Trump and Brexit: Combiner politics works - so where is ours?

Trump and Brexit: Combiner politics works - so where is ours?

By Dr Sanjiv Lingayah

In the make-believe world of the Transformers a Combiner is the name given to a group of Transformers capable of combining their bodies into a single powerful entity. In the real world Combiner politics have been in full effect in the EU Referendum campaign and also the US Presidential race. ‘Leave’ and Trump have pieced together genuine economic grievance and a sense of loss of control and folded in these sentiments in the form of anti-establishment, anti-globalisation politics foregrounding concern about ‘outsiders’ and nationalistic nostalgia.

This brand of politics is heavily racialised and nativist, claiming to rebalance arrangements in favour of the (white) working class in ways that threaten to punish migrants and black and brown people and set back progress towards racial justice. But while Leave and Trump have won public support for their response to untamed forces of globalisation where is the counter-response for racial, social and economic justice for all?

Concerns about immigration and the presence of black and brown people are, of course, longstanding. But we can see the seeds of this particular iteration of nativism as recently as 2005 when the Conservatives’ tentatively stated in a general election poster that ‘it’s not racist to impose limits on immigration: are you thinking what we’re thinking’. Though that campaign ended in defeat, eleven years later events on both sides of the Atlantic suggest that many millions of people are now not only thinking along the lines of the poster but much more besides.

Since the 2005 general election campaign a lot of ‘heavy lifting’ has occurred in the UK to emphasise the idea of migrants – recent and long-settled – as ‘out of place’ and to blame for denying white working class people their birth right. Important in moving that story forward were an ensemble of actors including Migration Watch, the Daily Mail, the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, the English Defence League and, of course, the United Kingdom Independence Party. These groupings don’t agree on everything by any means but the combined effect of their work appears to be to foreshorten possibilities for racial justice.

But can the conditions that have produced Trump, Le Pen and others internationally be re-combined to advance what Paul Mason in the Guardian called the ‘…common story… that puts the defence of global interconnection, racial tolerance and gender equality at its heart.’ And, if so, can Black and Minoritised Ethnic civil society and racial justice activists drive an alternative response?

The narrative that brought Trump to power provides a hostile operating reality for the work of Black and Minoritised Ethnic civil society. In this context calls for greater racial justice can feel like shouting into a gale force headwind and hoping that the sound will carry. It therefore appears that the counter-politics to a nativist response to the problems of the ‘left-behind’ needs to bring together many voices operating in concert. These voices from routinely discriminated against populations must find a way to build what Professor Stuart Hall called ‘…solidarity and identification which make common struggle and resistance possible but without suppressing the real heterogeneity of interests and identities.’

And yet we know from working in the Black and Minoritised Ethnic voluntary and community sector there are difficulties connecting to other (white-led) struggles for economic and social justice, including work against poverty and in favour of migrant rights. Furthermore there are differences within black and brown populations contending with particular threats, such as the over-policing of black people; the low incomes of Bangladeshi households; and securitisation crackdowns on Muslims. These threats lend themselves to specific rather than generalised work against discrimination but this narrow politics may leave intact common structural arrangements that make black and brown and other populations as a whole vulnerable to discrimination and leave a clear run for nativist politics.

Building a joint defence of internationalism, racial, gender and broader social and economic justice is not a quick fix. It will take time and Black and Minoritised Ethnic activists will be required to have new dialogues with others working for justice in order to construct counter-narratives to Trump, Le Pen and others. There is no one answer to how to do it – but answers will emerge if there is collective will and curiosity to find them. This by no means is advocating the abandonment of specific struggles for racial justice. But it is suggesting that these struggles are on their own insufficient because just like the make-believe world of the Transformers, Combiners tend to be considerably more powerful than solo entities and it is easier to fight them together rather than all alone.

Dr Sanjiv Lingayah is a Voice4Change England Associate and researcher and writer on racial justice.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Voice4Change England.