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From Africa to Kent: following in the footsteps of migrants

The guardians of Fortress Europe are fighting a lost battle: poor migrants will always try to find a better life for themselves, or die in the attempt. Daniel Trilling traces their steps, from the Middle East and Africa to the Kent countryside.

Hoppers Way in Singleton, Kent, is a quiet suburban cul-de-sac of red-brick detached houses, each with its own garage and driveway. Parked outside No 8, there is often a large white-and-grey camper van – a luxury Swift Kon-tiki 679 model, with a double bed in the back and another over the cab. Singleton is a suburb of Ashford, the last big town on the M20 as it approaches the Channel Tunnel entrance at Folkestone and a stopping point for Eurostar train services between London and the Continent. That makes it a convenient location for the rental business run by Teresa and Stephen Tyrer, who hire out the motorhome for £1,000 a week to people wishing to travel to Europe.

In early September, the Kon-tiki was in the possession of Paul Coles, 50, and his 22-year-old daughter, Joanne, from near Matlock in Derbyshire, at the southern end of the Peak District. That is about as far from the sea as you can get in England. The Coleses often travel abroad: Joanne is an accomplished motorcycle racer and competes at international meetings. On this occasion, they were attending a competition in Andorra, a principality on the French-Spanish border.

Joanne’s team won gold at the trials, and she and her father returned to the UK on 15 September. During the 1,200-kilometre drive back to Kent, they would have crossed two international borders. The first was on leaving Andorra for France. Andorra is not part of the European Union; it is a tax haven that charges non-citizens €400,000 per household if they want to take up residency there. But for temporary visitors with EU passports, the state is unofficially part of the Schengen Area, the zone of free movement that covers most of the European Union, though not Britain.

The second border was at Coquelles, just outside Calais in northern France, where drivers queue up to put their vehicles on trains that will take them through the tunnel. Since 1994, British passport control has been here, inside French territory (in return, the French get to place their own controls at Folkestone). The arrangement, which is known as “juxtaposed controls” and has since been widened to cover cross-Channel routes elsewhere in Britain, France and Belgium, was a response to fears that better transport links and closer European integration would bring crime, disease and unwanted guests. It is part of a larger system designed to ensure that the inhabitants of Kent suburbs and Derbyshire villages can enjoy the benefits of free movement while being shielded from its consequences.

To some extent, it works: Home Office figures show that between April 2013 and April 2014, 18,000 people – about 50 a day – were stopped at these border controls on the European continent because they did not have the correct documents to enter the UK.

At around 1pm, the Coles family pulled up to the driveway of 8 Hoppers Way and began unloading the camper van. As Paul Coles recalls, he was round the back of the Kon-tiki, sorting out his belongings, when he looked down “and saw these two white eyes staring at me”. A young black man pulled himself up from underneath the motorhome, stood in front of Coles and started to shake and cry. Coles, after he had recovered from the shock, gave him a sandwich and a banana.

The police were called; they searched the man, took notes, and then drove him away in a patrol car. A terse official statement issued later said merely that the man was 18 and from Sudan, and had been handed over to the Home Office’s immigration enforcement department. The Coleses were left to wonder how he had managed to cling to the underside of the vehicle, and for how long.

That young man was one of many who have arrived in Britain in similar circumstances. There was the 16-year-old boy found underneath a school coach as it made its return to Ilford, in Essex, after an outing to France. There was the man who squeezed behind the driver’s seat of a 59-year-old woman’s Fiat Panda, only to jump up as she arrived in Dover, shouting: “I’m an orphan.” And there were scores of others: mostly young men, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, who were found hiding in cars and lorries that crossed the Channel to Britain.

Who are these people, and why do they take such risks? For the past year, I have been researching the journeys taken through Europe by clandestine migrants, and examining the reasons they take them. This autumn, I set out to follow one typical route, tracing it back from London to the shores of the Mediterranean.

About a week before the Coleses made their surprise discovery in Kent, I went to a hotel in south London to visit Samuel, a gentle-voiced man in his early thirties who came from the city of Debarwa, Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa. I had first met him in August when he was still on the French side of the Channel. Samuel told me that a few weeks after this, in late August, he had walked to a lorry park a few miles outside Calais, near the approach road to the Channel Tunnel. In the darkness, as the drivers slept, he found a suitable vehicle. It was a large container lorry, with three pairs of wheels at each end and a detachable cab; the kind you see everywhere on Europe’s roads. They are like the red blood cells of our motorways, carrying goods that keep our high-street shops full, our restaurants cooking and our building sites building. They are also popular with stowaways, and contain several places where a person can be concealed.

