I’ve already made my feelings on this referendum clear: it has been profoundly depressing in pretty much every conceivable way. Revelling in ignorance and prejudice has been reframed as ‘taking control’; facts unfavourable to your cause have been cast as ‘scaremongering’ and ‘Project Fear’. It’s easily been the most hateful, and terrifying, campaign of my lifetime.
Yet I still have hope. The above photos were all taken this morning on a single 100-metre walk in Hackney. Hackney is one of the most diverse boroughs in one of the most diverse cities in the world – over 60% of its population is not White British. Approximately 25% of its population have a main language which isn’t English. It’s one of the most deprived local authority areas in England. It has a higher than average LGBT community. There are powerful forces in this country, as we have seen over the past few months, who seek to turn diversity into division and blame poverty (along with every other problem imaginable) on anyone who is perceived as ‘different’. For all its problems, Hackney says a clear “no” to this. The far-right, whether it be UKIP or any other group, are not a force here. Last year Hackney again returned the black female socialist Diane Abbott as its MP, with a vote share increased by 8%. I am confident that today Hackney will reject the politics of racism and hatred by voting to remain in the European Union.
This matters. The far-right and those who validate it try and suggest that not to be hateful, not to be fearful, not to be racist, is somehow a ‘metropolitan’ value held by an out-of-touch elite. No-one could ever claim this about Hackney, which has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the country. The fact that the places with most immigration tend to be most positive about it (and the converse) seems instructive here: everyone living in Hackney, no matter where they are from, is surrounded by immigration, surrounded by diversity. We know it’s not a problem. We know it’s a good, a great, thing.
Those living in areas with little immigration, on the other hand, are obviously more likely to be taking their views on it from the dominant narratives pushed by the media and our political class. This brilliant article is enormously insightful regarding this, explaining how a manufactured ‘public opinion’ is used to mainstream racism, stigmatise migrants and the working-class (while framing these two identities as mutually exclusive) and “deflect responsibility away from government and capital”. We have seen this in abundance in this campaign, where mendacious politicians who have been cutting and privatising our public services, imposing harsher immigration regimes and building a low-wage, precariat job economy have had the audacity to blame immigrants for their continuing policies.
This has gone on too long and we on the left have been too complacent in fighting it – and fight it we must, from germs of hatred expressed in casual racist remarks in Hackney to EDL marches in Coventry to the far-right killing Jo Cox in Birstall. People usually wheel out Lincoln’s quote about ‘the better angels of our nature’ as a trite Hallmark sentiment about everyone getting along, depoliticising what must be a political fight against hatred and bigotry. Fighting fascists and the far-right is a political act. Fighting Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove is a political act. Fighting racism requires action above platitudes. This is why, whatever the faults of the EU, in the current climate voting Remain is a political blow against these forces. Make no mistake, the fight will, must continue past today but it’s time to draw a line in the sand and say ‘no more’ to the wretched rhetoric and policy that has characterised our politics for too long. Vote Remain. Vote ‘no more’.
It’s up to all of us.
I wrote in February about how the EU referendum ‘debate’ would be a clusterfuck of ignorance and prejudice. That required no particular insight – it was always going to be that way – yet I still find myself surprised and dismayed by just how dreadful the discourse has been. Last night’s ITV debate, which found Boris Johnson essentially parroting Daily Express headlines, was astonishingly grim to watch. It was particular breathtaking to see Johnson accusing the Remain campaign of being ‘Project Fear’ literally moments after claiming that the EU was flooding our streets with ‘terrorists and murderers’ (something which, incidentally, isn’t true.)
(photo by @nikvestberg)
I think most people have known all along how they’ll vote in the referendum, even if they can’t quite admit it; I think some can’t admit it because they know, deep down, that they’re voting based on kneejerk prejudice rather than any informed opinion. These people tend to adopt a ‘plague on both your houses’ stance, complaining that both sides can’t be trusted and it’s difficult to know who to believe. At face value this doesn’t seem like an unreasonable complaint but then you consider that it has never been easier to educate yourself about issues you are interested in. On Channel 4 news the other day a teenager began speaking about how she had felt uninformed but then went online and found an abundance of information, not produced by either campaign, which struck her as impartial. Now, I realise and accept that not everyone will have easy access to the internet or be particularly adept at using it but I also think if you’re self-aware enough to say ‘I don’t trust the campaigns, I just want some impartial information’, you then have an obligation to make an effort to find that information. It takes seconds to find descriptions of the structure and powers of the EU. The European Parliament offers a series of factsheets on various aspects of the EU. This LRB article on why leaving the EU would be enormously complicated offers a good, relatively brief, overview of its powers in the context of this referendum. Organisations like the BBC and Wikipedia have put together simple overviews of the EU. The entire point of a referendum (and a big part, I think, of why they are invariably disastrous) is that no-one is going to come along and hand you a 5-page dossier explaining the ‘right’ way to vote. It’s up to us and it requires a bit of work.
