Austerity and the rise of UKIP

Often at meetings of the left about UKIP and racism, or cuts to public services and pay, speakers will make a connection between the political rise of UKIP and the government’s austerity agenda. In the meetings, this is often expressed as follows: people are frustrated about the fact they can’t get a job or the fact that they can’t get a council house so they turn to UKIP who provide them with scapegoats; namely, immigrants.

The basics of the theory – that there is some relationship between austerity and the growth of racism (and by extension, the growth of UKIP) – is doubtless correct. However, the way in which this relationship is (implicitly) framed doesn’t quite capture the political dynamic that links the rise of austerity with the rise of Farage’s right-wing populist party.

For instance, if it were true that the hit to people’s living standards is the cause of UKIP’s new relative popularity (although let’s not get ahead of ourselves – they currently poll at only 12% of the electorate, and 44% say they would never under any circumstances vote for UKIP), why is it that there has been no similar left radicalisation? It’s important to emphasise that the shift to the radical populist right by sections of the electorate isn’t the outcome of some deterministic – eonomistic, even – law that says “in periods of crisis, people get more right-wing”. The rise of UKIP can’t be explained by reference to economic processes alone, it also needs to be explained politically. It’s into this political dynamic that the campaign against UKIP must intervene.

Austerity and Racism

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the ramping up of racism by the government is an attempt to divide the resistance to austerity and scapegoat a section of the population for the problems Britain faces. For example, recently David Cameron very plainly asserted that it was Eastern European immigrants that were forcing down wages (and not, say, unscrupulous bosses – as an aside, there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that immigrant labour exerts a downward pressure on wages. In fact, Mick Burke astutely points out that these were precisely the same sorts of arguments used against women joining the workforce in the early 20th century). Cameron’s comments were a crude (but effective) attempt at distraction.

Unfortunately, the Labour Party is also in danger of succumbing to this divide and rule tactic. In his speech to Bloomberg, delivered in his failed bid to become Labour leader, the now shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, rightly pointed out that it’s the  decline in growth, caused by a collapse in  private investment, that has driven the economic crisis and subsequent economic stagnation. Logically, it follows that if capital won’t invest the hundreds of billions it has hoarded, the government should make it. This in itself requires some kind of assault on capital; an assault to which Ed Balls and the Labour frontbench have subsequently refused to commit.

In the absence of an economic strategy that makes the 1% – rather than the 99% – pay for the crisis, the Labour Party will be left with a set of policies that continue the attack on living standards started by the Tories (it’s irrelevant to the present argument whether this is a more moderate attack or not). This will only strengthen the hand of those inside and outside Labour who wish to see it move to the right on immigration because the Party will need a political justification for the cuts it will inflict upon people; they will need a scapegoat.

UKIP and mainstream politics

If the Tory austerity agenda (alongside Labour’s reticence to articulate an alternative) has engendered the race to the bottom on immigration rhetoric, it’s also this rhetoric which has fed the growth of UKIP. In fact, UKIP’s strategy of exploiting immigration is relatively new. Previously the Party had been fixated on the EU. The strategy of connecting immigration with the EU is designed precisely to key into this mainstream racist sentiment, valorised by the Tory-led government.

As I’ve argued, UKIP’s primary source of support comes from older, white, male, working-class Tories. The UKIP vote is therefore best understood as a split in the Tory base. The Tories know this. In fact, it’s Lord Ashcroft, a Tory donor and strategist, who has commissioned some of the most extensive polling on UKIP. His latest poll demonstrates that UKIP voters are overwhelmingly (50%) ex-Tory voters, whereas only 15% of those who voted UKIP in the last election voted Labour (there are, of course, exceptions, but this is, nonetheless the rule).

If the success of UKIP is a product of the increase of mainstream Tory racism, and if UKIP represents a split in the Tory electoral base, then the real danger is that the Conservatives will lurch even further to the right on immigration to shore up the voters they risk losing.

