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Restive Labour voters, post-Brexit border controls and the ferocity of the Russian Ultras

The editor's note.

On a recent visit to Stockholm I had coffee with the veteran left-wing journalist Bengt Lindroth, whose latest book is The Revenge of the Voters: Populism and Nationalism. From the hotel lobby where we met you could see the magnificent neoclassical Swedish parliament building, the Riksdag, on its island setting. He ordered a double espresso and settled wearily into his chair. We talked about Brexit (“Could this be the shock the EU really needs to bring about necessary change?” he asked) and about the rise of anti-EU, nativist parties across the Nordic countries. He was interesting on Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats, the Eurosceptic populists whose social conservatism and anti-migrant rhetoric have won considerable support among the working classes who feel alienated by the cosmopolitanism of the Swedish elite.

Swedish folk tales

In their earliest incarnation the Sweden Democrats were neo-Nazis. But since the emergence of the so-called Gang of Four (the group of students from Lund University led by Åkesson who took control over a decade ago) the party has finessed its message and embraced more mainstream populist positions, combining the politics of both left (welfare chauvinism) and right (xenophobia). In particular, Åkesson has successfully revived the expression “Folkhem” (“home for the people”), which was a benign slogan of the once-hegemonic Social Democrats in the 1930s and beyond. Today it resonates with a country queasy with anxiety about immigration.

Sweden occupies a huge land mass, with a remote, densely forested far north, but has a relatively small population of 9.8 million – 16 per cent of whom were born outside the country. The celebrated model of redistributive capitalism – the “Nordic system” – is fracturing because of the strain created by big inflows of migrants and refugees. “The social contract that once existed is coming apart,” Lindroth told me, in good, idiomatic English. “Year by year, step by step, the feeling grows that our politicians are not addressing the questions that most concern ordinary Swedes – law and order, immigration.” The Sweden Democrats have been demonised, Lindroth said: “This makes it more difficult to have an open discussion about immigration. The cultural liberals have controlled the debate. But which of the mainstream bourgeois parties represents the social conservatism of many working-class Swedes? Who speaks for them?”

Labour’s lost voters

In a different context, this is a question familiar to Labour MPs, especially those representing constituencies in northern England, where many socially conservative, working-class Labour voters favour Brexit. I’ve been told that some Labour MPs are ­reluctant to campaign for Remain in the north because the response from constituents has been so hostile.

Labour is an increasingly unhappy coalition of the metropolitan liberal left, public-sector workers, minority groups and the white working class. The London liberal left that swept Sadiq Khan to power in the mayoral election pulls the party in one direction, the often Ukip-sympathising, disaffected working class in another. And nationalism in Scotland has devastated Labour in its former heartland.

This week, Tom Watson, the deputy leader, spoke of the need to impose controls on freedom of movement within the EU. The polls have spooked Labour MPs: they don’t know what to do for the best. But how late it is, to paraphrase James Kelman, how late.

Marred performance

David Cameron’s uncharacteristically lacklustre performance on the Marr show last weekend contrasted with the supreme confidence of Nigel Farage. Cameron spoke like a man preparing for defeat: he delivered his rehearsed warnings with all the conviction of a fatigued actor reciting lines he’s come to despise. Farage is a self-styled radical – he once told me his hero was John Wilkes, the pamphleteer and parliamentary agitator – and no matter what you think of his politics, surely he has done more than most to bring Britain to the brink of Brexit. The Prime Minister is culpable for the mess in which he and his allies find themselves, scrambling to prevent the Brexiteers pulling off an astounding coup, which could well set in motion a chain of events that culminates in the break-up of the British state.

Need for Tweed

Here’s a question, though: if Scotland votes to leave the United Kingdom and join the European Union, how would a post-Brexit England control its border with the new independent state to its north? Scotland has a population of 5.3 million and needs immigrants to support an ageing population and power economic growth; Nicola Sturgeon makes the positive case for immigration and free movement. EU migrants would be welcome to live and work in Scotland, as they are at present in the UK, but not in our new utopian Little England.

Yet how would England prevent migrants moving from north to south across a porous border? Would we have security checkpoints and watchtowers? Passport controls? Would we see the desperate swimming across the River Tweed?

Ultra nasty

The ferocity of the Russian Ultras who attacked English football supporters in Marseilles seems to have surprised many. They should not have been surprised. Football hooliganism is rife in Russia and eastern Europe, with many gangs linked to far-right paramilitary groups. The Russian Ultras wore distinctive black T-shirts, gumshields and martial arts fighting gloves. They were sober, unlike the English, and knew exactly what they wanted and how to achieve it. Brice Robin, chief prosecutor of Marseilles, said that they were “extreme and well-trained”, “hyper-violent and hyper-fast”. Should we forget: the 2018 World Cup is to be held in Russia. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.