Why the British Left Isn’t Talking About Immigration

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Political Leaders Respond To The UK's EU Referendum Result
The British Labour leader has reasons other than ideology to treat Brexit as about economics rather than immigration.Photo: Rob Stothard/2016 Getty Images

Anyone who has been watching the run-up to the Brexit referendum in Britain, in which controversy over EU-mandated immigration policies has been a central issue, might have been surprised by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s initial reaction to the results:

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A lot of the message that has come back from this is that many communities are fed up with cuts, they are fed up with economic dislocation and feel very angry at the way they have been betrayed and marginalised by successive governments in very poor areas of the country.

So Brexit is about budget cuts and Tory social policies? Really?

So Brexit is about budget cuts and Tory social policies? Really?

Now, part of what Corbyn may be reflecting is the left’s traditional tendency to view cultural phenomena as by-products of economic dynamics — what critics call “economic reductionism.” You can see a glimmer of that in the reaction to Brexit by Bernie Sanders, a pol who is often accused of economic reductionism:

What this vote is about is an indication that the global economy is not working for everybody,” he said. “It’s not working in the United States for everybody and it’s not working in the U.K. for everybody. When you see investors going to China and shutting down factories in this country and laying off, over a period of many years, millions of people, people are saying you know what, global economy may be great for some people but not for me.”

Not a word about immigration, even as an economic issue. 

Now, to be clear, if immigration really is an important impetus to Brexit, Corbyn and other Labour leaders have to be very careful in talking about it. On the one hand, nonwhite immigrants are a strong Labour constituency. On the other hand, white native British working-class voters appear to have overwhelmingly voted for Brexit in Labour’s northern English strongholds. And Labour is far more dependent on white working-class support than are our own Democrats. For one thing, the U.K. remains a much “whiter” country than the U.S.; as of the last census, 87 percent of the British population was white. And so Labour has not been able to make up for white working-class defections with a large minority voting population. There’s also more competition in the U.K. for the higher-income, higher-educated voters who have been gravitating to the Democratic Party in the U.S.: The Lib Dems and Greens are serious parties, as are the regional nationalist parties, and the Tories are (or were in the last two national elections) a lot more moderate than their American counterparts. 

That is not to say Brexit, or even anti-immigrant sentiment, is all about race, by any means. The immigrants most associated with EU policy are typically Eastern European (about half of the immigrant population of the U.K. is now nonwhite, and half is white, according to some estimates). But many British people fear the EU will force the U.K. to accept countless Middle Eastern migrants as a by-product of the Syrian nightmare. 

So it’s safer to talk about Tory austerity and economic inequality. Corbyn’s rap has the added advantage of expressing some truth. It’s just not the whole truth.