As a general rule of thumb, if it sounds utterly absurd it’s probably not true. The EU has not banned kettles. The EU does not ban bananas being sold in bunched of more than three, as a trip to your nearest grocers or supermarket will confirm. The profit margin of the UK fishing industry has increased under the Common Fisheries Policy, in contrast with the tabloid stories of rampaging foreigners stealing ‘British fish’ and destroying boats. At every turn we should seek out the truth of what we hear and aren’t sure about; importantly, we should seek to understand, rather than seek out facile memes which merely stoke our prejudices as happened too often in the Scottish independence referendum.
One of the more unexpected developments in the ‘debate’ has been the tactic of people like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and even Nigel Farage to blame any and all problems with the NHS, wages, immigration policy, housing etc on the EU (and specifically on immigration) and suggest that all these would improve if we left. These extremely right-wing politicians have suddenly discovered that they’re actually rather left-wing, wanting to increase NHS spending, increase wages, relax our immigration policy, build more housing. It’s mendacious in the extreme. Let’s be clear here: they could do all of these things now. The reason they haven’t is that they don’t want to. They are no friends of the NHS and the Tories have presided over “the smallest increase in (NHS) spending for any political party’s period in office since the second world war”. Only last year Boris Johnson was demanding a UK opt-out from EU employment laws, “stopping EU social and employment law imposing costs on business”. His government has presided over restricting access to employment tribunals, freezing maternity and sick pay and a draconian crackdown on trade unions. It has tightened immigration laws based not on evidence but on cheap party political gain, with an entirely arbitrary promise to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’, absurd restrictions on international students and pointless and cruel promises to deport non-EU migrants earning less than £35,000. The government’s extention of ‘right to buy’ to tenants in housing associations, meanwhile, is an ill-thought out disaster and its housing policy generally is predicated on keeping private housing costs high rather than investing in affordable homes. If anyone thinks Johnson, Gove and co will row back on any of this post-Brexit, I have some magic beans I think they might be interested in.
The common foundation to this line of ‘attack’ is, of course, that the UK is beseiged by immigrants and cannot cope. Yet what matters aren’t scary big numbers but investment, population density, resource use and consumption patterns. The vast majority of the UK isn’t built on, London’s population density compares favourably to other big cities while the UK, one of the richest countries in the world, isn’t even in the top 100 when it comes to population growth. We are not bursting at the seams.
To be blunt, most people have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about when they speak about immigration. The *entire* foreign-born population in the UK increased by less than 5 million in 21 years, and 3 million of these people went to London. Approximately 12% of the UK population was born outside of the UK, a percentage which puts us towards the bottom of the OECD chart (and most of this population is found in London). Most migrants only come here for less than 2 years. Migration most certainly has a positive impact on our economy and due to our population demographics, we’re going to need more of it. Most evidence suggests that migrants do not cause unemployment of UK citizens and have minimal-to-no impact on wages (government policy is far, far more important for these matters).
Far from being ‘scared’ to have a discussion about immigration, our politics and media has for too long been complacent in challenging pernicious myths (that’s putting it generously – clearly many have been strongly pushing these myths themselves). Anyone who speaks to you about the NHS or housing or a ‘strain on public services’ without referencing government investment and (of particular relevance to this debate) government cuts is seeking to mislead you. It’s time we grew up when it came to immigration. It is not a problem, we do control our borders and leaving the EU will not reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’ (and neither should we want it to).
Some people have spoken of ‘lexit’, as if the left could benefit from leaving the EU and have some say over the aftermath. This, as some of these people are now recognising, is a myth. There is no such thing as ‘lexit’. A vote to leave the EU will not help the refugees trying to enter Fortress Europe. A vote to leave the EU will most definitely bolster the likes of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, John Mann, the EDL, the BNP and every two-bit ‘I’m not racist’ in the country who moans about ‘uncontrolled immigration’ and repeats drivel about the EU banning kettles. It will have a material impact on the lives of thousands of migrants in the UK. Racists and reactionaries are by FAR the dominant forces seeking to leave the EU and you can’t separate yourself from it. Perhaps you are aware of that and still want to leave. Ok – but please do so based on some semblance of fact and not because of the drivel which has characterised this debate. As Jeremy Corbyn has argued, the EU is far from perfect but right here, right now, one option is clearly far worse than the other. Vote remain.
