Shabbir Lakha looks beyond the media blizzard surrounding last week’s referendum result and identifies anti-racist work as a campaigning imperative
With the Remain vote largely framed as the anti-racist vote among young people, especially during the last week, as well as being the favourite to win the preceding night, it was inevitable that there would be frustration as people woke up on Friday morning to the news of the Leave win. However, the level of vote shaming, abuse and refusal to acknowledge an alternative view point has been disgraceful and uncharacteristic of many of my peers both in the left and more broadly. I can only assume that they feel justified in behaving this way because they truly believe that the vast majority of 17 million people that voted to leave are racist and/or pensioners who stole the futures of the youth.
Well, as a young Muslim immigrant living in London who voted to leave, I would like to address some of the reactions I have come across. Moving past some of the more vitriolic comments that have been directed towards me and others who voted like me, the arguments that are popular on social media are incredibly patronising. No, I did not find out just yesterday morning that Farage had no intention to save the NHS. No, I did not think that our borders would be closed down until a Tory MP came out and said they wouldn’t. My vote to leave the EU was not based on that. And it is arrogant for anyone to assume that in London we are smart enough to have seen through the mainstream campaigns, but 17 million people around the country were too stupid to have done the same and lack the agency to know what they voted for.
People have also been sharing hateful comments from supporters of far right groups against Muslims and ethnic minorities since the result was announced, in an attempt to make me apologise for my vote. As a Muslim and an anti-racism campaigner, I am very aware of the rise of Islamophobic hate crimes – which did not begin yesterday. The increase in vocalisation of racist prejudices is because of the legitimacy it has been given by the mainstream leave campaign – but it is no more surprising than the spikes in hate speech and hate crimes that follow every terrorist attack around the world. I am not arguing that it is not an issue we should be taking seriously; I am arguing that it should not be viewed in isolation and used as the benchmark to judge the entire leave vote by.
Nobody, particularly not those who advocated for a left exit from the EU, claims that no one who voted leave was racist or even that the threat of far-right populism isn’t an issue. But the branding of 17 million people as racist is not only unfair and unhelpful to the fight against racism and austerity, it just doesn’t make sense.
John Rees aptly explained that UKIP, right wing Conservative and other right/far right supporting groups added together still do not amount to the majority of the 40% of the electorate that voted to leave. And this wasn’t a vote clinched by the baby boomers either. Some simple statistical analysis shows that the biggest age group bloc of the leave vote was 25-49, followed by the 50-64 group. Some analysis from the Guardian shows that the strongest trend within the leave vote was by class and a quick look at the voting map makes this abundantly clear.
So once we can accept that the driving force of this vote was the young and middle aged working class, rather than painting 17 million people with the same brush as Nigel Farage, we should be trying to understand why this was the vote and how we proceed. Indeed, leading left figures that campaigned to remain in the EU, such as Jeremy Corbyn, Owen Jones and Paul Mason, were able to do this fairly quickly without the apocalyptic hysteria a lot of their followers have displayed.
Even among the non-racist majority of the leave vote, there is definitely some misplaced anti-immigrant sentiment that is associated with the anti-establishment vote. But when both the major political parties have been using immigration as their main argument for so long, how can we expect there not to be? This only makes it more important for us on the left to act swiftly and with unity in order to reclaim the narrative.
To refuse to look at the underlying issues behind this result is to absolve the Tories for the crushing austerity they have imposed on people for the last 6 years. It is no surprise that the strongest leave votes came from areas where communities and industries have been hit hardest by austerity and who have been neglected by successive governments. Though it was lacking from the debate, the EU is an institution of the establishment and neoliberal order, and it is naive to assume that the majority of the working class vote to leave the EU doesn’t reflect anti-establishment and anti-austerity positions.
What we need now, is a strong, coherent and united movement against racism, xenophobia, austerity and war. For one, the denial of the results has led to petitions calling for a second referendum based on a minimum voter turnout and for David Cameron to consider ignoring the referendum and putting the matter to Parliament. The fact that progressive voices are advocating for undemocratic actions that go against their own civil liberties should be an indicator of just how far-removed and hysterical the reaction has been to the results of the referendum.
We are now in the position to decide what this vote means for us. It can represent the far right and racist minority if we sit back and let it, or we can get organised and ensure that the opportunity arising from it works in our favour. Instead of taking advantage of a political crisis faced by the establishment, the right wing MPs of the Labour party are attempting to mount a coup against Jeremy Corbyn and our failure to move past the debates of the last few months and disillusionment with what people have voted for, helps only the Tories and the Blairites.
Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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