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Multicultural Britain: but make no mistake, racism won it for Brexit

January 2020. I’m at Luton Airport waiting for a flight to Geneva. I like airports. Travellers from all over the world flying far and wide. And at the low cost carrier hubs like Luton there is a distinctly young, European vibe. Solo travellers travelling for work or business. Skiers like me heading off to the Alps. Young families who are at ease with an integrated Europe, maybe bringing up their children in one country and heading home to visit their relatives.

But my usual pleasure at the European airport vibe is mixed with a distinct sadness today. It’s probably the last trip where my E111 card, giving me reciprocal healthcare rights across the EU, will be valid. It may be the last trip where, thanks to EU law, I am not worried about stacking up ludicrous mobile phone roaming charges. And looking around at my fellow travellers from other countries, it might be the last time they leave the UK untroubled by immigration concerns on their return, thanks to freedom of movement.

The rights of EU citizens resident in the UK still feel very far from certain, nearly four years after the referendum result. Like so many things – the Irish border, trade deals, the impact on jobs and the economy – the Brexiteers glibly said it would all be so easy. Now the UK economy is teetering on the edge of recession and growth is at its lowest level since 2010.

I’m listening to the couple speaking Spanish behind me. They’re phoning their mother in Spain updating them on their journey. Unlike Nigel Farage who famously complained he felt awkward that people sitting next to him on the train were speaking a foreign language, I love the different accent, the different words, the different rhythm.  

Is this what the old guy in a North Nottinghamshire pub meant last summer when I told him I grew up in London and he said: “London? That’s a different country.” Was he talking about his dislike of multiculturalism? Or was it a more innocent remark. I don’t know. I wasn’t in the mood to pursue the point. We talked about football instead. But it was certainly straight from the Farage playbook. Farage and the Brexit campaign definitely played a xenophobic tune in the referendum campaign. But Brexiteers are typically outraged when leavers suggest that racism is a factor in Brexit.

Will Self observed that you didn’t have to be racist to vote leave but, sure as hell, anyone who is racist would support Brexit.  Campaigning for a People’s Vote on the streets of Nottingham last year, it wasn’t my aim to solicit Brexiteer views on immigration and multicultural Britain. Nonetheless some people offered them. From ‘coming here and taking our jobs’ to the full monty of wanting an all-white England, I heard them. I will always remember my sadness and shock hearing a little old lady walk into a Nottinghamshire library back in 2016 on the morning of the referendum result and say loudly to the staff on the front desk: “they can all go home now.”

Let’s not beat about the bush. Racism more than got Brexit over the line. It wasn’t just a matter of tipping the balance in a 52/48 vote. Racism is deep-seated among the British electorate. NatCen Social Research reports that the proportion saying they are racially prejudiced has never fallen below a quarter in their British Social Attitudes survey ever since they started surveying the issue back in 1983. The most recent data, for 2017, found 26% saying they are “very” or “a little” prejudiced towards people of other races That is exactly half of the Brexit vote.

Looking ahead, it will be up to the new Conservative government to show that Brexit is not a racist project. I’m not optimistic. And back here at Luton Airport, I sense there’s already a feeling of Little England. It’s quieter than before. There are fewer people travelling. Is it the economy or just the fact that it is a Friday morning in January? I don’t know. But what I do know is the UK, and England in particular, is a more diminished country. The referendum has lifted a stone that has allowed intolerant attitudes to be voiced. For many of us who voted remain, we don’t feel quite so proud of our country anymore.

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The assassination of Qassem Soleimani: the UK must call Trump out

The US assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ overseas forces, has taken Trump Middle East policy into unpredictable and very dangerous territory. It is difficult to characterise the assassination of a senior Iranian general on the soil of a third party country as anything other than an illegal act of war. Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden has rightly described the move as “hugely escalatory” and like throwing “dynamite into a tinderbox”.

It is a reckless act by a president that many see as psychologically flawed and few trust to be anything other than impetuous. The fear is that it will prove a fatal miscalculation and spark war. Of course, Trump has form when it comes to miscalculation. His thoughtless withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria was blind to the consequences for the Kurdish people whose military forces have been instrumental in fighting ISIS and restoring stability in that part of the country. He tried to limit the damage with some quick diplomatic moves with Turkey. But by that time the damage was done and he had sold his Kurdish allies down the river.

The assassination will be a test of UK foreign policy towards the US. It is a chance for Prime Minister Johnson and his foreign secretary Dominic Raab to prove they are not going to be tame US poodles. They need to call Trump out for what he is – an unwise, unreliable and errant ally. Back in May 2018, Trump’s decision to pull out of a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran and reimpose sanctions pitted the US against European powers, China and Russia, cosignatories to the 2015 accord.