This will have the further effect of piling the political pessure on Labour to concede the point on immigration, “admit” they “got it wrong” under Blair and Brown, and propose their own punitive measures against immigrant communities. At present, the main pressure on the Party in this direction consists of the claim that UKIP are picking up the votes of working class men – one of Labour’s traditional bastions of support – which is eating into their electoral base.

This argument comes from UKIP itself, but also from within the Party (Sadiq Khan’s recent open letter of apology to UKIP voters is one of the most drastic cases in point). The logic goes that voters are leaving Labour to vote UKIP, so the Labour leadership need to listen to the “legitimate concerns” of those voters to win them back (read: make concessions to anti-immigrant racism). However, it misses out a key part of the picture: namely, that UKIP voters may well be working-class, but they are working-class Tories, not ex-Labour voters. It’s a little far-fetched to assume that these voters will switch to Labour on the basis of a raft of new Labour policies that attack immigrants. Why would you vote Labour if you’ve never done so before and if there are “real” anti-immigrant parties – the Tories, UKIP, the BNP even – for whom you can vote?

Unfortunately, this argument – which is being promoted by sections of the Labour right – is also being repeated by some sections of the Left. Of course, the story is spun slightly differently: instead it’s said that the Labour Party is losing votes to UKIP because it’s refusing to stand up for working class people. The strategy for opposing UKIP is consequently posed as an economic strategy: if Labour (or some other Party) pledged to provide people with housing, jobs and decent pay then people would vote for it.

It’s true that Labour lost votes as a consequence of moving to the right. However, the polling data cited above suggest that it’s not true that these people are voting for UKIP. In fact, it seems more likely that of the 6 million people who stopped voting Labour whilst they were in office, the majority defected to the Lib Dems, the Greens or stopped voting altogether. Advocating an economic strategy that protects the standards of living for the majority in society is one way of winning back these lost voters. However, an economic strategy alone will not suffice to stand up to UKIP.

The Left needs to wage a political struggle against racism

It’s certainly correct to say that UKIP has had electoral successes (although they are more modest than they are depicted by the media and Farage) and that these successes have depended upon the context of the economic crisis.

However, the relationship between economic processes and the rise of UKIP should not be posed deterministically. Rather, UKIP has fed off the ideological ground made fertile by the Conservatives and the divide and rule, scapegoating tactics the Tories have used to defend the austerity agenda. UKIP represent a split in the Tory party that want to pull it even further to the right. This looks to be succeeding.

This has knock-on effects for the Labour Party and, as a consequence, the Left as a whole. Labour will come under increasing pressure to be “tougher” on immigration. Despite evidence to the contrary, it will be (and is being) argued that a significant portion of its electoral base are turning to UKIP and that to stop this, Labour must make concessions to anti-immigrant racism (these proposals become even more attractve in the absence of an economic alternative to austerity).

The polling directly contradicts this view, showing that it is the Tories, not the Labour Party, who are significanly losing votes to UKIP. It will do us no good at all to concede ground on this point and go along with the idea that UKIP are substantially eating into Labour’s base. It’s not true and only gives more strength to the Labour right, who want to justify a shift to the right on immigration on pragmatic grounds (the classic line being that it’s useless grandstanding about immigration if you’re not in power). From the perspective of winning elections, this rightward shift – which is essentially a strategy of chasing ex-Tory votes – is anything but pragmatic. It’s unconvincing to the ex-Tory UKIPers and it will alienate Labour’s natural supporters. It will also feed the rightward dynamic that UKIP have created.

It’s clear, then, that there is a causal relationship between the implementation of austerity and the electoral fortunes of UKIP. But it’s a political relationship in which the need to justify an unjust economic policy nourishes a more radical right-wing socal force that then pulls the centre of political gravity further to the right, putting pressure on the centre-left to follow suite. This dynamic has its origins in austerity, but it’s playing out in the realm of politics, not economics.

