Supporting #1DayWithoutUs is a no-brainer, because it’s a just cause. The division between ‘migrants’ and ‘natives’ is a slim and often arbitrary one at best and, while I understand the political logic behind emphasising the economic benefits of migration, freedom of movement is a moral cause which shouldn’t hinge on employment. Migrant rights is perhaps *the* progressive cause of our times and it’s a secondary, but important, benefit that it just so happens to make our societies a lot better. I’m descended from Lithuanian migrants and quite literally wouldn’t be here if not for immigration, while today my friendship group would consist of about 3 people if non-British people all upped and left. For too long the discourse around immigration has been dominated by the ill-informed, the small-minded, the bigots and yes, the racists. This will only begin to change if we all take responsibility in our own lives and step up to the plate. Challenge lazy anti-immigration rhetoric whenever you encounter it, especially if it comes from family or friends. Write to your councillors, MPs, MEPs informing them that you want unapologetic support for immigration. Support political parties which refuse to pander to racism. If you can afford it, donate to pro-migrant organisations like the ones listed here https://storify.com/trillingual/refugee-resources-in-the-uk-and-europe . Oppose anti-migrant politics wherever it is found but especially in our hateful, destructive Tory government.
Brexit was the blowback from David Cameron and the Tory party’s embrace of a toxic English nationalism, a tactic which seemed to pay dividends in addressing the challenge of UKIP, wrong-footing many on the left who are instinctively uneasy with patriotism and feeding the Scottish nationalism which has led to the dominance of the SNP. Cameron clearly thought he could control the beast and was proved disastrously wrong; now Theresa May seeks less to control it and more to satisfy its every whim. Make no mistake – last week’s Tory party conference displayed a deranged, dangerous government very deliberately using racism and xenophobia to divert attention from its failings. As Seb Cooke writes:
The glue that May hopes will hold all of this together has been the overriding theme of the conference: immigration. Government departments have been lining up to declare war on foreign workers and students in a terrifying manner. They hope that this increase in anti-
immigrant policy and racist rhetoric will paper over the visible cracks elsewhere and wrong-foot Labour. The argument that May uses focuses on the idea that the white working class feel shat on because of huge inequality and immigration. It is an acknowledgment that class is back at the heart of British politics, but a vicious attempt to divide that working class.
Jeremy Corbyn’s assertion that “Conservative Party leaders have sunk to a new low” almost seemed charitable: this is truly frightening stuff. It feels like the UK is at a moment of some significance; a moment where we must all choose our side. Are we going to stand with the racist bullies scapegoating migrants and appealing to the absolute worst in people’s natures, or are we going to fight for compassion, tolerance, the vibrant internationalism which is essential for any kind of ‘good’ modern society?
The left needs to unite to fight this. Clearly Jeremy Corbyn has a hugely important role to play and his appointment of Diane Abbott as Shadow Home Secretary is welcome. Abbott has devoted her career to combatting racism and having her respond to deplorable policy ideas such as forcing companies to list foreign workers will really matter. As she said in 2014 in a speech on racism:
So, let me say this about race and anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia; I think that it is important that we unite on these issues, nothing is gained by separating off and fighting each of our campaigns in a separate corner. These are difficult times, these are dark times, and maximum unity is vital.
It is heartening to have the opposition led by people saying such things. The Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves and Owen Smith sorts continue to try and pander to anti-immigrant prejudice (and it is prejudice) and consign themselves further to the dustbin of history. We are socialists and solidarity is central to our cause – a solidarity which is not conditional on colour or country of origin.
We must unite and give new life to solidarity. If the Labour right have yet to get the memo, it’s also sad to see Scottish politics still firmly stuck in the cul de sac of self-delusion. Things are playing out exactly as I predicted on the morning after the Holyrood elections, when some more brazen nationalists were celebrating the fact that the Tories had overtaken Labour in Scotland:
The Tories pose no existential threat to Scottish nationalism. Indeed, the existence of the Tories as a party of government, to the left of the SNP, is absolutely essential to feeding the myths of Scottish exceptionalism, enabling nationalists to argue that fault lies elsewhere and portraying independence as the only way to achieve ‘progressive values’.
