The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Brexit and the rise of the nationalist right: Where next for the British left?

Photo by Rareclass
‘I don’t mind Germans, Italians, the Spanish, but I hate them Bulgarians and Romanians. Thieves the whole lot of them.

My brother in law cannot get a job in the warehouses, because these agencies favour Polish immigrants.

All our companies are owned by foreigners, German electricity company, French in the water industry. I’d nationalise the whole lot’ (Local Resident in Beeston, Nottingham/UK; 24 June 2016).

As the Brexit vote sinks in, the first nationalist and xenophobic statements can be heard on the streets. In this blog post, I am analysing the wider causes underlying the Brexit vote and reflect on the struggles ahead. I will argue that there have been two campaigns against increasing austerity and the destruction brought about by global capitalist restructuring, the progressive left campaign around the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in the summer of 2015 and the predominantly right-wing Brexit campaign. Last night, the latter won a significant victory, when 51.9 per cent of the people voting endorsed to leave the EU against 48.1 per cent, who had voted to remain in the EU.

The destruction by neo-liberal capitalism

Britain has been hurting since the Conservative-led government in 2010. One austerity budget followed upon another. While benefits were cut and especially the weak of society have come under attack, food banks sprawled across the UK trying to stem the increasing tide of poverty and deprivation.

While banks and finance capital quickly recovered and reaped super-profits again, people struggled with cuts in their pensions, falling wages and ever more precarious working contracts, best reflected in the widespread use of zero-hour contracts.

British society has increasingly fallen apart into two groups with people in the southeast of England enjoying large incomes and relying on private schooling and private healthcare, while working people in the northeast of England found their job prospects damaged and their health and education services eroded. University fees were increased of up to £9000 per year, while Colleges of Further Education were starved off cash. People from less well-off backgrounds have found themselves in a situation of little hope for a better future ahead. 

The decision on Brexit has to be understood against this background of social and economic crisis.

No to austerity: the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.

When the Labour Party had lost the 2015 general elections, many observers blamed the more progressive policies of Ed Miliband as the main reason for the defeat. Not so, however, the majority of members of the Labour Party. What many had initially considered the impossible, Jeremy Corbyn was elected as the new leader in the summer of 2015 on the basis of a clear anti-austerity policy agenda (see Corbyn’s Campaign). If at all, Ed Miliband’s anti-austerity message had not been clear enough during the election campaign.

The impact of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign was immediate. Thousands of people joined the Labour Party, while its new leader spelt out a clear anti-austerity course. Local Labour Party branches were revived with many new people becoming actively involved in politics (see The Corbyn Factor). There is clearly hope for a left, progressive revival of policy-making in the UK. Nevertheless, the endorsement of Brexit has put this revival in serious danger.

Brexit and the rise of the xenophobic right

Not all arguments for Brexit were inspired by nationalist, xenophobic sentiments. Some forces on the left argued in favour of bringing back democracy to the national level so that a more progressive, left-wing policy model could be established in the UK (see, for example, Overwhelmingly, however, the arguments for Brexit were directed against immigration, underpinned by xenophobic, racist sentiments. It was time to regain control over ‘our border’, it was argued, to stem the inflow of migrants, who take our jobs and abuse our ‘generous’ welfare system (see What position for the labour movement on the EU referendum?).

As reflected in the opening statement, the lack of jobs in the UK is blamed on migrants, not the government, who had pursued a policy of deindustrialisation for years. While government policy in line with the interests of big business has made it ever easier to sack workers and, thus, facilitated the transfer of production and jobs to other countries in Europe and the Global South, voters have blamed deindustrialisation on the EU. While capital has exploited migrant labour and played it off against British workers, it is migrants, who are blamed for the lack and poor quality of jobs, not the employers who are behind this. Whatever the positive sentiments by people on the left in favour of Brexit may have been, the reality now is that we have to brace ourselves against an anti-immigration onslaught, as again indicated in the opening statement.

Key battlegrounds in the struggle ahead

The struggle against racism and anti-immigration policies has to be clearly at the top of the agenda and there are good reasons for being hopeful. Many British people on the ground are in favour of helping migrants. As the planned Convoy to Calais indicated, people are willing to support fellow human beings in need whatever their nationality or ethnic group (see People’s Assembly). ‘Refugees are welcome here’ is a widely promoted slogan.

Equally, however, it is high time to end austerity. People who voted for Brexit as a result of having seen their livelihoods undercut need to be taken seriously with their concerns. The fight against racism and anti-immigration discourses must be accompanied by providing people with proper jobs and functioning public services, allowing them to plan for their futures with confidence.

The rise of the xenophobic right is not only a British phenomenon, but visible across the EU. Clearly, any struggle against racism and austerity has to be international together with other left forces in Europe. A focus on the British level alone will not be enough. 

A colleague of mine recently compared today’s situation in Europe with the conflicts of the late 1920s and 1930s, when nationalism across Europe became dominant against the background of a global economic crisis. Considering World War II as the outcome in the 1930s, a lot is at stake in the struggles ahead.

Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

24 June 2016

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