A reply to Len McCluskey on the labour movement, migrants and Brexit

A reply to Len McCluskey’s letter in the Guardian (10 June), by Labour for a Socialist Europe steering committee member Seema Syeda.

Dear Len,

As a British-born woman of Bangladeshi origin, I am disappointed and saddened at your caricatures of the working class as a monolithic entity that voted en masse to leave the European Union.

My grandfather was born in colonial Bengal, and came to Britain at the tender age of 15 to work in a factory in the Midlands. After the death and destruction of the Second World War, he and thousands of others travelled from former colonies – many of the economies of which had been destroyed by decades of imperial exploitation – to help rebuild the mother country: Britain. Decades later, my father made a similar journey.

Without immigrants, the Britain of today would not exist. Immigrants built this country, and as one of the UK’s leading trade unionists, it is your job to represent the entirety of Britain’s working class. That includes migrants and the children of migrants – as well as those who had the privilege to be born in Britain with white skin. As I’m sure you are aware, the vast majority of ethnic minority voters voted to remain in the European Union in 2016. Many of us were repulsed by what was, quite frankly, a racist and xenophobic campaign peddled by reactionary ultra-neoliberals: Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Jacob-Rees Mogg, et al.

The xenophobia and migrant-scapegoating was fuelled by the right-wing Murdoch media. Posters and frontpages were plastered with the faces of brown-skinned migrants – many of them refugees fleeing humanitarian crisis – under fear-mongering headlines warning of a deluge of ‘aliens’ swarming into Britain. Let’s face it: immigration is what the Brexit vote was really about.

Is it any surprise, given the media onslaught, that some elements of Britain’s white working class – battered by decades of neoliberal austerity – fell for the rhetoric of hate? Even so, the notion that it was mainly the white working class that voted for Brexit is an ugly caricature: it is clear that the Brexit vote cuts across class lines, with many affluent voters in the Tory shires supporting Brexit, and many working class voters in urban areas voting to remain.

The fears of those ethnic minorities who voted remain to protest the xenophobia of the Leave campaign have now been realised. Research from Hope Not Hate evidences an increase in racist hate crime since the EU referendum. Other forms of reactionary hate and extremist violence are on the rise too: from the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox to the recent homophobic attack on two young women on a London bus – days after Brexit Party MEP Anne Widdecombe stated on national television that ‘science would produce an answer’ to homosexuality.

Migrants and ethnic minorities are amongst the most vulnerable and exploited elements of the working class, many of us facing discrimination, racism, deportation, and the challenges of an unfamiliar language and culture. Racism fundamentally underpins capitalist society as it allows the right to deflect blame upon the ‘other’. Battling xenophobic narratives is essential to the anti-capitalist project.

The answer to migrant-scapegoating is not to repeat insidious myths about ‘migrants cutting workers wages’, but to fight for better trade union rights and to turn your guns on the Tories and bosses at the top of an exploitative capitalist system.

It is not immigrants cutting workers wages, it is bosses. It is not migrants taking up social housing and using up NHS resources, it is decades of neoliberal governments – from Blair to May – failing to fund the NHS and a state-led housing programme to meet the needs of Britain’s population.

It is decades of privatisation and a deregulated banking industry sucking the productive energy out of the economy and hoovering up wealth for a tiny, privileged few. Brexit will not solve – indeed it will worsen – these issues.The Labour Party must defend free movement, and fight to remain and transform Europe.

This is the message that you – as a leading trade unionist – and the Labour Party – as the political organ of the working class – should be shouting loud and clear. For when people hold reactionary views, it is the duty of socialists and the left to challenge them and persuade those who hold them otherwise.

Had this been the unflinching line for the last three years, we as a country may have come much further in challenging the rising hatred and migrant-scapegoating that is now playing itself out across Britain.

Yours,

Seema Syeda

  • NB: the truth about Unite’s agreed policy on Brexit, here.
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5 thoughts on “A reply to Len McCluskey on the labour movement, migrants and Brexit

  1. All the talk about Stalinism being bad on this site is rank hypocrisy when comments get deleted if they don’t agree with the “party line” on Brexit. Who ever is deleting them, Uncle Joe would have been proud of you.

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    1. Some comments are, indeed, deleted: not because they don’t follow a “party line” (intelligent disagreement is welcomed) but because they’re boring, stupid and inane. Like most of yours, Steven, which I will take pleasure in continuing to delete.

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