This earlier unilateral US move tore up a major element in progressive attempts to build a more peaceful and stable Middle East. Iran is hugely important to the region and a sustainable foreign policy needs to engage with the regime there. The European powers have been trying to do this with France, Germany and the UK working on measures to help counter the sanctions but they have struggled in the face of the Trump measures.

Trump did not listen to his European allies on the nuclear deal. His latest move is of an even more dangerous order. He hopes that it will destabilise a regime that has been weakened by US sanctions. Setting aside the dubious morality of such an approach, there is also a good chance it will simply strengthen the hand of the Khamenei government in Tehran. The UK and Europe should call Trump’s action out for the illegal act of war that it is and maintain their stance of seeking to engage constructively with Iran. Tragically, though, it may be too late.  


Labour’s spectacularly successful election-losing machine

Blame it on Brexit is a comfortable explanation for Labour’s 2019 election wipe out. But it just won’t wash. Labour was pretty brilliant at losing elections long before Brexit came along. It has lost eight of the eleven general elections held since Thatcher came to power in 1979 and its record before then wasn’t strikingly better.

In modern-day elections, it has been successful only under Tony Blair. Yet the name Blair is a four-letter word for many Labour activists. Rightly, he is maligned for becoming Bush’s poodle and for the Iraq War. But this leaves many activists blind to the hard truths that need to be learnt if Labour is to redeem itself in the eyes of the electorate.

Let’s start with Labour’s spectacular 2019 failure. When the public was asked what they feared most about a new Labour government, Brexit didn’t get on the podium. In third place, “their plans might damage business and the economy.” Second, “they would spend too much and get Britain into more debt.” And top of the list? “Jeremy Corbyn being Prime Minister.”

And even among Labour Leavers who rejected Labour this time, the fear of unpicking Brexit through another referendum was only third on their list of concerns. Their number one concern was Corbyn’s leadership and not trusting him to be an effective PM. Second among their concerns was the crazy list of spending pledges.[1]

Labour would do better to look way beyond Brexit and look hard at why it is so rubbish at winning public support. Sadly it shows little sign of doing this. It spent most of the time after losing the 2017 election congratulating itself on not losing too badly! This time round, it couldn’t have lost much more badly. Yet many senior Labour figures still comfort themselves by blaming Brexit and the media instead of facing some home truths.



Labour needs to develop a much more convincing vision for the modern economy

After losing the 2017 general election, instead of apologising and stepping down, Jeremy Corbyn addressed the Labour Party conference proclaiming Labour’s commitment to “socialism for the 21st century, for the many not the few.” Fast forward to 2019 and the spin doctors had been careful to try to airbrush the word socialism out but it didn’t fool anyone.

Instead Labour kicked off its 2019 election pitch with the cry: “It’s time to take on the vested interests holding people back.” The trouble was many ordinary voters ended up worried that Labour’s policies would hold them back. They didn’t need to dig deep to find a party that seemed more concerned with the stale language of state ownership and what felt like a shopping list of hand-outs rather than hand-ups.

Labour needs to understand that the electorate is more interested in how capitalism can be adapted to work for them than it is prepared to risk a socialism that is seen as a potential drag anchor. Nearly 80 per cent of the employed workforce work in the private sector. Many others are self-employed running their own businesses. And right across all sectors, millions of ordinary people rely on pensions and other investments that depend on investment returns. Put simply, it is capitalism not socialism they feel they have a stake in.

This is not to say that voters are blind to the need to tackle exploitation, injustices and vested interests. Most people would dearly want to see an end to modern slavery, multinational tax dodging, exploitative labour contracts, rip-off consumer credit, food banks and unprecedented levels of homelessness. Many people feel they are stuck in a wage slave or zero hours trap with little prospect of improvement.

But while Labour had these injustices firmly in its sights, they ended up being overshadowed by the sheer impracticality of a manifesto that was wide open to the criticism that, taken as a whole, it would do more damage than it would do good. Voters came away with a feeling that Labour was more interested in pursuing ideological interests such as state ownership rather than focusing on social injustices and governing in ways that would provide a realistic springboard for better living standards for all.

Labour needs to convince voters it can be a safe leader of a modern economy while also tackling injustices and investing in public services. Corbyn failed because he didn’t get to first base on economic trust. Trust on the economy is a necessary platform on which to build trust in tackling injustices and delivering good public services.