Of these, the most obvious is inside the container itself, among the cargo, but this is difficult. The back doors are usually locked and breaking in is noisy. In Calais, some criminal gangs have keys that will open these doors, but they charge between €500 and €7,000 a time and often steal the migrants’ money. Some people try to run after the lorries and open the doors when the vehicle is in motion but this, too, is hard. Instead, many others try to hide on the underside of the lorries, crawling below the back section and manoeuvring their bodies on top of the rear wheel axle. There is just enough space to hide here, lying above the axles and balancing with your hands and feet on top of the wheel arches on either side of the vehicle. (The young man who hid under the Coles family’s motorhome probably used a similar method.) It is not easy to hold on, particularly when the vehicle is moving, and those who fall off risk being crushed to death under the wheels.

Six other Eritrean men were with Samuel that night, which meant they could push one another forward, along the narrow gap that separates the rear axle from the underside of the container above, until they reached the middle of the vehicle. Most lorries of this type have an extra storage space there, in between the two sets of wheels – a metal frame that holds a box or a spare tyre – and it was on top of one of these boxes that the six men squeezed together. “You couldn’t move your arms,” Samuel recalled, “and there wasn’t much air to breathe.”

The men hid at midnight and the lorry did not move until 5am, and in all that time they dared not move or make a sound, for fear of being discovered. Once on the motorway, the breeze allowed Samuel and his companions some fresh air, but they still had to remain concealed for another four hours as the lorry was transported by train through the tunnel and towards its destination in England. When they reached Kent, the men started banging on the container to alert the driver, but it was only when the lorry reached its depot several hours later that a staff member heard them, helped them climb out, and called the police. Samuel told officers that he was a refugee and wanted to claim asylum; they kept him in cells overnight before handing him over to immigration enforcement staff, who took him to London.

When I arrived at the hotel in the Crystal Palace area to meet Samuel, I was surprised to find an ornate white Victorian building near a park, with a blue plaque on the front wall noting that the French novelist Émile Zola had once lived there. A friend who resides nearby told me later that the hotel usually hosted coachloads of German schoolchildren. But recently it had been rented by the Home Office, an early sign of a crisis, news of which reached the media a few weeks subsequently. Companies contracted to provide housing for asylum-seekers (the system was privatised in 2012) had been failing to do so, forcing the Home Office to step in and find accommodation at short notice for hundreds of people. This led to a flurry of headlines about asylum-seekers being housed in “luxury” hotels. In reality, their living conditions were crowded and dirty. Some 600 people had been placed in Crystal Palace, even though the hotel had only 98 bedrooms.

Samuel and I walked along the high street to find a café where he could sit and tell me about his journey. The night underneath the lorry was only the last stage of a 9,000-kilometre odyssey, during which he witnessed a friend die of thirst in the Sahara Desert, squeezed into a leaking smuggler boat to cross the Mediterranean from Libya, and was so badly beaten by French police that he needed hospital treatment.

Tens of thousands of Eritreans, men and women, make similar journeys to Europe every year to escape from compulsory military service, which can last for up to 25 years in their country. This year so far, 37,000 Eritreans have come to Europe to seek asylum, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, making them the second-largest refugee group after Syrians. Most of the Eritreans go to Sweden, Germany and Switzerland, not Britain.

While still in France, Samuel told me why he’d wanted to reach the UK: he spoke English and he had heard there were jobs here – he was willing to do anything to earn a living. France was less attractive; he had friends who had been left living on the street because of a housing shortage in the asylum system. But Samuel had no idea how Britain’s asylum process worked, and now seemed bemused to have ended up where he was.

The biggest shock of all was discovering that most of the others in the hotel had made much simpler journeys. If you have the money to apply for a visa, or to buy false documents, you can travel to the UK through a legal route and then claim asylum on arrival. Airports are the single biggest route into Europe for irregular migrants, according to the EU border agency Frontex.

“Our journey is very long,” Samuel told me, referring to those who traverse the Sahara. “We cross many countries, sacrifice our life. But many people in the hotel arrived on flights. When they hear about us, they are surprised – they say our life is already passed.”

The next day I caught the P&O ferry from Dover to Calais, at the start of a weekend of protests there. Until May, the first thing you would have seen on leaving the French port on foot towards the town centre was a makeshift tent camp, home to several hundred migrants. Others lived elsewhere in the town, in squatted buildings and self-built camps. Most had come from countries where conflicts or internal repression were rife, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Eritrea and Sudan. As the volume of migrants living rough in Calais grew steadily leading up to the summer, the police demolished the tent village and several other camps, sometimes using tear gas to clear them. Riot police had been sent to patrol Calais, and the migrants complained of rough treatment.