To call the image of Aylan Kurdi ‘tragic’ doesn’t seem to be enough. The word can’t carry the necessary levels of revulsion, horror, anger, upset, not only at the image itself but at the fact it has gone ‘viral’ today. To even write that in the context of a dead three-year old boy feels so, so wrong.
Aylan and his family, hailing from Kobanî in Syria, were attempting to get to Canada, where his aunt Teema and other family members lived. The authorities in Canada had already rejected an application for refugee status made by the family, with the fact that the UN does not register Syrian-Kurdish refugees in Turkey as refugees and the Turkish state does not give them exit visas cited as ‘complexities’ leading to the decision.
Aylan’s father, Abdullah, survived. We don’t know what he thinks about his son’s corpse making front pages around the globe and popping up on social media sandwiched between Buzzfeed lists and the Miley Cyrus/Nicki Minaj ‘beef’. Who knows if anyone has even asked him? He may plan to take the bodies of Aylan, Aylan’s brother Galip and their mother Rehan back to Kobanî but the image will endure long after even Abdullah is dead. It belongs to us now, weaponised as a means to ‘make people care’.
It’s said 11 other people died in the drowning which claimed Aylan. The UNHCR states that over 2,500 have died in recent months attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Fortress Europe. Amnesty states that over 1,700 died in the same circumstances in the period January-April. In Syria and Iraq alone, some 15 million people have been displaced (to elsewhere within and externally) in the past few years, while poverty, war and persecution has led millions to flee Libya, South Sudan, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Myanmar, Nigeria, Ukraine and more. This is not a new problem – the UNHR stated in June that the number of people displaced in the world was at its highest point since World War II – yet Aylan’s image is being shared with a previously unseen sense of urgency and purpose.
Clearly some good will come from this, yet it is profoundly troubling that we as a society instrumentalise the image of a dead child in order to ‘make people care’. Without wishing to diminish the complexity of the situation, the countries contibuting directly to the refugee crisis are almost without exception ones which have been subject to colonial, imperialist interference by the countries now hand-wringing over how many refugees to take, scrapping sea rescue operations and whether to use gunboats to deter the people from coming. Decisions have been made in afternoon meetings which have wreaked havoc on the lives of people thousands of miles away. Now we replicate this mindset, taking it upon ourselves to share images of death in order to ‘help’. Whether dead or alive, it would appear that we like our ‘victims’ to be silent and subservient. Contrast the spreading of Aylan’s image with the response to images of the on-air news shooting in the USA or of Western victims of ISIS – the latter is widely seen as morally reprehensible and met with condemnation. The bodies of ‘Westerners’ are seen as worthy of dignity and respect, not to be used as propaganda in order to ‘raise awareness’ (a motive which, in a dark irony, ISIS almost certainly uses to justify its own sharing of brutalities). It’s a mindset and dynamic present in the ebola outbreak, where images of dying black bodies contrasted with ‘human stories’ of Western victims. The racism at its core of this mindset is underlined by its presence within countries like the USA when it comes to sharing images of black victims of violence:
Though these images highlight and often expose injustice, they show human beings at some of their most vulnerable moments. Personally, if I am ever murdered or beaten, I don’t want it to become a public spectacle for critique, entertainment and observance. We consume these images for public debate and recycle them as energy to push our protests, whether it is for a protest sign or to hear Peter King say, “If you can’t breathe, you can’t talk.” In our observance of incidents, we rarely stop to ask ourselves what the victim would think of our gaze.
The common thread here is that, however well-intentioned the sharing of the images are, the people in them are seen as ‘the other’, as fundamentally different from ourselves. They are seen as weaker, less able to speak for themselves, less complicated human beings, lacking in their own agency. They are seen as people ‘we’ need to save and if they keep quiet while we do it, all the better. One fundamental problem here is that it presents the problem as a humanitarian one, rather than a political one – we need to save them but there is far less focus on how we contribute to the creation of the issue in the first place.