We have seen this illustrated perfectly this week, with the Tories’ eager embrace of racism and xenophobia seeming like catnip to Scottish nationalists who have their notion that Scotland (as a country and as a people) are just inherently ‘better’ further inflated. So, in response to a speech from Nicola Sturgeon responding to May’s toxic rhetoric, the hashtag #WeAreScotland took flight, portraying Scotland as a progressive and open society in contrast to mean-spirited Tory England. Once again, Scottish identity was erased of all complication, all division, and put to the service of a wooly ‘civic nationalism’ which essentially begins and ends at ‘we are better than Tory England’.
It is, of course, to be celebrated when any politician tackles anti-immigration sentiment. Yet this is an unhelpful, perhaps even dangerous, response. I say this because the main issue that we on the left need to deal with is the fact that public opinion on immigration is regressive and there is clearly a deep well of racist sentiment which May is tapping into. We need to tackle the myths and prejudices around immigration head on rather than complacently assuming that we are just ‘better’ or ‘different’. The Scottish nationalist response completely elides the reality of immigration politics in Scotland, something which is possible because Holyrood and the SNP do not have power over immigration policy. As we saw with raising taxes or on fracking, the SNP like to posture as ‘more progressive’ than the ‘unionist’ parties when it can contrast itself with Westminster policy but when it actually gets the powers to make radical change it shifts to the right. It matters, then, that SNP rhetoric on immigration policy has been rather more similar to the Tories than #WeAreScotland would have us believe. The White Paper presented for Scottish independence, for example, had this to say about immigration policy:
The SNP proposed a points-based system – the same kind which had ‘progressives’ howling when presented by Boris Johnson. Sturgeon, meanwhile, used some rather familiar rhetoric in her 2015 General Election debate appearance:
Keen to keep up with the latest instalment of the thrilling battle, I tuned in on Thursday night to cheer on the new golden trio of politics. It was all going down as expected, the leader of a nationalist movement started talking about wanting to get rid of, “people with no right to be here,” calling for “strong controls” on immigration and declined to give a straight answer as to whether there were too many immigrants in the country. Nigel…fucking…no wait, that was Nicola Sturgeon.
The devolution set-up has meant that progressive posturing flourishes in the gap between Westminster and Holyrood. For many Scottish nationalists, this is enough: actually fighting for progressive politics, tackling regressive attitudes and recognising that people across the UK aren’t inherently ‘different’ is difficult, slow and unlikely to give a warm glow inside.
It would mean confronting the reality of opinion in Scotland. A reality where 68% supported tougher restrictions on immigration. A reality where 63% thought immigration was too high and should be cut. A reality where 41% agreed with the statement “Scotland would begin to lose its identity if more Muslims came to live in Scotland”, where around a third think that “people from Eastern Europe/ethnic minorities take jobs away from other people in Scotland”. A reality where a great majority don’t believe that living in Scotland for years makes you ‘Scottish’. A reality where the wicked Tory Ruth Davidson has higher approval ratings than Nicola Sturgeon (and where the even more wicked Theresa May has a double-figure positive approval rating).
You don’t have to confront this reality when you can point your finger at the Tories and pretend that Scotland is a happy land free of all division, where everyone holds hands and sings The Proclaimers beneath saltires. Indeed, when you raise these issues with Scottish nationalists the most common reaction by far is not to engage with how things actually are in Scotland but to start ranting about Tories, ‘unionists’ and how much worse things are in ‘England’. As long as there’s a perception that things are worse across the border, that’s enough. Racism in Scotland can be swept under a fetching saltire rug.
It’s not good enough and no-one on the left should embrace it. This is an issue across the whole of the UK. We must unite. To repeat Diane Abbott’s words, “nothing is gained by separating off and fighting each of our campaigns in a separate corner.” We must unite: unite against racism, unite against xenophobia, unite against fascism. We must take the fight to our friends, our family, our workplaces. We must begin to break down the myths and prejudices which have led us to this dark time. We must rediscover solidarity and we must unite. This week offers an anniversary of a striking example of what ordinary people can achieve when they come together to fight the bastards. This is too important. We must unite.
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.
Before the election last year I wrote about the problem of ‘politics as comic book’, a ‘twilight’ world of good and bad, right and wrong, conducted by fighting fog because relatively few people had any idea what they were talking about. We’ve long known, for example, that the public remains stubbornly misinformed about issues like welfare and immigration.
