The official Remain and Leave campaigns and the right wing media ramped up racism against migrants and dragged the debate to the right.
But the majority of working class people are not racists—including working class people who voted Leave in large numbers.
Many who supported Remain, including left wingers and liberals, argue the result was fuelled by racism over immigration.
But the idea that Leave was a racist vote by the “white working class” doesn’t add up.
The three towns outside of London where the “White British” population is not a majority produced Leave votes.
So in Luton 45 percent of the population is “White British”—it voted Leave by 56.5 percent on a 66.2 percent turnout.
Similarly in Slough 34.52 percent of the population is “White British”—people there also voted Leave by 54 percent on a 62.1 percent turnout.
Meanwhile in Leicester 45 percent of the population is “White British” and 48.9 percent voted for Leave on a 65 percent turnout.
People in London backed Remain more strongly, but Leave still had strong support among many working class people in the capital.
In Newham people voted Leave by 47 percent on a 59.2 percent turnout. The east London borough is one of the poorest and most multicultural in London, with only 17 percent of the population being “White British”.
That’s not to deny that racism is a real problem or that immigration was an important issue for many people, particularly Leave supporters.
But a rightward shift is not inevitable and polling shows a contradictory picture.
For instance, a poll by Lord Ashcroft showed that 81 percent of people who thought multiculturalism was a “force for ill” voted Leave. But only 14 percent of people who voted Leave thought multiculturalism was a force for ill.
Many working class people voted Leave to give the establishment a kicking, while many also accept some reactionary ideas around immigration. That’s partly because there wasn’t anyone high profile putting an anti-racist argument on immigration to them.
One Ipsos Mori poll found that, when asked in the abstract, 42 percent of people said immigration had a negative impact on Britain.
But some 51 percent of the total, and 47 percent of Remain supporters, said immigration had no impact on them personally.
Those saying immigration had no impact on them personally was even higher among Leave supporters at 52 percent.
This resilience is significant considering the racist assault from the right wing media—and it shows racist ideas are not fixed.
But challenging them means uniting working class people against the Tories and racist scapegoating—not abandoning large numbers of workers to the racists.
‘What happens now depends on whether we fight back together’
Many racists will feel more confident because of the Leave vote. The racist Ukip party’s leader Nigel Farage, and those even further to the right, wrongly think that the majority of people now support them.
There have been reports of racist harassment in the aftermath of the result.
The Metropolitan Police said that racist graffiti was left on the Polish Social and Cultural Centre in Hammersmith, west London, last Sunday.
The Cambridge News reported that laminated cards reading “Leave the EU—no more Polish vermin” were being distributed.
Every anti-racist must stand in solidarity with migrants against such attacks.
Jacek Szymanski, a Polish worker in north London, told Socialist Worker, “Many migrants are scared, but that’s because they’re not given the full picture.
“The official Remain and Leave campaigns were racist, but I don’t think the 17 million people who voted Leave are all racists and xenophobes.”
Racism against migrants, which produced these attacks, was built through years of scapegoating by the Tories and Labour.
Labour produced a mug during the last election pledging “controls on immigration”. During the EU campaign Remain supporters, including Labour shadow cabinet members, came out against the free movement of labour.
A Remain vote would have allowed through David Cameron’s racist EU deal, which would have restricted migrants’ right to claim benefits.
As Jacek said, “His plan was for migrants not to be able to have benefits—how is that not racist?”
Now Remain-supporting Unite union general secretary Len McCluskey and leftist journalist Paul Mason have joined calls to restrict EU immigration. This is not the way to combat the right.
Adrian Williams, a British Filipino in London, told Socialist Worker, “I voted Leave because the EU is not working in the interests of people in Britain.
“The Leave vote is bigger than immigration and it’s bigger than racism.”
The EU is not a guarantor of migrants’ rights or a bulwark against racism. Adrian added, “The next president of the EU is the Slovak prime minister Robert Fico, who said he doesn’t want Muslims in his country.”
Leaving the EU doesn’t mean migrants will be deported. Adrian said, “The NHS is filled with Filipino workers who are from outside the European Union.”
Jacek said, “More attacks on our rights would have come no matter what the result—what happens now depends on whether we fight back together.”