A People’s Vote will fight the racism festering beneath Brexit

In the first of a three-part article series written by For Our Future's Sake campaigners, Jason Arthur argues that Brexit was fuelled by anti-immigrant sentiment.

One of the misconceptions from the 2016 EU Referendum was that the only people who felt passionately about Europe were ‘centrists’. Over the coming weeks, campaigners for For our Future’s Sake will be putting forward the ‘Left Wing Case for a People’s Vote’. 

Last week the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Racism, Tendayi Achium, reported that there was a “worrying trend that the anti-migrant, anti-foreigner rhetoric developed around the campaign in favour of Brexit had become widespread in society.” Indeed she suggested that hateful and stigmatising discourse had become “normalised”, in British society. We shouldn’t be surprised by her findings.

In many ways, the last two years have started to feel like a throwback to a different era. One which my parents would recognise.

Both of them came to Britain from Ghana in 1970s, a period in which the National Front were on the rise and where Enoch Powell’s disgraceful ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was still fresh in people’s minds.

They came here because because they viewed Britain as a country of opportunity; somewhere where they could build a better life for themselves and their family. Both now proudly describe themselves as British and have always believed in giving back to society.

Overcoming pervasive sexism and racism, my mother worked for over 20 years giving careers advice and support to disadvantaged young people in Haringey. Seeing her commitment to public service is one of the key reasons why I joined the Labour Party and served as a Labour councillor.

Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, Boris Johnson’s racist jibes at President Obama, Leave.EU’s consistent attacks on Turkish people are just some of the most egregious examples of the racist rhetoric used during the referendum campaign.

In the end, Brexit wasn’t just a vote for leaving the European Union. It felt like a proxy vote for something far worse – a desire to turn the clock back to a time when Britain was more intolerant and reactionary.

The Windrush scandal is the inevitable consequence of an environment in which immigrants are consistently attacked and demonised by both a rabid right-wing press and politicians who should know better. That’s why I – and many others – were absolutely astonished to hear Gove claim last week that he believes Britain has become more welcoming to migrants post-Brexit. The spike in hate crime in 2016 would suggest differently.

In recent years, the Left have struggled with how to tackle voters’ concerns over immigration. But if the Windrush scandal teaches us anything, it’s that we must redouble our efforts to challenge and condemn anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. There should be no doubt that the ‘hostile environment’ pushed by the Home Office – an environment that has seen the persecution of a group of immigrants who have called the UK home for decades – is directly tied to the referendum result.

So what should the Left do now?

Firstly, we must make the positive case for immigration in a way that the ‘Stronger In’ campaign and Labour couldn’t and wouldn’t do. This country is a wonderful place to live, work and bring up children – why wouldn’t people want to come here? Immigrants enrich our communities and strengthen our economy.

You don’t have to buy into all of the European Union’s institutions to believe in freedom of movement and a wider pro-migration strategy. Those sitting on the fence currently will not only get splinters, but will be judged by history.

Secondly, in seeking to address structural inequalities within society, we should not neglect the task of redefining ‘Britishness’. It must be more than an abstract history lesson that harks back to the Empire, or a distasteful proxy for ‘white’, but rather a form of shared identity around values of tolerance and diversity.

Thirdly, Brexit was seen as driven by ‘the working classes’, but too often this evokes images of white middle-aged men. This is despite the fact that you’re more likely to be working class if you’re a ethnic minority,  migrant or a woman. We need to reclaim what it means to be working class, and the values that working class people hold in this country.

Ultimately, the Left must recognise that Brexit won’t reduce anti-immigrant feeling – it will heighten it. As it becomes clearer that promises made by the Leave campaign were built on sand, opportunities for populists to use anger to further stoke anti-immigrant feeling will only increase.

The Left should fight for the right for voters to have the final say on any Brexit deal the Government negotiates. And in doing so, we should seek to make a positive case for immigration, rejecting any deal that rests on a foundation of anti-immigrant sentiment.

Jason Arthur is a former Labour councillor in Haringey and is one of the founders of the For our Future’s Sake campaign. He tweets here.

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