In some respects the rise of ‘populism’ in recent years takes advantage of this, offering simple certainties in an age which seems frighteningly precarious and complex: your problems are caused by immigration, by the European Union, by Westminster, by ‘bankers’. This populism has largely been associated with smaller parties, contrasted with the ‘responsible’ and ‘mainstream’ larger parties who had a duty to combat it. This started to change with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn here in the UK and now Bernie Sanders/Donald Trump in the USA: these are politicians who are presented by those who identify as ‘moderate’ and ‘reasonable’ as offering simple, populist responses to complex problems.
Yet it is increasingly unavoidable that this is little more than self-delusion. What these people like to call the ‘centre-ground’ of politics is conducted in that hinterland of unreality where no-one really has any idea what they’re talking about but everyone pretends otherwise. It’s clear, for example, that much of our politics is addressed at the myths around welfare and immigration rather than the reality. This has found strong, grim expression in the discussion around the referendum on the European Union.
It’s obvious that public awareness of the European Union, on the basic level of what it is and what it does, is woeful. In a survey last year less only 27% of respondents in the UK could correctly answer three relatively simple questions on the EU – if people have no idea of the number of members, the chances that they have any understanding of how laws are made or even what the bodies of the EU are aren’t high. Yet, as with (and not separate from) welfare and immigration, strong feelings and perceptions of the EU have come to dominate our political discourse with little regard as to how informed or otherwise they may be.
So it was that we ended up with yesterday’s bizarre spectacle of the Prime Minister trumpeting an improved ‘deal’ for the UK in the EU and asking that people vote to remain in it as a consequence. The two centrepieces of this deal underlined that this was about responding to ignorance rather than any practical concerns: a ‘red card’ veto over ‘unwanted legislation’ and an ’emergency brake’ on ‘migrant benefits’.
The ‘red card’ is clearly aimed at those who believe the much-renowned ‘faceless bureaucrats’ at the EU impose legislation on the EU, “like some distant imperial ruler legislating for its colonial subjects.” Aside from not even beginning to address the lack of education on EU decision-making or, for example, the distinction between the EU and the European Court of Human Rights, the ‘red card’ basically already exists. That’s a lot of noise mad about nothing much at all.
The hoopla over ‘migrant benefits’ gets, I think, a lot closer to the actual ‘concerns’ many have regarding the EU – concerns based on ignorance, xenophobia and just plain racism about ‘uncontrolled immigration’ and migrants ‘coming over here and taking our jobs/benefits’. Suffice to say, the available information doesn’t support this being a problem at all. The data is sketchy but suggests that:
EU migrants make up only a small proportion of the overall benefits caseload. They accounted for 2.5% of benefits the DWP administered in 2014 – mostly out-of-work benefits – in 2014, and 7% of tax credits, based on the HMRC definition discussed above.
The DWP analysis says EU migrants on “in-work” benefits cost the taxpayer £530m in 2013. That represents a modest 1.6% of the year’s total tax credit bill.
The vast majority of EU migrants living in the UK are in employment, while EU migration has been found to have “no statistically significant effects” on employment for those born in the UK (and in fact contributes billions to the UK economy). I’m also aware from personal experience that many, even on the left, are completely unaware that people living in the EU can’t just come to the UK and start claiming benefits. There are conditions, and the benefits they can claim are limited. It’s also the case, of course, the people from the UK are resident across the EU and some of them claim benefits.
The scare about EU migrants claiming benefits, then, feeds into the demonisation of welfare and immigration in general. We might not expect David Cameron to address these, given how well the Tories did out of inflaming English nationalism in May 2015. Could we expect the ‘moderate’ wing of Labour to do so? Of course not:
In claiming this as a ‘substantial win..for Britain’, Chuka Umunna reinforces the harmful myths around the EU and throws migrants under the bus. This comes after Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall spoke of wanting to restrict EU benefits in the Labour leadership election (contrast with Corbyn’s rhetoric). These are intelligent people who presumably identify as ‘progressive’, perhaps even left-wing. I find it hard to believe they aren’t aware that they’re responding to concerns which are largely baseless, and flirting with deeply unpleasant sentiments as they do so. Yet this is what seems to pass for ‘centre-ground’ politics – fighting fog to avoid being seen to challenge ‘ordinary people’, who must be deferred to always (except when they believe in things which punch upwards rather than downwards, such as nationalisation and wealth taxes).