The response to it cannot simply be to call for economic reforms like more council homes, jobs and better pay and conditions (although it would certainly make it easier if the Labour Party were to do this!). The Left also needs to tackle the politics – i.e. the racism – of UKIP head-on. This means challenging the view that immigrants depress wages; challenging the view that immigrants take jobs; and challenging the view that they are responsible for the lack of affordable housing. But it also means calling UKIP’s views on immigration for what they are: racist. It’s only by waging a concerted struggle against the racism fueling UKIP that the march to the right on immigration can be halted.

Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson

Soledad brother

After a recommendation from a friend, I recently finished reading Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. In 1960, George Jackson was charged for the theft of $70 from a petrol station. After receiving some very bad legal advice, he pleaded guilty to the charge and was given a ‘one year to life’ sentence to be served in the maximum security San Quentin prison. In prison, Jackson was subjected to racist abuse, assault and provocation from prison guard and inmate alike; assaults for which he was often punished just as harshly as his attackers – or more so – for simply defending himself. Of the ten years he spent in prison, seven were spent in solitary confinement. Every year Jackson would come up for parole, and every year he would be denied release.

The disproportionate sentencing, brutalisation and racist abuse Jackson suffered in prison radicalised him. After meeting Huey Newton, he became a member of the Black Panther Party and a revolutionary Marxist. He spent his solitary days in prison reading voraciously and throughout his letters, he extols the virtues of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Mao Tse-Tung, Lenin and Trotsky. In this time, he also became acquainted with prominent intellectual, civil rights activist, and member of the Communist Party, Angela Davis.

Ten years after his incarceration, Jackson was moved to Soledad prison where a racially motivated fight broke out in the exercise yard. Three of the black convicts in the fight were shot dead by a white prison guard wielding an automatic weapon. Despite the gratuitous response to the violence, the prison guard was acquitted, and the killing of three black men described as a ‘justified homicide’. Days later, another prison guard was found beaten to death. The prison authorities assumed the murder was an act of retribution for the shooting and Jackson, with two other radical Soledad inmates, were identified – on scant evidence – as the perpetrators of the crime. If found guilty, Jackson and his prison comrades would be given a mandatory death sentence. The three prisoners were moved to solitary confinement in San Quentin. At the same time, a campaign calling for justice for the ‘Soledad brothers’ erupted across the US.

On 7th August, 1970, days after Jackson was transferred back to solitary, his brother Jon, carrying a satchel full of guns, walked into the San Rafael courthouse where a San Quentin prisoner was being tried. Shouting ‘we are the revolutionaries! Free the Soledad brothers by 12.30!’, Jon armed the prisoner and two prisoner witnesses and took five hostages, including the judge and the district attorney. As they made their escape in a transit van, police let loose a volley of shots and Jon, two of the convicts and the judge were all shot dead.

Jackson’s prison letters begin in 1967 and end days after the death of his brother in 1970. From the letters, it’s clear that Jackson’s parents didn’t share his revolutionary politics, and it’s fascinating to read the often frustrated explanations he gives for his outlook. More interesting still are his correspondences with Angela Davis and his lawyer, Fay Stender, which contain political treatise on racism and the prison system alongside discussion of the revolutions in China and Cuba, and the heroic resistance to US imperialism in Vietnam, all of which Jackson clearly admired immensely.

As I read the letters, three points struck me:

1. Jackson saw the transition in the US from black slave to black worker as a transition from one type of slavery to another.

In a letter to Fay Stender, Jackson is most explicit about this:

Slavery is an economic condition. Today’s neoslavery must be defined in terms of economics. The chattel is property, one man exercising the property rights of his established economic order, the other man is that property. The owner can move that property or hold it in one square yard of the earth’s surface; he can let it breed other slaves, or make it breed other slaves; he can sell it, beat it, work it, maim it, fuck it, kill it. But if he wants to keep it and enjoy all of the benefits that property of this kind can render, he must feed it sometimes, he must clothe it against the elements, he must provide a modicum of shelter. Chattel slavery is an economic condition which manifests itself in the total loss or absence of self-determination.