On the Friday afternoon, around 150 migrants from Sudan and Eritrea marched through the terraced streets of working-class Calais chanting, “We want human rights!” under the impassive, occasionally hostile gaze of the town’s people. Every now and then, the protesters would switch to a chant of “UK! UK! UK!”. Two days later, on the Sunday, the anti-migrant group Sauvons Calais (“let’s save Calais”) held a rally outside the town hall, with the support of activists from several extreme-right political parties who had been bussed in. As their leaders addressed the crowd, calling for fire hoses to cleanse the town and blaming the traitors and “collaborators” in government who had allegedly opened the door to migrants, a group of masked anti-fascists tried to attack the gathering, but was stopped by police.

Calais has long been a stopping point for undocumented migrants hoping to reach the UK. In 2002, after a flurry of negative press coverage, the British government pressured France into closing a Red Cross camp at Sangatte, just outside the town, because it was deemed to be attracting migrants. Since then, the local policy has been one of deterrence, by making conditions as harsh as possible for the unwanted visitors. But as migrant numbers in Calais have recently swelled – from a few hundred last winter to the present high of well over 2,000 – the sight of destitute refugees trying increasingly desperate methods to reach the UK has drawn unwelcome attention. Fights have broken out between migrants of different nationalities as they compete for access to the lorry parks. To circumvent the smuggler gangs, groups of migrants have tried running into the ferry port en masse, hoping that a few of them will be able to hide before the police catch them.

On the Saturday between the two protests, I visited one of the largest migrant squats, a former scrap metal yard nicknamed Fort Galoo, after the name of the company that was once based there. It had been reclaimed by members of the pan-European No Borders Network, who work to disrupt what they see as unacceptable state controls on migrants. Fort Galoo was surrounded by high walls, with a small office building in one corner. On its ground floor was a generator surrounded by a spaghetti junction of extension cables. At sunset the power would be turned on for a few hours and a scrum would develop as the migrants crowded round to charge their phones. About 100 people, mainly East Africans, lived upstairs or in tents in the courtyard. There was a fire hose, still connected to the mains, for washing, and a few toilets donated by the charity Médecins du Monde. Two ageing portable buildings had been made into women-only living quarters. Female migrants are in the minority in Calais but face extra hardships: they run the risk of sexual harassment or assault and because they tend to avoid the more physically demanding methods of hiding, such as hanging beneath vehicles, they are open to exploitation by people smugglers.

Looking around the yard, I noticed a group of men and women sitting on plastic chairs in a semicircle. They were being lectured by a man who was writing out French phrases on a whiteboard. He wore a shabby corduroy jacket and spoke to his audience in Arabic-accented English, ostentatiously pronouncing phrases such as “education is the progressive discovery of our own ignorance”. Mekki was originally from Sudan and now resident in Calais, and he came to the squat most days to give the residents language lessons to help them negotiate life in France and Britain. He did this for free: in Calais, there is a whole community of volunteers, from the No Borders radicals to individual well-wishers, who help feed, clothe and advise the migrants.

During a break in the lesson I chatted with some of Mekki’s students. They asked me to conceal their identities. The first was a middle-aged woman from an East African country, who wore a matching blue-patterned dress and headscarf and had been carefully writing down phrases in an exercise book. She told me she had been a scientist studying how to increase grain output in her famine-prone home region. But a government crackdown on her ethnic group had disrupted her work. So one day she left home, travelled overland to Egypt and took a boat across the Mediterranean. She had two teenage sons, and the first they knew of her plan was when she phoned them a fortnight after she left and said, “I’m in Calais.” Why not stay in France? I asked. She looked at me a little sternly. “I’m 40 years old,” she said. “Language is the main problem. I speak English, not French. I can’t start ‘A, B, C’ again if I want to do a PhD.”

By now, Mekki was ready to begin teaching again. He asked me to come to the front and explain the meaning of some English proverbs he had written on the board. I read them out and the students repeated them softly in unison: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.” As they did so, I recognised some of the people who had been chanting angrily at the migrants’ demonstration a day earlier. The last proverb was one I had not heard before: “A bush grows best where its roots are.” I could not resist asking: this one was wrong, wasn’t it? Surely people can feel at home wherever they settle. A dozen people looked up at me and shook their heads.

***

 

Say “refugee”, and usually it evokes a sympathetic image: a terrified family on the run from a war zone, in urgent need of protection. Say “economic migrant”, how­ever, and the picture gets murkier. If they are fleeing poverty and not war, so what? Do we owe them a living? Are they even here to work, or just to scrounge off our welfare systems?

But it is possible to be one and the same thing. Several hundred thousand people apply for asylum in Europe each year, but once there, refugees need the same things as the rest of us: not just shelter, but a chance to build a life. Many try to do what millions of EU citizens do every year and travel to the parts of Europe where they think they have the best chance of achieving that.

Standing in their way is a treaty known as the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that refugees must claim asylum in the first EU country they enter. When they first claim asylum, their fingerprints are taken and placed in a Europe-wide database: if a refugee is stopped in, say, Sweden, but the database shows that he first arrived in Italy, he can be sent back there. The Home Office told me that over 12,000 asylum-seekers have been removed from Britain under the Dublin Regulation since it came into force in 2003.

