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What the story of the niqab-wearing Welsh speaker tells us about what we want to hear

Confirmation bias is always a powerful thing. We’re always hungry for scraps that can support our own narratives and reinforce our belief that we are right.

You know this story because you’ve seen it on Facebook. Maybe you’re one of the 20,000-some people to have shared it. Or if it missed your wall, you saw it today in the Metro or the Times or the Welsh local press. It’s an irresistible one, seen through the eyes of a man on the replacement rail service between Newport and Cwmbran, though he doesn’t participate – he’s not the hero here, just the storyteller.

There’s a woman in a niqab, talking to her son in a non-English language. On the seat in front of them: a white man, who turns around and tells the woman that she’s in the UK and should be speaking English. On the seat in front of the white man, an elderly white woman who now says to him: “She's in Wales. And she's speaking Welsh.” How delicious. And how unlikely, if you care about things like that.

If the story sounds familiar, that might be because you’ve heard it before, in a slightly different variant. “Racist gets public linguistic comeuppance” is a trope that’s been circulating for years: heres one version set in America from 2013, where the woman is accused of speaking “Mexican” but is actually speaking Navajo. She’s also on the phone rather than speaking to her son, and it’s the woman rather than a third party who delivers the killer blow: but give or take a few details, the archetype is still the same.

News reporters have spoken to the original Facebook poster, but not to any of the participants in the scene. Maybe they will show up in time. Until they do, all we have is a story – and an unlikely one. We know there are very few niqab wearers in England and Wales: extrapolating from a French survey, there are likely to be just 1,000 women who wear either the burqa or niqab. And you’re more likely to find them in England than Wales, where just 1.5 per cent of the population is Muslim (in London, it’s 12.4 per cent). Then there’s the language: the south east of Wales, where this story is set, has one of the lowest densities of Welsh speakers in the whole region.

That doesn’t make this parable of British chauvinism vanquished by multiethnic Wales (perfectly integrated in language if not in dress) untrue, but without corroboration, it’s more appealing than plausible. And, unless you saw it happen, there’s absolutely no reason to believe it’s true – except for a desire to believe that things like this can happen. In this story, there are good people and bad people, and the good outnumber and triumph over the bad. The truth is revealed, and the belligerent racist is silenced.

In reality, immigration is an issue where anxiety and actuality only infrequently collide. Polling agency Ipsos MORI found that the number of immigrants coming into Britain is the top issue for EU referendum voters; in research published four days later, just one in five respondents said they had been personally adversely affected by immigration. This mismatch between information and emotion is dismaying, but why should liberals be perplexed by it when the proliferation of the racist bus story shows that credulousness is equally possible on either side of the issue?

Confirmation bias is always a powerful thing. We’re always hungry for scraps that can support our own narratives and reinforce our belief that we are right – and always willing to suspend critical faculties when a story fits our own prejudices. That goes for people whose prejudices tell them that a woman wearing a niqab on the Newport to Cwmbran rail replacement service is a dangerous alien who need to be taught a lesson, and it’s true also for those whose prejudices tell them that this same woman must be an assiduously integrated parts of British life.

But neither side needs the woman in a niqab on the Newport to Cwmbran rail replacement service to be real. In fact, it’s more convenient all round if she doesn’t exist, because so long as she can’t pop up with any awkward human complications, she can be the screen where we project our own self-image. A length of black fabric on which to publish the statement of own politics. A totem of all the ways that we, the onlookers in this story, are unlike the stupid racist who can’t tell Arabic from Welsh.

Self-congratulatory sermonising helps no one, and certainly does nothing to address the grievances that leave voters are nursing, which can be both misdirected and real. When the result of the EU referendum is known on Friday, neither Leave nor Remain will be enough to settle the proxy was about immigration that this campaign has become. The certainty that our political opponents are idiotic and immoral is a comforting one, but it’s poisonous too. People can believe wrong things without always being wicked – fortunately for you, if you shared an unsubstantiated story of a racist getting schooled on public transport. 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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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.