The new slavery, the modern variety of chattel slavery updated to disguise itself, places the victim in a factory or in the case of most blacks in support roles inside and around the factory system (service trades), working for a wage. However, if work cannot be found in or around the factory complex, today’s neoslavery does not allow even for a modicum of food and shelter. You are free – to starve. The sense and meaning of slavery comes through as a result of our ties to the wage. One’s entire day centers around the acquisition of the wage… I think it should be generally accepted that if a man (or woman) works for a wage at a job that he doesn’t enjoy, and I am convinced that no one could enjoy any type of assembly-line work, or plumbing or hod carrying, or any job in the service trades, then he qualifies for this definition of neoslave. The man who owns the factory or shop or business runs your life; you are dependant on this owner. He organises your work, the work upon which your whole life source and style depends. He indirectly determines your whole day. If you don’t make any more wages than you need to live, you are a neoslave. You qualify if you cannot afford to leave California for New York. If you cannot visit Zanzibar, Havana, Peking or even Paris when you get the urge, you are a slave. If you’re held in one spot on this earth because of your economic status, it is just the same as being held in one spot on this earth because you are the owner’s property. Here in the black colony, the pigs still beat and maim us. They murder us and call it justifiable homicide. A brother who had a smoking pipe in his belt was shot in the back of the head. Neoslavery is an economic condition, a small knot of men exercising the property rights of their established economic order, organising and controlling the life style of the slave as if he were in fact property. Succinctly: an economic condition which manifests itself in the total loss or absence of self-determination. Only after this is understood and accepted can we go on to the dialectic that will help us in a remedy’ (Jackson, 1970: 221-2).

What I found most impressive about this quotation is the way in which Jackson clearly ties legal and civil rights to economic rights. The precondition for liberty is freedom from wage-slavery. Without it, you only have the freedom ‘to starve’.

2. The struggle against racism is also a struggle against imperialism.

In the same letter to Stender, Jackson vehemently argues that the police are just one tool for preserving the privilege of a capitalist class. He writes:

‘[The police are] protecting the unnatural right of a few men to own the means of all our subsistence. The pig is protecting the right of a few private individuals to own public property!! The pig is merely the gun, the tool, a mentally inanimate utensil. It is necessary to destroy the gun, but destroying the gun and sparing the hand that holds it will forever relegate us to a defensive action, hold our revolution in the doldrums, ultimately defeat us… Spare the hand that holds the gun and it will simply fashion another. The Viet soldier has attacked and destroyed the pigs and their guns, but this alone has not solved their problems. If the Cong could get to the factories and the people who own and organise them, the war would end in a few months. All wars would end. The pigs who have descended upon the Vietnamese colony are the same who have come down on us. They come in all colours, though they are mainly white. Culturally (or anticulturally), they have the same background and the same mentality. They have the same intent: to preserve the economically depressed areas of the world as secondary markets and sources of cheap raw materials (Jackson, 1970: 223).’

The class that the police protect is – importantly – an international class. The police and army protect the same privileged interests across the globe. It’s for this reason that Jackson points to the importance of supporting all international resistance to these forces that would ‘preserve the economically depressed areas of the world [in which the majority of people are Black] as secondary markets and sources of cheap raw materials’:

‘The Chinese have aided every anticolonial movement that has occurred since they were succesful in their own, particularly the ones in Africa. They have offered us in the Amerikan colonies any and all support that we require, from hand grenades to H-bombs. Some of us would deny these wonderful and righteous people. I accept their assistance in our struggle with our mutual enemy. I accept and appreciate any love that we can build out of our relation in crisis. I’ll never, never allow my enemy to turn my mind or hand against them. The Yankee dog that proposes to me that I should join him in containing the freedom of a Vietnamese or a Chinese brother of the revolution is going to get spat on. I don’t care how much he has to offer in the way of short-term material benefits.

‘We must establish a true internationalism with other anti-colonial peoples. Then we will be on the road of the true revolutionary. Only then can we expect to be able to seize the power that is rightfully ours, the power to control the circumstances of our day-to-day lives (Jackson, 1970: 234).’