The system does not always work. In late September, a young Sudanese man con­tacted me on Skype. “Hassan” and I had first met in February, when he was living under a bridge by the canal that rings the centre of Calais. He spoke good English, and loved American R’n’B. “I don’t like hip-hop, I can’t understand the words,” he’d said. “Except Eminem. ‘Lose Yourself’, from 8 Mile? Beautiful. I go to the internet and read his lyrics and sometimes I think they’re to do with me.”

Hassan had a Twitter account, so we swapped details. But the account remained silent for months, and I had begun to wonder where he was. Had he become a casualty on the motorway outside Calais? Then one day in August, I saw a tweet: “Fuck the police! They ain’t shit but a legal gang.”

Hassan, now 23, had spent almost his whole adult life in Europe. When he was 18 and still living near Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, he was briefly arrested on suspicion of being a member of a rebel militia. It was a case of mistaken identity, he said, but the police put him under surveillance. He fled to Turkey on a false passport and then to Patras in Greece, where he claimed asylum. That was in 2009, the year after the global financial crash, an event that exposed profound inequalities between EU member states and sent hundreds of thousands of Greek citizens abroad in search of work. Hassan needed to work for a living, too, but he faced a double bind. First, the growth of racism in Greece had made daily life intolerable for him and other black immigrants, as they faced frequent harassment from the police and supporters of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement. Second, Greece’s dysfunctional asylum system left refugees for years at a time with “temporary” iden­tification documents that gave them no right to travel.

In early 2014, Hassan decided he needed to get to Britain. He had cousins in Cardiff and he wanted to study to become a film director. At Patras, a port city that faces western Europe, he sneaked on to a ferry bound for Italy and hid beneath a lorry. To know which Italian port you’ll arrive at from Patras, you have to count the hours the journey takes: 24 hours and you are in Ancona; if it is 35 hours – as it was for Hassan – you have reached Venice. During the entire voyage he had to stay out of sight, scooping water from the floor when he got thirsty.

It was night when Hassan arrived at the port of Venice, which is some distance from the city itself. On the road in, police asked to see his documents. All Hassan had was his “pink paper”, the temporary document issued to refugees in Greece. The police could have arrested him but they chose not to: a 2011 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that Greece detains refugees in inhumane conditions has led to most EU states suspending Dublin returns there. National courts also sometimes consider other economically struggling countries on the edges of the EU – Bulgaria, sometimes even Italy – unsuitable for returns. The deep inequalities within Europe have thrown the Dublin system into crisis.

After walking for several hours, Hassan reached the outskirts of Venice – an industrial sprawl built inland from the historic city – where he came across a Bangladeshi man. Hassan asked him for directions to the nearest mosque. He was tired, hungry and cold and had only €2 in his pocket. At the mosque he told the imam his story. Wait here, the imam said; after people have come to pray we will have a collection for you so you can buy a train ticket to Milan.

Italy’s second-largest city, Milan has become a hub for migrants who want to make clandestine journeys to northern Europe. It is a ten-hour drive to Berlin from there, or just eight to Paris. Syrian refugees here often try to reach Sweden or Germany, where they have a good chance of being granted asylum. Others with less certain claims might head for London, where they have heard there is work available on the black market. Milan is a multicultural city and a newly arrived migrant can find people from similar backgrounds who are willing to help. Europe’s police forces are aware of these underground networks: on 13 October, 25 EU states launched a two-week operation to round up, detain and deport “irregular” migrants and to gather intelligence on their methods of travel.

When Hassan reached Milan, he met an Eritrean man outside the train station who took him to a part of the city where other Sudanese people lived. He stayed there for five days until a relative was able to wire him money, then he caught a train to Ventimiglia, the last stop on the coastal line that leads into France. There has not been much of a border there since the Schengen Agreement, but in 2011 the French government temporarily blocked trains coming from Italy because of the number of undocumented migrants on them. When Hassan crossed, the border was open: he caught a train from Ventimiglia to Nice, and then Paris. After three days sleeping on top of the air vents outside a Métro station, he boarded another train, to Calais.

When we talked over Skype in late September, I asked Hassan what had happened during the months when we had lost contact. “I began getting tired of trying and failing to get into the UK,” he told me. Every time he hid under a lorry, it turned out to be going to the Netherlands. “The more you fail, the more upsetting it is to have to walk back to Calais in the morning.”

He was on the verge of giving up when a friend told him that refugees in Scandinavia were treated better than in Britain, and suggested he go there. He went back to Paris and paid a Sudanese contact €500 to drive him north. He was living in a refugee reception centre when we spoke, and was happy about where he had ended up. “They know we have come from struggles,” Hassan said, “and they don’t want us to be in our rooms all day on the internet. They teach us; they really want us to learn the language.”

