugees and opposition to racism. It was also a show of strength in opposition to the government, its forthcoming budget which will make the cost of living crisis even worse, and in support of those on strike or planning to in the coming weeks and months. Tens of thousands marched round parliament and past Downing Street despite the rail strikes and attempts to divide the movement.

The call was for an immediate general election not as a solution to all these problems but as a basic democratic demand when Britain is on its third prime minister in a year – the last one elected only by Tory MPs – and when swingeing attacks on our living standards and trade union rights are in the pipeline.

This raises the question of Starmer’s Labour and whether it would pose any alternative to the Tories. We certainly can’t assume that it would differ fundamentally in policies – its line on immigration has been that the Tories aren’t dealing with it efficiently enough, rather than any defence of refugees. There are questions when there would be differences – it is much harder for a Labour government to introduce further anti-union laws, and indeed this hasn’t been tried since the late 1960s. But Labour governments have always shown total commitment to helping dog capital out of a crisis and Starmer’s would be no exception.

But a vote for Labour would get rid of this totally corrupt and entitled bunch and would send a signal that large numbers of workers did not accept their austerity and worsening living standards. Getting a Labour government to respond to working-class demands requires mass action on the streets, strikes and stronger working-class organisation.

We have seen an upturn in this in recent months, with the RMT and CWU national strikes and many other more localised such as the Liverpool and Felixstowe dockers. Lecturers, civil servants, teachers, nurses, are all planning industrial action. We need much more of this, and of broader and bigger movements to challenge the priorities of capital. Plus a growth in socialist organisation which campaigns for an alternative.

This week: I am speaking at a London Counterfire meeting on Marxism and history on Tuesday.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.