By Alex Callinicos
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Don’t leave anger at the establishment to the racist right in EU referendum

This article is over 7 years, 5 months old
Issue 2509
The official Vote Leave campaign hope scapegoating will win support
The official Vote Leave campaign hope scapegoating will win support

Labour MP Jo Cox’s horrible murder has haunted the final days of the European Union (EU) referendum campaign. It is now known that her attacker is an open Nazi.

While on the Labour right, Cox campaigned for refugees and migrants—this no doubt made her a target.

Amid the official outrage, a weekend barely goes by without some fringe Nazi splinter group marching under massive state protection. Their anti-fascist opponents are often kettled and sometimes attacked by the police.

And to trace the roots of this atrocity, we should also remember the relentless media campaign scapegoating refugees and migrants. Cox’s husband Brendan Cox wrote a few weeks ago that politicians “in most cases are clueless on how to deal with the public debate.

“Petrified by the rise of the populists they try to neuter them by taking their ground and aping their rhetoric.”

So it’s not surprising that the referendum campaign has proved so awful. Faced with big business rallying in support of the EU, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have moved onto Ukip’s terrain and banged the anti-migrant drum.

The Financial Times newspaper noted that Cox’s murder has pushed Johnson onto the defensive, embarrassed as he “finds himself yoked together with Nigel Farage”.

The Remain camp are now on the front foot. At the beginning of last week they were staring into the abyss. Anxious about Remain’s slide in the polls, David Cameron turned to Labour to mobilise its nine million voters.

But numerous reports suggest that the overwhelmingly pro-EU Parliamentary Labour Party have been confronted with large numbers of working-class people determined to vote Leave.

Remain supporters, both in Labour and further to the left, explain this by racism. This was summed up by Billy Bragg, who tweeted last week, “Not every Leave voter is a racist, but every racist will vote Leave.”

This is obvious nonsense—since when have David Cameron, Theresa May, and the Mail on Sunday newspaper been the migrants’ friends?


In reality, Labour leaders have been mounting a double operation. To their right, they’ve made concessions. Both deputy leader Tom Watson and shadow chancellor John McDonnell have talked about limiting to the free movement of labour.

To his credit, party leader Jeremy Corbyn has distanced himself from this, saying there can be no upper limit on EU immigration.

To their left, Labour have been arguing that a Remain vote is a vote against racism. Many on the radical left echo this, and Cameron and the Britain Stronger in Europe have now taken this up.

Its absurdity has been underlined by the Médecins Sans Frontières’ decision to stop taking EU money. The medical charity said the EU is “intensifying attempts to push people and their suffering away from European shores”.

Worse still, equating supporting Leave with racism consigns around half those voting to the camp of reaction. Since the polls suggest that the poorer are more likely to vote Leave, this view endorses the stereotype of white workers in particular as racists.

And it ignores something obvious about the referendum campaign. One of the main factors driving support for Leave is hatred of politicians and the establishment. Gove attempted to capitalise on this mood by attacking the “experts” backing Remain.

The Guardian newspaper’s Polly Toynbee has tried to associate the anti-establishment climate with Cox’s murder, complaining “‘elites’ are under attack in an anarchic way”. But people have good reason to loathe the elites after a generation of neoliberalism and nearly a decade of crisis.

The danger with identifying these attitudes with racism is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If no one seeks to turn the anti-establishment anger against the real culprits – capitalism and its institutions, including the EU – then it will be the likes of Johnson and Farage (or worse) who capitalise on it. That’s why those campaigning for a left exit from the EU are right.

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