Jackson is startling uncompromising and strident in connecting the struggle against racism to the struggle against colonial oppression. Indeed, elsewhere in Soledad Brother he speaks approvingly of Martin Luther King’s later opposition to the war in Vietnam. Interestingly, too, he hints at the ‘short-term material benefits’ colonial oppression brings not only to the privileged interests – what we would call the 1% today – but also to the people populating the heartlands of US and European imperialism. For Jackson, the struggle against racist police repression at home is the same struggle against colonial oppression abroad.

3. Jackson’s views on the political role of women became more and more progressive over time

In the early letters, Jackson denies women any political agency. His letters to his mother on the subject of women and politics exhibit a conservative, paternalistic sexism. However, it’s clear that his correspondences with both Stender and Davis – with whom he exchanges some of his sharpest political commentary – seem to play an important role in changing this attitude. In a letter to an anonymous ‘Z’, who led one of the committees demanding justice for the Soledad brothers, Jackson tentatively writes:

‘But I’ve gone through some changes since then, I saw and read about Angie Davis and some other females of our kind , and I realised that perhaps it was possible that this country has produced some females like those of Cuba or Vietnam (Jackson, 1970: 242)’.

Later, in a letter to Angela Davis, he is most explicit in acknowledging the role of women on the Left:

‘In our last communication I made a statement about women, and their part in revolutionary culture. It wasn’t a clear statement. I meant to return to it but was diverted. I understand exactly what the women’s role should be. The very same as the man’s. Intellectually, there is very little difference between male and female. The differences we see in bourgeois society are all conditioned and artificial (Jackson, 1970: 262).’

Jackson confesses that his previous ‘statement about women… wasn’t a clear statement’. Reading the letters, I was struck by what it was Davis had said to him to make him reverse the sentiment he had expressed in previous letters. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of the book – although the reader has access to all Jackson’s letters, this is not true of those to whom his letters are addressed. Most of the time, this is not a problem – it’s easy to guess to what criticism or comment Jackson is responding. However, in the letters between Jackson and Davis particularly, the style seems more dialogical and it would’ve been interesting to see how the political differences between one of America’s foremost black feminists and the prisoner-turned-political radical were debated. I don’t see this as a criticism of the book exactly (it would be a much more lengthy volume if the other letters were included!), but a testament to how engaging the letters are.

Soledad Brother deserves to be read by all those on the left today (and beyond!). Although it was published over forty years ago, Jackson’s style is clear and he eloquently and engagingly illustrates some of the core ideas of the revolutionary left at the same time as he engages with the key political questions of the late 60s and his own life-and-death struggle with the US prison system. Reading the letters certainly gave fresh impetus to my own thinking. In the year after the book was published, Jackson was shot dead in an alleged attempt at escape from San Quentin. At 28 years old, Jackson was an incisive and engaging political thinker. His death was both a human tragedy and a blow to the Left, who lost a symbol of clear and uncompromising resistance to illegitimate power.

Jackson, G. (1970) Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. London: Penguin

Labour needs a positive message on immigration

Before the dust had settled from the local elections and before the results of the European elections had even been announced, the media were portraying UKIP as the resounding victors, with the BBC loudly endorsing Nigel Farage’s claim to have created an earthquake in British politics. In the run-up to the elections, some politicians and academics warned that Labour faced a serious challenge from the insurgent right-wing party. In the aftermath, senior Labour Party figures said that Labour had to reach out and win back voters who had turned to UKIP. The hand-wringing and chest-beating reached a climax last Monday, with Sadiq Khan publishing an open letter in The Express apologising to UKIP voters for Labour’s ‘mistakes’ on immigration.

The implicit argument made by Khan and those who agree with him is that Labour voters are switching from the Labour Party to vote UKIP. To stop this from happening Labour needs to show that it takes the concerns of these voters seriously by getting tougher on immigration. The overall effect of this line of reasoning is to make concessions to UKIP in the hope that by doing so Labour will win back lost votes.