Ignorance about the European Union isn’t, of course, confined to those who view it negatively. The incoherence of the SNP’s position, demanding ‘independence’ and ‘all decisions affecting Scotland, made in Scotland’ while being uncritically pro-EU, remains largely unchallenged. Amongst Scottish nationalists I would assert that much support for the EU comes not from a deep understanding of it (or a belief in countries working together in unions), but rather as a response to anti-EU sentiment being associated with right-wing English nationalism. This may be more benign than anti-EU sentiment but it is no less based in fog.
The SNP, of course, have made exploiting many people’s ignorance about politics into an artform. Whether it be going to war to prevent Westminster from implementing much the same law on fox-hunting as Holyrood did, constantly misrepresenting (read: lying about) EVEL while not even bothering to vote on the Housing and Planning Bill (EVEL’s first use) or presenting economic plans largely idential to Labour’s and framing it as ‘anti-austerity vs Red Tories’, the SNP understand that what is going on in Scottish politics has little foundation in fact and much in nationalist rhetoric. We saw this perfectly illustrated yesterday, when Scottish Labour called the SNP’s bluff on austerity and announced proposals to use the Scottish Rate of Income Tax to invest in public services. The SNP line on the SRIT has been consistent since Swinney’s December budget: that it’s not a ‘progressive’ tax and would hit the poor more than the wealthy. This is plain incorrect when it comes to SRIT as is and it’s even more wrong about Labour’s proposal. Yet the SNP knows that the faithful need lines and so it dutifully pumped them out: by making plans to protect the poorest income tax-payers, it was acknowledging the tax wasn’t progressive (a circular argument if ever there was one); the rebate was unworkable and possibly ‘illegal’; the tax rise was a ‘unionist’ tax to pay for Tory policies.
It was this last claim which most exposed the utterly daft, if deeply sad, state of Scottish politics, unleashing lots of unhinged ranting about ‘unionism’. Scotland doing things differently was apparently a ‘nightmare’ scenario:
Bearing in mind that public spending in Scotland is consistently higher per capita than in the rest of the UK, asking people to pay a bit more for more spending seems a no-brainer. Especially in a context where the SNP has, for example effectively cut Council Tax with its 8 year freeze, leading to a crisis in local government, while using the funds to ensure free university tuition while cutting student support for the poorest (something the SNP, again, condemned at Westminster, safe in the knowledge few would know they had done much the same). Clearly ‘doing things differently’ in Scotland is fine when it comes to enacting policies people like but when it comes to paying for it, it’s unacceptable. This is because we have the bizarre situation where, for many, the SNP get the credit for everything perceived as better than the status quo in England/Wales, but anything difficult is judged against an imaginary independent Scotland. Scotland is currently ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’ to do things differently because once the country is’independent’ it will be able to do everything better. The SNP has, of course, never actually said how it would pay for doing things differently: its White Paper offered a corporation tax cut, it is cutting air passenger duty and, prior to is general election plans proposing ‘anti-austerity’ plans largely identical to Labour’s ‘austerity-lite’, it proposed more borrowing. The latter is, of course, a valid option but one which again relied on a lack of any realistic consideration (and again was probably inconsistent with EU membership). As Professor Wren-Lewis put it, it was “being in denial about macroeconomic fundamentals because they interfered with…politics.” If the fatuous fog of the EU ‘debate’ is infused with xenophobia and English nationalism, the Scottish variant has much the same effect of impeding informed debate.
Let’s be clear: people will support different political parties, different policies, different ideologies, for many reasons. I don’t mean to fetishise some ‘reality’ which exists in an ideology-free vacuum. There are certainly discussions and debate to be had about the European Union or spending/policies in Scotland. Yet to get to them we have to first acknowledge where we are and face the truth that what’s actually happening – the truth, as far as we can get it, of how much is spent on what, of what laws actually mean, of what governments are actually doing – is a secondary consideration. It would be tempting to accredit this to an age where ‘opinion’ has become a sacred right with no corresponding responsibility to inform oneself but this isn’t a recent development, as this excerpt from The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists shows:
If we are to have any hope of a better world we have to be able to debate and to be proved wrong. Facile assertions that challenging the perceived status quo ‘insults ordinary people’ or ‘talks down Scotland’ or ‘presumes to know better’ are little more than dangerous demagoguery. It is beholden on each of us, as far as we can, to fight the political fog and refuse to flatter that which we know to be untrue. This doesn’t mean shouting about the media attacking Corbyn or protesting outside the BBC – it means attempting to understand where power lies, how it is operated and how it can best be challenged to achieve our goals. The alternative is darkness.