Yet it’s clear that sharing such images can feel like doing something (and a common response to the above criticisms is ‘well what are you doing about it?) Their sharing may reflect a deeply-ingrained insidious mindset (which none of us are untouched by) but can come from a place of impotence, a sense of our own powerlessness. Here are some ideas for what we can do instead of sharing such images:
1 – If you want to post about this on social media, use that small platform to amplify the voices of those directly affected. There are interviews in newspapers, sites devoted to documenting the stories of those at the Calais camp, organisations led by migrants which seek to strengthen their own voices, events like Refugee Week and groups like Counterpoint Arts which seek to support the expression of people who have been migrants or refugees. Make an effort to find these voices – however imperfectly framed they may be (e.g. filtered through a Guardian interview) it is infinitely better in promoting our common humanity.
2 – Wherever possible, use ‘people’ instead of ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’. The latter terms aren’t to be shied away from but language matters here.
3 – Support and be led-by organisations already working in this field. Refugee Action, Migrant Rights, the Red Cross, Asylum Aid, Bail for Immigration Detainees, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, the Refugee Council, Refugee Legal Centre, Music Against Borders, Doctors of the World, Asylum Welcome, Calais – People to People Solidarity, Scottish Refugee Council, the Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees, Refugee Women’s Association, Student Action for Refugees. There will be many more, including local groups. I’m sure all could use your donations but get in touch if you want to help and listen to what’s needed.
4 – Educate yourself about the facts of immigration and asylum. Some of the organisations above are good places to start with this but this brief book is a great primer. This is a brilliant read on the UK’s long, rich foundation of immigration while this makes a level-headed positive case for its benefits. There are already strong myths which have taken hold regarding the current ‘crisis’.
5 – Educate yourself about government policy on immigration and asylum. Understanding this exposes the stark hypocrisy of politicians like Yvette Cooper, who supported every aspect of New Labour’s regressive asylum policy. The Migration Observatory has a lot of good briefings while organisations like Liberty tackle the UK’s egregious policies. There are briefings on different aspects, such as the labour market, and pieces which tackle the common myths head-on. Understand the difference between ‘migrant’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ but ask reject the narrative of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’.
6 – Understanding the political context of immigration and asylum, make links to other issues. The current ‘debate’ is intertwined with Islamophobia and wider racism. It is linked to our foreign policy, with London Review of Books articles on our role in Syria and Iraq being a wealth of information. It is linked to the arms trade and our support for despotic regimes. It is linked to climate change. It is linked to our history of colonialism. It is linked to the politics of trade, debt and aid. Re-politicise the images we are seeing and understand our own agency here.
7 – With this knowledge, try and influence the ‘debate’ in your own way. Speaking up whenever the people around us are engaging in anti-immigrant sentiment is difficult and uncomfortable but one small way in which we can directly make a difference. Call out the media when it repeats myths, makes factually incorrect statements and perpetuates stereotypes. Write to politicians at every level demanding they fight the poisonous atmosphere around this issue. IfListen to and support those affected. Support those working in linked areas.
All of us living in countries such as the UK benefit from Fortress Europe. Understanding the violence inherent in that fortress is essential but it doesn’t mean we have to feel powerless and reduce our action to further dehumanising people or signing a petition. I probably wouldn’t have written this if the photos of Aylan hadn’t appeared everywhere but that doesn’t mean the photos should be uncritically accepted as ‘making a positive difference’. We need to educate ourselves and keep fighting this fight, long after these photos have vanished from the public consciousness into Google’s archives.
This is a good piece on the staggeringly idiotic ‘debate’ that has surrounded Cameron’s ‘veto’ in the recent EU summit. The substance of what was discussed and, most importantly, what was agreed has been largely ignored. Instead we’ve seen a trite retrenchment of political caricatures, with the response of much of the left being on the level of ‘Cameron bad, EU good’ and vice versa for that fabled tribe, the ‘Eurosceptics’.
As this piece notes, the left has a long tradition of ‘scepticism’ regarding the EU arising from concerns over issues such as national sovereignty, the entrenchment of neoliberalism and ‘flexible’ labour markets. Tony Benn has long been an outspoken critic, labelling it the “most bureaucratic, terrifying system in the world.” This currently prevailing idea that if you express serious doubts about the EU (which people seem to forget is different from ‘Europe’) you are a raving, bigoted lunatic is completely absurd.
Whatever the merits or otherwise of Cameron’s diplomacy, the real story is surely that, following on from the affronts to democracy in Greece and Italy, the EU wants to further cement the interests of financial capital (and the ‘austerity agenda’) in the Eurozone and, in doing so, further erode any meaningful democratic control that can be exercised by ordinary voters. The divide we should be focusing on isn’t the overblown and hopelessly exaggerated one between Cameron and the rest of the EU. Instead, it is the widening gap which exists between the working class across the EU and an elite which can almost no longer muster the energy to mask its contempt.