In early October I visited Augusta, a port on the east coast of Sicily. On the quayside, a yellow powder that stained the tarmac was swept upwards by the breeze, stinging my eyes. It was sulphur, a by-product of the oil refineries a few miles south from where I stood, watching people disembark from an Italian navy patrol boat and taking their first steps on European soil.

There were more than 100 of them: families with young children from Syria and Gaza; teenage boys and young men from Sudan; young women from Somalia. Some had only the clothes they were wearing, while others carried small bags of possessions. A few were so weak that they had to be carried off the boat. One Arab man strode down the metal walkway with a laptop briefcase as if he was on his way to the office.

Augusta is one of Italy’s major commercial ports. Its fate has long been linked with events in North Africa. In the past decade many European powers, including Britain, sought to strike deals with the oil-rich regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi, but Italy was the single biggest beneficiary. At one point a third of the country’s energy requirements were met by Libyan oil, much of which passed through ports such as Augusta. Other deals were struck, too: in 2008, under an agreement between Gaddafi and Italy’s then prime minister, Silvio Berlus­coni, Libya committed to halting the flow of migrants setting sail for Europe from its Mediterranean coast.

Since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, that deal has unravelled. Libya’s coast is now a major launching point for smuggler boats carrying migrants across the Mediterranean. The frequency of such crossings has increased as the world experiences its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. It is no longer possible to claim asylum at the overseas embassies of most European states, and the EU has been investing heavily in fences and surveillance at its land borders, which pushes more people to attempt journeys by sea.

Europe takes only a small proportion of the world’s refugees – some 86 per cent are hosted by developing countries, according to UNHCR – but the Mediterranean is the world’s most deadly route for migrants. More than 3,000 people drowned there last year. In October 2013, after one particularly deadly sinking off the coast of the island of Lampedusa, the Italian navy launched Mare Nostrum, a search-and-rescue operation to find migrants at sea and bring them to land at ports such as Augusta.

At the quayside, police officers wearing medical face masks and stab vests gave the signal to move. Nobody said much as we walked away from the water’s edge towards a white tent that offered shelter from the midday sun. The migrants, I later discovered, had been lost at sea for a week. Now, all you could hear was the slow tramp of feet over tarmac.

A man turned round to me and asked if I had any cigarettes. His name was El Haji, he said, from Darfur. “You’re from London? See you there,” he joked.

Already these people were being monitored and tracked by EU officials. Their final destinations would be determined by their wealth and their ability to negotiate Europe’s asylum system. Those with the money would pay €800 for a taxi ride from Sicily to Milan. Others would try to make their way up the Italian mainland in stages. Many would stay in Italy and chance their luck in a country with a weak economy, already struggling to accommodate the 150,000 or more refugees who had arrived on its shores this year.

First, though, they needed to be documented. Outside the white tent the refugees were told to sit on the floor, in the sun, as they waited to be registered and fingerprinted. Even in October, temperatures in Sicily can reach 30°. A Syrian man who had a baby boy strapped to his chest in a sling asked for some sunscreen but was told to wait. The heat got too much for him and he started walking unsteadily towards a medical tent run by Médecins sans Frontières. His wife walked with him, taking hold of their son. When the man was a few metres away from the tent, he took back his boy and held him, somewhat defiantly, for the last few paces. As he reached the doctors, they took his son and pointed towards a camp bed. He collapsed on to it.

The next day, I visited the old town in Augusta, at the end of a peninsula on the other side of the bay from the port. On a dusty road buckled by an earthquake that shook the town over a decade ago, I found an old school building that had been hurriedly pressed back into service to house children rescued from the sea without their parents. Under Italian law, adult refugees and their families can be put up at reception centres around the country, but unaccompanied minors must be looked after by the local council in the town where they arrive. About 4,000 of these minors, mainly boys, had passed through Augusta since the start of Mare Nostrum; nearly 3,000 were being looked after; the rest were unaccounted for.

There were several dozen teenage boys living at the school when I visited. Most came from West Africa; there were smaller groups from Egypt and Bangladesh. They slept on camp beds, ten to a room, and the building was left unsupervised in the evenings and at weekends. They got three meals a day, but no money, and spent much of their time wandering around the town, begging outside supermarket doorways. The people of Augusta were generous, if disturbed by the humanitarian crisis unfolding on their doorstep.

The boys pooled their money to buy cheap smartphones, and in the evenings, some of them would sit in a row on tiny primary-school chairs outside the school gates, trying to catch a wifi signal from the pizza shop opposite. They chatted on Facebook with friends and family back in their home countries, and posted photos of themselves pretending to buy expensive clothes and electronic goods in the shops on Augusta’s main street.