Who is voting for UKIP?

Khan’s strategy only makes sense if it can be shown that Labour voters are turning to UKIP in significant numbers. The evidence just doesn’t support this view. In fact, Lord Ashcroft’s poll, commissioned straight after the election on 22nd May, proves the opposite. Ashcroft found that over 50% of UKIP’s support came from disillusioned Conservative voters. Ex-Labour voters consisted of only 15% of UKIP’s support.

The results of the European elections support these figures. In all UK European Parliamentary constituencies, Labour has either held its seats, or gained more. UKIP’s new seats in the European Parliament have come at the expense of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

The people voting for UKIP are not disillusioned Labour voters who think Labour ‘got it wrong’ on immigration. They are overwhelmingly ex-Tories, not to mention ex-BNP and English Democrats

Although there are clearly some exceptions to the rule (for example, Stocksbridge and East and West Ecclesfield in my home town, Sheffield), the same goes for the local elections. Whilst much has been made of the results in Rotherham, the decline in the Labour vote hardly accounts for the surge in UKIP support. As Left Futures points out it is notable that the Rotherham seats won by UKIP were those in which there were no ‘credible, established oppositions’.  Bob Pitt has similarly argued that the movement of Tory voters to UKIP has meant that in some key marginals in the general election, Labour is now more, not less, likely to win.

The most significant evidence supporting the claim that UKIP are eating into Labour’s base comes from Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, Nottingham and Manchester based academics. In their analysis of UKIP voters, Revolt on the Right, they give evidence to suggest that UKIP’s support comes from older (55+), white, male, blue-collar workers. Goodwin and Ford argue that this working class demographic, who they call ‘the left behind’, is more traditionally associated with the Labour Party electoral base, so Labour should be worried.

However, Britain has a long tradition of working-class Conservatism. It’s therefore not enough to say that UKIP attracts working class support. It’s also necessary to demonstrate that UKIP is supported by loyal Labour voters who have recently switched to UKIP, rather than disgruntled working class Tories dissatisfied with Cameron’s Conservatives.

Goodwin and Ford recognise this factor in their research. After declaring that UKIP’s ‘recent recruits have mostly been former Conservative voters’ (Revolt on the Right, p. 170-1), they investigate long term voting patterns to establish whether or not UKIP voters are lifelong working class Tories, or if they were once Labour supporters who switched to the Conservatives then switched again to UKIP. The results of this investigation are inconclusive:

[W]ithout more information about the past voting habits and current ideological leanings of UKIP voters, it is hard to say for certain which group [‘Old’ Labour voters or working class Tories] predominates (Revolt on the Right, p.175).

Goodwin and Ford’s claim that there is a UKIP incursion onto Labour’s traditional support has been much trumpeted in the media. However – by their own admission – it’s not clear from their evidence that this is true. What is clear is that UKIP are currently taking their votes from the Conservatives not Labour. The results of the European elections supports this view.

The consequences of conceding to racism

If Khan – and those who agree with him – are actually pursuing ex-Tory voters with their move to the right on immigration, the results would be disastrous. It is unlikely that these voters will suddenly switch to Labour. Why, if you have never done so before, would you vote for a Party you think has been “soft” on immigration, when you could vote for a real anti-immigration party like UKIP or the Tories?

The real danger is that “getting tough” on immigration will put off voters that would naturally support Labour at the next election: ex-Lib Dem voters, for example, or voters who turned to the Lib Dems from Labour because they believed the former to be a “left” or “liberal” alternative. It may also encourage yet more of Labour’s core vote to sit on their hands at the next election, causing them to join the 6 million voters who left the Party under Blair and Brown.

Most importantly, in addition to being electorally disastrous for Labour, conceding to UKIP’s racist anti-immigrant agenda will only shift the political landscape further to the Right and entrench racist views on immigration. It would hand initiative to the right in a race to the bottom, with UKIP continuously making new reactionary demands.