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.
Post-crash politics may at times have been so bleak as to bring me to tears but it’s certainly not been dull. The financial crisis of 2008 briefly seemed to offer exciting opportunities for the left yet it quickly became obvious that the overriding response of elites was ‘let’s get back to normal asap’. Many are convinced we’ve done this, with the surprise Tory victory in May confirming that the ‘status quo’ was back in business. However there’s been a palpable sense of papering over the cracks, of those in power (across the establishment) sticking their fingers in their ears and saying ‘laaaaaaaaa laaaaaaaaaaaa’ very loudly. Whether it be the changing fortunes of the various political parties, the fragile economic ‘recovery’, the crisis in the European Union or the increased visibility of grassroots groups such as Focus E15, there’s been a real sense of flux; of an interregnum with no clear end in sight. The current storm (if it can be called that) around Jeremy Corbyn feels perfectly at home in this context. If you live in the UK and follow politics, it can’t have escaped your attention that the demonisation of Corbyn is in full swing. Ever since Yougov released a poll putting Corbyn in first place of the Labour leadership election, those who want to pretend that we’re ‘back to normal’ have been going feral. The Guardian in particular has been dismally hilarious with their endless attack pieces:
I don’t need to write how utterly absurd most of this is – many others have already eloquently done so. I did, however, want to write a few words about some of the stock responses the Labour right (exemplars of the ‘carry on as normal’ crew) have offered in response to Corbyn’s rise. Much of them are encapsulated in this truly terrible piece by Robert Priest, finger-wagging at the left for being out-of-touch with the electorate. Most people, he argues, aren’t particularly left-wing, although they are ‘surely to the left of the Conservative frontbench on many issues’. We are, it seems, in that ever mythical ‘centre-ground’ which the Labour right are absolutely obsessed with. Priest uses data from the British Social Attitude survey to make this argument. The following paragraph leapt out at me:
Most pressing for the Left is the big picture: the proportion of people in favour of higher taxation and spending has collapsed from 63 per cent to just 37 per cent in the ten years from 2004 to 2014. Support for welfare spending has plummeted. Those who remember Blair-era clichés about a ‘social-democratic majority’ should consider whether they still stand up to scrutiny.
It’s true that the proportion supporting higher tax and welfare spending has been in ‘long-term’ decline. Yet if we take an even longer view, the picture isn’t quite so clear-cut: Support for increasing taxes and spending more actually rose between ’83 and plateaued around ’91/’92 before beginning its (shaky) decline. If we look at this graph in 10 year increments, it’s clear that public opinion on this question can vary enormously in relatively short periods of time. The BSA argues that this variation may match public spending – ie when the Thatcher government was cutting spending, support for more spending rose and the converse under New Labour – but this seems too pat:
We can see, for example, that support for more tax/spending rose in ’90/’91 while public spending was rising, and decreased betwen ’98-’00 when public spending was still falling. We’ve also not seen any marked increase in recent support despite public spending falling since 2010. What we can take away from this, then, is that a) public opinion is fluid and not easily explained and so therefore, b) there is no such thing as a fixed ‘centre’ of opinion. It seems fair to surmise that government and wider politics plays a role in shaping public opinion; it also seems certain that the media plays a big role here. This seems to be underlined by this infamous study which found that the ‘British public (are) wrong about nearly everything’. It cannot be a coincidence that opinion on matters like teenage pregnancy, immigration and welfare closely echoes the misconceptions advanced by our largely right-wing media (and indeed government). This is why one of the key arguments of the Labour right, that “we must start by meeting the voters where they are, not where we would like them to be“, is a nonsense. This means making policy on the basis of opinion which is both fluid and often misinformed.
It’s notable, of course, that this argument is always deployed to defend reinforcing negative stereotypes about welfare and immigration rather than, say, supporting renationalisation or taxing wealth. In the latter cases public opinion is seen as complex, changing or just plain wrong (see also Priest’s attempts to parse public opinion on abolishing tuition fees). Right-wing public opinion, however, is presented as immutable. So we end up with the absurdity of Labour leadership candidates supporting clampdowns on ‘welfare migrants’ despite it being based almost entirely on misinformation and ignorance as to its actual impact. Similarly, Labour’s capitulation to the welfare bill was based largely on public ignorance, whether that be with regards to the ‘benefit cap’ (which doesn’t save much money and makes people poorer) or welfare spending overall (increase over past 35 years is overwhelmingly due to pensions, approx. 31% of spending goes to older people as opposed to 3.6% to the unemployed/those on low incomes and it’s not out of line with comparable economies). I don’t even have to go into how far from any reality our immigration ‘debate’ is.