One of the boys, Ibrahim, was 17 and from Guinea, a poor country with rich natural resources including bauxite ore, the raw material for aluminium, without which modern travel – in trains, aeroplanes, lorries, boats and camper vans – would not be possible. First Ibrahim had gone to Senegal to study, but his parents couldn’t afford to keep paying for his education. Then he had tried to become a tailor and went to Mauritania to look for work. When that did not work out he went home again, and decided to set out for Libya. He’d never intended to come to Europe, but the chaos in Libya, where the assault and murder of black Africans has become commonplace, was such that he decided to flee. I asked Ibrahim whether he’d like to go back to Guinea. “Life there is not very stable, you know,” he said.

In October, Italy announced the end of Mare Nostrum. The intention was always that it would run for a year as an emergency programme, a stopgap until a rescue operation supported by all members of the EU could launch. But it is unclear whether the replacement operation will focus on saving lives, or on keeping boats out of European waters. The British government’s position is that the rescues should stop, because they only encourage more migrants to attempt the crossing. All of the people I interviewed for this story made their first journey to Europe in a smuggler boat across the Mediterranean. Our government believes that, had any of them drowned, it would have been a useful deterrent to others. 

Daniel Trilling is the editor of New Humanist magazine

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

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Jeremy Corbyn and the paranoid style

The Labour leader’s team has a bunker mentality, and their genius has been to extend that bunker to accommodate tens of thousands of their followers. Within that bubble, every failure becomes a victory.

 

There was an odd moment on the BBC last summer, during Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership campaign. A reporter had asked him a simple question about nationalisation: “Where did you get these words from?” he snapped. “Has somebody been feeding you this stuff?” 

At the time I was taken aback, but before long the campaign would become defined by paranoia, manifested in its leader as an extreme suspicion of “mainstream media”, and in its supporters as a widespread belief that establishment forces were conspiring to “fix” the Labour leadership contest, the so-called #LabourPurge.

This summer, Corbyn is fighting another leadership election. The main focus of his campaign so far has been an attempt to paint his rival Owen Smith as a “Big Pharma shill”, while Corbyn’s most influential supporter, Unite’s Len McCluskey, has claimed that MI5 are waging a dirty tricks campaign against the Leader of the Opposition. On stage Corbyn has attacked national media for failing to cover a parish council by-election.  

Corbyn’s time as Labour leader has been marked by an extraordinary surge of paranoia and conspiracy theory on the left. The sheer intensity of it, combined with some of his supporters’ glassy-eyed denial of reality and desire to “purge” the party unfaithful, has led some to compare Corbynism to a cult or a religious movement. Unfortunately, the problem goes much deeper. Corbyn didn’t create or lead a movement; he followed one.

In the last few years, a new breed of hyperbolic pundits has emerged on left-wing social media who embody what Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style” in politics, “a sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”.

Hofstadter’s 1964 essay was inspired by McCarthyism, but the Paranoid Style as a political and psychological phenomenon has been with us for as long as modern politics. Of course conspiracies and misdeeds can happen, but the Paranoid Style builds up an apocalyptic vision of a future driven entirely by dark conspiracies. The NHS won’t just be a bit worse; it will be destroyed in 24 hours. Opponents aren’t simply wrong, but evil incarnate; near-omnipotent super-villains control the media, the banks, even history itself. Through most of history, movements like this have remained at the fringes of politics; and when they move into the mainstream bad things tend to happen.

To pick one example among many, science broadcaster Marcus Chown’s Twitter feed is full of statements that fall apart at the slightest touch. We learn that billionaires control 80 per cent of the media – they don’t. We learn that the BBC were “playing down” the Panama Papers story, tweeted on a day when it led the TV news bulletins and was the number one story on their news site.  We learn that the Tories are lying when they say they’ve increased spending on the NHS. As FullFact report, the Tories have increased NHS spending in both absolute and real terms. We learn via a retweet that Labour were ahead of the Conservatives in polling before a leadership challengethey weren’t.

The surprise Conservative majority in last year’s election shocked the left to the core, and seemed to push this trend into overdrive. Unable to accept that Labour had simply lost arguments over austerity, immigration and the economy, people began constructing their own reality, pasting out of context quotes and dubious statistics over misleading charts and images. Falsehoods became so endemic in left-wing social media that it’s now almost impossible to find a political meme that doesn’t contain at least one serious mistruth. Popular social media figures like Dr Eoin Clarke have even built up the idea that the election result itself was a gigantic fraud.

The problem with creating your own truth is that you have to explain why others can’t – or won’t – see it. One answer is that they’re the unwitting stooges of an establishment conspiracy that must involve the “mainstream media”, a belief that seems more plausible in the wake of scandals over expense claims and phone-hacking. Voters can’t be expressing genuine concerns, so they must have been brainwashed by the media.  