UKIP is racist

In what is effectively a rhetorical move to prettify an accomodation to racism, Labour politicians have argued that they are listening to the legitimate concerns of the ‘left behind’ voters Goodwin and Ford identify. Indeed, Goodwin himself has argued that UKIP isn’t a racist party because the majority of its voters subscribe to a civic, rather than racial, view of national identity. According to this view, UKIP isn’t racist because its members think that British identity is defined by your values, not the colour of your skin.

But to anyone who has followed the evolution of racism in Britain, it is precisely on the field of ‘culture’ and ‘values’ that modern racism is played out. Despite evidence to the contrary, the Muslim community is singled-out for special treatment by politicians and the media because – it’s claimed – they do not accept “western values” and will not integrate into British society. In the mainstream media, Muslims are not persecuted because of their skin colour but in the civic “our values, not theirs” sense that Goodwin describes.This makes it no less racist.

It’s no accident that in a study by Goodwin and Ford, UKIP voters, alongside BNP voters, overwhelmingly identify Islam as a threat to western civilisation (64%) and that UKIP has grown as its representatives have made overtly Islamophobic comments. UKIP has postured over not letting ex-members of the BNP into the Party, but in interviews with Goodwin, Nigel Farage has made no secret of the party’s attempt to court the BNP vote.

Farage’s recent comments in an interview with LBC’s James O’Brien should dispel any illusions about UKIP’s racist attitude to Eastern European immigrants (the interview should be required watching for journalists on how to deal with UKIP). When asked what the differences are between someone like Farage’s German wife moving in next door, and a family of Romanians, Farage refused to answer the question, ominously stating ‘you know the difference’. UKIP are explicit in saying that the problem isn’t immigration per se, but ‘the quality’ of who is immigrating. Presumably this means Romanians are “low quality” whereas Germans are “high quality”. We can label this distinction a kind of ‘civic’ nationalism, or we can call it for what it is: a racist typology of “good” and “bad” immigrants.

Clearly, UKIP is not a fascist party and it cannot be tackled in the same way as the BNP . However, any discussion over the different tactics that are needed to defeat UKIP must start from the strategic assumption that UKIP is a racist party and that concessions to its agenda are concessions to racism.

Labour needs a positive message

For Labour to pander to UKIP’s racism would be electorally disastrous for them and it would plunge the debate on immigration – which is already plumbing the depths of reaction – further into the mire.

The right-wing vote is saturated by UKIP and the Tories. Rather than attempt to court it, Labour needs to give voters who are not attracted to these parties something to vote for; rather than concede to racism, it should champion the reality of modern multicultural Britain; and rather than attacking immigrants, it should stand up for immigration and the benefits it brings.

This positive message would appeal to a layer of the electorate that has also been ‘left behind’ by the race to the bottom in the immigration debate; to Liberal Democrat voters who are appalled by the party’s coalition with the Tories; to Green voters who left Labour, fed up with its march to the right; and to ex-Labour voters who sit on their hands because they are sick of voting ‘with a clothes peg on their nose’.

The Labour Party will never be tougher on immigration than the racist rump of the Conservative Party. For its own electoral fortunes, the voters it has left behind, and the quality of the debate on immigration, it should stop trying.

Anti-racism must be at the heart of the People’s Assembly

This blog originally appeared as a guest blog for the Sheffield and South Yorkshire People’s Assembly.

We should be under no illusions. The economic and political project of the government is to boost profits for corporate shareholders at the expense of the overall majority of people. In the five years since the start of the crisis, profits have reached record highs, whilst standards of living for ordinary people have taken a dramatic dive. Even under the so-called recovery trumpeted by the media and the government front bench, this trend is set to continue (in fact, the economy remains smaller today than it was five years ago).

The rhetoric of austerity is a divisive one. It has to be. It’s the only political strategy that makes any sense.  “Strivers” versus “skivers”; “deserving” versus “undeserving” poor; “chavs” versus so-called “hard working families”. If you’re in government and you’re hitting the 99% to benefit the 1%, you better make sure that the majority you’re going after are too busy tearing each other apart to notice you’re the one responsible for the problems they face; for cutting or freezing pay, for slashing pensions, for the millions of people queuing at the Job Centre, for the people working for free under workfare, for all those chronically – sometimes terminally – ill people forced back to work by Atos. The list goes on and on.

