It is impossible for a refugee seeking asylum to be “illegal”. It would be unlawful for the Royal Navy to “push back” those trying to enter the UK by crossing the Channel. The more than 4,000 people who have crossed the Channel by boat to claim asylum so far this year do not constitute an “invasion”. The UK’s 44,835 asylum applications in 2019 were far exceeded by France’s 128,940, according to data from the European Asylum Support Office.
Yet UK society is abuzz with these words: “illegals” are what the Sun newspaper calls the new arrivals; “push back” is what the editorial writers fantasise about; “invading” was the term used by 23 Conservative MPs and peers in a letter to Priti Patel.
Facebook groups, pub conversations, the comment sections in tabloid newspapers and the talk radio shows are alive with the fantasies of people who want – either explicitly or implicitly – to sink the arriving boats.
Anyone who thinks this is just a “normal” racist response is mistaken. It is being driven by an alliance of the right-wing media and the Tory government. The entire Boris Johnson project is founded on an implicit deal between the Conservative Party and a chunk of older, white, small-town voters: we give you permission to be racist, we echo your racist language – and in return you let us dismantle the public realm, the civil service and the welfare state.
A YouGov poll shows we are divided down the middle in our response. Some 49 per cent of those surveyed have little or no sympathy for those arriving; 44 per cent have a “great” or “fair” amount of sympathy; three-quarters of Labour voters sympathise; three-quarters of Tory voters don’t. The split among Remain and Leave voters is about the same.
So amid an economic recession that has wiped more than 20 per cent off GDP in between April and June this year, and a catastrophic public health strategy that has led to 65,000 excess deaths, we are obsessing about people who’ve fled – according to testimony from just one boat – Yemen, Eritrea, Chad, Egypt, Sudan and Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Mali and the Palestinian territories.
To understand the danger, consider the context. Up to two million people could be about to lose their jobs as the furlough scheme ends and the pitiful state of the retail, hospitality and entertainment industries is fully revealed. A hard Brexit – whether by agreement or default – will add to the short-term misery.
Johnson, whose entire political project has been built around enmity, will have – until the autumn weather ends the flow of refugees – a readymade set of enemies with every boat that arrives: the asylum seekers themselves, the NGOs and “activist lawyers” trying to help them, the “Remainer luvvies” appalled at the racist response, and any politician who voices compassion.
Keir Starmer’s front bench, the entire political mission of which is to win back voters in the so-called Red Wall seats, will be caught in the same bind as they were with the Black Lives Matter protests: the slightest expression of sympathy, or reaffirmation of the basic legal position – which is that we must accept and process asylum applications fairly – will be caricatured as treason.
For the left, it’s no use agonising about we got here: a million votes for the BNP at the 2009 European elections, nearly four million for Ukip at the 2015 general election, genocidal ideation in the pubs and clubs of impoverished white communities, a rancidly racist press, and social media giants determined to make money by platforming hate.
The point is to do something – and the first thing we can do is express our principles and be proud of them. This country should be a haven for refugees, above all because the list of countries they are fleeing from includes places we ourselves invaded and destroyed. The asylum system should be fair and humane: it is right to house some applicants in hotels because the migration detention system is awash with abuses and needs closing.
Those making asylum applications should have their claims processed here without prejudice, as international law requires; those whose cases are complicated should be given time and access to the legal system to make their case. There is no legal obligation for an asylum seeker to make a claim in the first country they’ve arrived in, or any country en route. And the reasons they might not want to stay in Italy, Greece or France might be the same as the ones that caused them to leave Aleppo or Sana’a: they can’t feed their family and they don’t feel safe.
Stated clearly and rationally, and with individual human subjects at the centre of the conversation, not people dehumanised by the long-lens voyeurism of the TV news channels, we can win the argument.
But progressives need to understand that this latest paroxysm of anxiety, coming hard on the heels of the “statue panic” during the Black Lives Matter protests, is part of a wave that is building, not subsiding. As numerous political scientists have shown, everything in politics is now framed by “values”, not class identity and economic policy.
The images of pregnant women struggling off dinghies beneath the white cliffs of Kent play into the “replacement theory” that is being used consciously to stoke up fear and anxiety by the far right.
The “culture war” is a permanent feature of British politics, and will be so permanently unless liberal conservatism recovers from the 2019 Tory purge that destroyed it. She left has to readjust and fight smartly.
The so-called new and traditional working-class communities in Britain are divided politically and culturally, but they share one experience in common: the absence of power, social justice and voice.
The left’s strategy has to be focused on creating mutual empathy around these absences, across the cultural divide.
The ardent Brexiteers always told us that if only we ended free movement of white Europeans they could be “more compassionate” to the Afghans and Kurds fleeing rape and torture. Faced with actual migrants, many in those communities will express empathy with the individual, reserving their spite for “the others”, the supposed criminals and terrorists who have been introduced into their imaginations on WhatsApp and Facebook.
It’s not much to go on, but it’s a start. Another encouraging trend is the obvious generational divide: solid support for Tory xenophobia, selfishness and racism is concentrated among people over the age of 65. Over time, if the left makes a strong and principled case for anti-racism and internationalism, then the values of what the author Keir Milburn has called “generation left” will prevail.
Above all, the Labour front bench needs to make a strong case for anti-racism and tolerance. There’s no hiding from this behind bland technocratic statements or calls for the Tories to professionalise their response.
Labour won’t win back Leigh, Mansfield or Sedgefield by telling racists they are right about immigration. It will win by showing them that the real cause of unemployment, low pay, poor housing and an overstressed health services is not migration but a system rigged in favour of the super rich. There’s no shortcut to that, and it might take time. So grit your teeth and fight racism.