The left have long complained about the right-wing bias of the tabloid press with some justification, but in recent years the rage of a hardcore minority has become increasingly focused on the BBC. “Why aren’t the BBC covering X” is a complaint heard daily, with X nearly always being some obscure or unimportant protest or something that in fact the BBC did cover.  

Bewildered and infuriated by the BBC’s refusal to run hard-left soundbites as headlines, the paranoid left assume Auntie is involved in some sort of right-wing establishment plot. Public figures such as Laura Kuenssberg, the Corporation’s political editor, have been subjected to a campaign of near-permanent abuse from the left, much of it reeking of misogyny. By asking Labour figures questions as tough as those she routinely puts to Conservative politicians, she has exposed her true role as a “Tory propagandist whore”, a “fucking cunt bag”, or a “Murdoch puppet”.

This was the context in which Corbyn’s leadership campaign was fought, and with his own dislike of the media and love of a good conspiracy theorist, he swiftly became a figurehead for the paranoid left. Suddenly, the cranks and conspiracy theorists had a home in his Labour party; and they flocked to it in their tens of thousands. Of course most Corbynistas aren’t cranks, but an intense and vocal minority are, and they have formed a poisonous core at the heart of the cause.

The result is a Truther-style movement that exists in almost complete denial of reality. Polls showing double-digit leads for the Conservatives are routinely decried as the fabrications of sinister mainstream media figures. The local elections in May, which saw Corbyn’s Labour perform worse than most opposition leaders in recent history, triggered a series of memes insisting that results were just fine. Most bewildering of all is a conspiracy theory which insists that Labour MPs who quit the shadow cabinet and declared ‘no confidence’ in Corbyn were somehow orchestrated by the PR firm, Portland Communications.

The paranoid left even has its own news sources. The Canary manages, without irony, to take the worst traits of the tabloids, from gross bias to the misreporting of a suicide note, and magnify them to create pages of pro-Corbyn propaganda that are indistinguishable from parody. On Facebook, Corbyn has more followers than the Labour Party itself. Fan groups filter news of Corbyn and his enemies so effectively that in one Facebook group I polled, more than 80 per cent of respondents thought Corbyn would easily win a general election.

This kind of thinking tips people over a dangerous threshold. Once you believe the conspiracy theories, once you believe you’ve been denied democracy by media manipulation and sinister establishment forces mounting dirty tricks campaigns, it becomes all too easy to justify bad behaviour on your own side. It starts with booing, but as the “oppressed” gain their voices the rhetoric and the behaviour escalate until the abuse becomes physical.

I’m prepared to believe Jeremy Corbyn when he says that he doesn’t engage in personal abuse. The problem is, he doesn’t have to. His army of followers are quite happy to engage in abuse on his behalf, whether it’s the relentless abuse of journalists, or bricks tossed through windows, or creating what more than 40 women MPs have described as a hostile and unpleasant environment

Supporters will point out that Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t asked for this to happen, and that in fact he’s made various statements condemning abuse. They’re not wrong, but they fail to grasp the point; that the irresponsible behaviour of Corbyn and his allies feeds into the atmosphere that leads inexorably to these kinds of abuses happening.

We see this in Corbyn’s unfounded attacks on media conspiracies, such as his absurd complaints about the lack of coverage of council elections. We see it in the shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s angry public jibes at Labour MPs. Surly aggression oozes out of the screen whenever a TV reporter asks Corbyn a difficult question. Then there’s the long history of revolutionary rhetoric – the praise for bombs and bullets, the happy engagement with the homophobic, the misogynistic, the anti-Semitic, the terrorist, in the name of nobler aims. 

Even the few statements Corbyn makes about abuse and bigotry are ambiguous and weak. Called upon to address anti-Semitism in the Labour party, he repeatedly abstracts to generic racism – in his select committee evidence on the topic, he mentioned racism 28 times, and anti-Semitism 25 times, while for his interviewers the ratio was 19 to 45. Called on to address the abuse of women MPs in the Labour Party, he broadened the topic to focus on abuse directed at himself, while his shadow justice secretary demanded the women show “respect” to party members. Corbyn’s speech is woolly at the best of times, but he and his allies seem determined to water down any call for their supporters to reform.   

Still, why reform when things are going so well? Taken at face value, Corbyn’s summer has been appalling. It began with the poor local election results, continued with Labour’s official position being defeated in the EU Referendum, and then saw the party’s leader lose a vote of no confidence, after which he was forced to watch the resignation of most of his shadow cabinet and then face a leadership challenge. Labour are polling terribly against Theresa May (who, admittedly, is in her honeymoon period), and the press are either hostile or find Corbyn impossible to work with.