It’s self-evidently true that to build an effective campaign against austerity all these attempts to foment division amongst the people suffering from the cuts should be resisted. Where the government makes scapegoats and offers nothing but contempt and suspicion, we should offer solidarity. The struggle against racism must be a central aspect of this work.

For the last ten years, the cutting edge of racism in Britain has been directed at the Muslim community. Unbelievably, in this time over half of all mosques and Islamic religious centres have been subject to attack in the UK, women have been assaulted in the street, their veils ripped from their heads, and universities have been daubed with racist graffiti. The rise of the English Defence League (EDL) has given expression to a violent Islamophobic racism, with so-called “protests” terrorising Black and Asian neighbourhoods and erupting into clashes with the police. The EDL is what a modern pogrom movement looks like.

Thanks to organisations like Unite Against Fascism (UAF), the EDL now seem to be in terminal decline. UAF has consistently argued that the racist politics of the EDL should be challenged whenever and wherever they march. They’ve organised demonstrations up and down the country against racism and Islamophobia which celebrate and defend multiculturalism.

Importantly, they also acknowledge that the emergence of the EDL did not take place in a political vacuum. Rising levels of Islamophobia in the political and media mainstreams provided the context for the growth of the EDL as an organised fascist street movement. To successfully oppose the EDL requires that we make zero concessions to racism or Islamophobia wherever it appears (this should also mean that the people most affected by fascism – at present, the Muslim community – are at the centre of the campaigns against it). By tackling mainstream Islamophobia head-on, the poisonous racism of the EDL is marginalised which makes it harder for them to grow.

This has meant challenging any attempt to argue that the Muslim community is uniquely reactionary, or that Muslims are more predisposed to particular types of crime such as child grooming, or that Muslim women do not have the right to dress in whatever way they please. In fact, in countries where concessions have been made to this agenda – such as France with the banning of the veil – the far-right and fascists have got stronger, not weaker. As the adage goes, if you give an inch, they take a mile.

Whilst the EDL seem to be in decline, the conditions for a new fascist street movement are still more than adequate. Anti-Muslim bigotry has continued to have a prominent place in public discourse. Similarly, immigrants have become the target of government crack downs. The correctly named ‘racist vans’, telling illegal immigrants to ‘go home’, do nothing but echo the sentiments of the far-right.

We should be absolutely clear that a ‘neutral’ discussion of immigration is not on the table. It’s obvious that the concerns raised by politicians about the levels of immigration into Britain are not directed at the (white) Australian or American immigrant populations. As it stands, the immigration debate is used as the pretext for dog-whistle racism; just another form of divide and rule.

On Monday, the Prime Minister directly connected the issue of immigration with the economy, claiming that the reason many British workers were unable to get jobs was because of immigration from Eastern Europe. This is nonsense. Workers – of all nationalities – are unable to get jobs because there aren’t any.

The message here is crude: the problems faced by workers in Britain are not the fault of the government, its failed policy of austerity and the suffering it has caused, and will continue to cause; they are the fault of immigrants. In the anti-austerity movement, we know that’s not the case. We know that claiming that it is the case means distracting people from the real issues.

It’s for this reason that the struggle against racism is a necessary, inextricable part of the struggle against austerity. In much the same way that they blame benefit ‘cheats’ and ‘skivers’ to distract us from much bigger issues, like tax avoidance, the Tory-led government try and scapegoat Muslims and immigrants. We wouldn’t tolerate any concessions to the idea that benefit cheating is the reason the country is in a mess, neither should we tolerate any concessions to the idea that it’s because of immigrants or Muslims. This is why anti-racism should be at the heart of the movement against austerity. Without taking the struggle against racism seriously, we risk falling prey to the divide and rule tactics of the advocates of austerity.