The Labour right, then, would have us make the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens worse in order to satisfy public ignorance.This brings me to another of their favoured arguments: that if Labour don’t win an election it is “not in a position to help people in Britain”. Ironically enough, this argument betrays the kind of paternalism and lack of imagination which these people like to berate the left for. Politics and the change it delivers is not gifted from on-high by benevolent politicians – it is a constant terrain of struggle and ‘ordinary’ people fight every day to change opinion and to help each other. Public opinion on ‘equal marriage’, for example, was far ahead of our politicians, with a majority supporting it before even civil partnerships were introduced. In refusing to acknowledge the power it has as both the party of opposition and as a potential social movement, the Labour right abdicates the terrain of public opinion and perception to the right. I’m not suggesting for a moment that public ignorance re: immigration or welfare is easily addressed but imagine a passionate, vibrant Labour Party vigorously making those arguments. It would matter and it would help people. Would support for benefit spending have steadily declined over the past 30 years had New Labour not embraced the rhetoric that it was a ‘problem‘ and aimed at the feckless? Would welfare policy be as it is currently had Labour not introduced ideas like workfare, tougher sanctions and work capability assessments? Would Labour’s achievements in reducing (some) poverty be so easily reversed had it loudly made the case for a welfare state and redistribution rather than attempting to ‘redistribute by stealth’? Would we be seeing the current Tory attack on industrial rights had Labour rolled back Thatcher’s restrictions on trade union activity?
We need only look at tuition fees to see the reality of the Overton Window and Labour’s ability to actively shape public opinion – in under 20 years the debate has moved from ‘tax-funded higher education vs tuition fees’ to one on what the level of tuition fees should be, with the Labour right presenting Corbyn’s abolition policy as the politics of irresponsibility and fantasy. The great irony is that it is the attachment of the Labour right to its own fantasy which is repeating itself here. The modern Labour right is obsessed with the founding myth of Michael Foot and the ‘longest suicide note in history’. Again and again we are told that Foot (and people like Tony Benn) took Labour to the brink of destruction with their loony left-wing ideas. Yet one of the things which radicalised Benn was his discovery in office of just how little power the left had against the forces of the British establishment and global capital. The context of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ wasn’t profligate left-wing barons running wild but a global crisis in capitalism which led Labour to seek an IMF loan, with concomitant stinging cuts. Following Thatcher’s election in ’79, Labour was actually ahead in the polls:
As you can see, Labour support actually briefly increased following Foot’s election. It then begins to decline as soon as the Labour right broke away and formed the SDP. Note that Tory support continued to decline during this period – the decline was clearly overwhelmingly due to the SDP splitting the vote. As late as April 1982, the ‘unelectable’ foot was still ahead of the Tories in the polls. That same month, the Falklands War began and the Tories experienced a massive surge in the polls – in the space of 14 days they went from being behind to having a double-digit lead, clearly the beneficiary of inflamed nationalist sentiment (where have we seen that since, I wonder?) This is now an ‘alternate history’, rarely advanced due to the dominance of the notion that Labour under Foot was irredeemable. Yet it was the Labour right who delivered the initial blow and in that sense history really is repeating itself as they obsess more over the ‘positioning’ of the party than in fighting the Conservatives and articulating a positive vision of society.
Labour has real power now and it actively harms people now when it refrains to use it in the arrogant assumption that it can only effect change when in government. I think this is a large part of why so many have been enthused by the Corbyn campaign, which seems positively exploding with energy when compared to his three competitors. It is also, ironically, the one which seems most based in reality in its refusal to bend to ignorance re: issues like welfare. There can be no doubt that Labour faces an almighty struggle to return to power and that Corbyn would face an onslaught (including from his own party) if he were leader. Yet he grasps that being in power is not a goal in itself. He grasps that what Labour does now matters. That’s why his demonisation by the right is failing dismally and why a sense of real possibility is afoot. It is not Corbyn who is repeating the mistakes of the past.