If Corbyn were a conventional Leader of the Opposition these facts would be catastrophic, but he’s not and they’re not. To understand why, let’s look at some head-scratching quotes from leading Corbynistas. Jon Lansman, Chair of Momentum, was heavily mocked on Twitter recently for saying, “Democracy gives power to people, ‘Winning’ is the small bit that matters to political elites who want to keep power themselves.” The former BBC and Channel 4 journalist Paul Mason released a video clip suggesting Labour should be transformed into a “social movement”, along the lines of Occupy.  

These sentiments are echoed at the heart of Team Corbyn. Owen Smith claimed to have asked Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, whether they were prepared to let the Labour party split. According to Smith, whose version of events was denied by John McDonnell but backed up by two other MPs, Corbyn refused to answer while McDonnell said “if that’s what it takes”. Many activists seem to hold the same view – Twitter is full of Momentum warriors quite happy to see the bulk of the PLP walk away, and unconcerned about their diminishing prospects of winning any election.

Which on the face of it makes no sense. Labour has 232 seats, considerably more than David Cameron inherited in 2005. Their opponent is an “unelected” Prime Minister commanding a majority of just twelve, who was a senior figure in the government that just caused Britain’s biggest crisis since the war, and is now forced to negotiate a deal that either cripples the economy or enrages millions of voters who were conned by her colleagues into believing they had won a referendum on immigration. Just before leaving office, George Osborne abandoned his budget surplus target – effectively conceding it was a political gambit all along.

A competent Labour leader, working with other parties and disaffected Remainian Tories, could be – should be - tearing lumps out of the government on a weekly basis. Majority government may be a distant prospect, but forcing the Tories into a coalition or removing them from government altogether by the next election is entirely achievable.  Yet it’s fair to say that many Corbynistas have little interest in seeing this scenario play out.

Which makes sense, because to these people Labour – real Labour – doesn’t have 232 seats, it has about 40. The others seats are occupied by “Red Tories” or, worse, “Blairites”. Since these groups are as much the enemy as the Tories are, exchanging one for the other is meaningless. The Corbynites could start their own party of course, but why do that when they can seize control of Labour’s infrastructure, short money and institutional donors. The only long-term strategy that makes sense is to “purify” Labour, and rebuild from the foundations up. That may mean another 10 or 20 years of Tory rule, but the achingly middle-class Corbynistas won’t be the ones to suffer from that.

Seen through that prism, Corbynism makes sense. A common theme among the dozens of resignation letters from former shadow ministers has been his apparent disinterest in opposition policy work. A recent Vice documentary showed his refusal to attack the Tories over the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith. Even Richard Murphy, a supportive economist who set out many of the basic principles of ‘Corbynomics’, lost patience in a recent blog post

“I had the opportunity to see what was happening inside the PLP. The leadership wasn’t confusing as much as just silent. There was no policy direction, no messaging, no direction, no co-ordination, no nothing. Shadow ministers appeared to have been left with no direction as to what to do. It was shambolic.”

So where are his attentions focused? Unnamed “insiders” quoted in the Mirror paint an all too feasible picture of a team that, “spent hours in ‘rambling’ meetings discussing possible plots against him and considered sending ‘moles’ to spy on his Shadow Cabinet.” That claim was given more weight by the recent controversy over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager, who allegedly entered the office of shadow minister Seema Malhotra without permission. Vice’s documentary, ‘The Outsider‘, showed Corbyn railing against the BBC, who he believed were ‘obsessed’ with undermining his leadership, and other journalists.

By all accounts, Corbyn’s team inhabit a bunker mentality, and their genius – intentional or otherwise – has been to use the ‘paranoid style’ to extend that bunker to accommodate tens of thousands of their followers. Within that bubble, every failure becomes a victory. Negative media coverage simply reinforces their sense of being under attack, and every bad poll or election disappointment becomes an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of their faith. Shadow cabinet resignations and condemnations reveal new ‘traitors’, justifying further paranoia and increasing the feeling of being under siege.

It’s terrible for a functioning opposition, but brilliant for forming a loyal hard-left movement, driving screaming protestors into CLP meetings, keeping uppity MPs in line with the prospect of more abuse or deselection, and ensuring that Corbyn will sign up enough supporters to win the leadership election by a landslide.  

Hofstadter wrote that ”the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician.” In the United States, Bernie Sanders was ultimately forced to compromise when Hillary Clinton won the Democrat nomination. The Bernie Corbyn & Jeremy Sanders Facebook group, hardcore loyalists to the end, immediately disowned him, and suggested the group change its name.

Corbyn need make no such compromise, which is his whole appeal. Those who expect him to step down after a general election defeat, or to compromise with the rest of the party to achieve greater success, have completely failed to understand what they’re dealing with. For Corbyn and his followers there is no compromise, only purity, and a Red Labour party with 50 MPs is better than a centrist party with 400. That is the reality of the movement that Labour and the left are facing, and it is catastrophic. 

 

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.