After fascism, what?

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After fascism, what?

The question of whether Donald’s Trump victory marks a triumph for fascism in the US depends, as always, on which definition of fascism you use.

For most of the past fifty years, the principal way in which theorists of fascism have defined it is by drawing up a list of surface phenomena which were shared by the Italian and German fascisms of the 1920s and 1930s: a belief in a strong party, a style of authoritarian leadership, an ideology which positioned itself as neither right nor left, racism, a belief in a new fascist man, etc.

Under the list method, Trump or Trumpism looks more unlike than like fascism: there isn’t a Trump “party”, Trump doesn’t demand the same sort of loyalty that Hitler or Mussolini expected, he is not offering a universal alternative to liberalism, socialism, etc.

Within liberal definitions of fascism, political scientists have long been aware that there is a problem. Around Italian and German fascism there were a series of other fascist parties some of which were more similar than not to them (eg the British Union of Fascists) some of which shared some but not all of these external forms (eg Francoism). How much would a “mimetic” (i.e. copying) semi-fascist movement need to share with fascism in order to qualify as fascist? There is no agreed answer.

The trend in liberal scholarship has been to replace the list method with an emphasis on one single factor which is said to define the essence of fascism, namely an ideology of national rebirth (“palingenesis”). The problem, as I argued in my book Fascism: Theory and Practice twenty years ago is that even national rebirth turns out to be a slippery place from which to view and understand fascism.

Almost every centre or right-wing politician of the past 100 years has said that their election will result in an improvement of the nation and more than a few have promised its transformation on their watch.

Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” undoubtedly looks like a promise of national palingenesis, but Ronald Reagan used exactly the same slogan, as did Margaret Thatcher. Silvio Berlusconi’s “Forza Italia” was barely different.

Compare for example this speech from a British political leader in 1996:

“Just think of it – Britain, the skills superpower of the world. Why not? Why can’t we do it? Achievement, aspiration fulfilled for all our people. Because a great people equals a Great Britain…”

“This is our mission for Britain today. We knew we could do better. And we did. We knew we could be better, we the Labour Party. And we are. Britain, too, can do better. Britain can be better than this. A thousand days to prepare for a thousand years – not just turning a page in history but writing a new book, building the greatness of our nation through the greatness of its people.”

And this from Trump on the campaign trail:

“Our failed establishment has brought us nothing but poverty at home, and disaster overseas. We are tired of economic and foreign policies that have bled this country dry. It is time for real change that puts the people back in charge. This election will decide who runs this country: the Corrupt Political Class – or you, the American People. That’s the choice. She’s with them – I’m with you. This is our last chance.”

Trump’s has an urgency which Tony Blair’s speech lacks, Tony Blair’s conversely has an idea of the nation as an organic being with its own history of decline or advance which is in these respects closer to the way in which the politicians of the 1920s and 1930s thought.

In case anyone misunderstands me, I am not saying that Tony Blair was a fascist; I am saying only that we live in a political culture where politicians are competing for the right to govern nation states and in that context national palingenesis is not a rare and unusual message limited only to the fringes of the extreme right, actually it is a near universal message of politicians of the parliamentary centre and right.

In Fascism: Theory and Practice, I argued that fascism was best understood as a specific form of reactionary mass politics.

The least important part of this definition was the phrase “specific form,” which was a partial nod to the list-definitions I have referred to already.

More important was the notion of “reactionary mass politics”. Here I was saying that the goal which fascists set themselves was to abolish social democracy (note, not revolutionary socialism but social democracy) and that the means the fascists chose to do so was a popular mobilisation (i.e. an organisation of people, whether small owners or white-collar or unemployed workers) to destroy the buildings, organisations and people of the trade unions and the parliamentary left. The paradox or if you like the motor of fascism was precisely the mobilisation of a group of people (workers) against the very organisations which were conventionally assumed to represent them.

Looking at Trump through this model it is plain that Trump is not a fascist and in fact bears very few points of comparison with the politics of the 1930s.

He isn’t waging a war against conventional democracy and neither does he possess a private army to achieve this victory.

He does have a counter-revolutionary ambition, as (of all people) Nigel Farage rightly remarked as he stood waiting to ascend in Trump’s golden elevator, but the focus of Trump’s ambition is not against social democracy but against the social victories that have been made after 1945 and belong to a different epoch from it – reformist feminism, LGBT rights, today’s (minimal) toleration of migrants rights etc.

Nor does a consciousness of social democracy play any recognisable part in his philosophy.

He is socially illiberal, and the way he used rust-belt voters against the Democrats shares a certain resemblance with the way in which Hitler and Mussolini turned unemployed workers against the organised working class (with the important caveat that of the course the Democrats never had been a workers’ party in the way that the SPD, for example, still was in Germany prior to 1933). But Trump’s victory was a battle of votes, not guns. The Democratic Party is not about to be banned by law. The NAACP has not had its offices occupied by militia nor were its leading members killed before Trump had even been elected in a violent civil war.

The people who vote for Trump are, for the moment, just that: voters rather than political soldiers in training.

To my mind, the search for comparisons with the 1930s is a mistake. We do it, because in every political moment we take our images of evil from the experiences of the past.

Between 1945 and 1989, we lived in a world that was recognisably post-fascist. Politics was divided, in every country, between blocks of opinion that allied with either of the two main powers that did most to defeated Nazi Germany. You could be (in British terms) pale pink or deepest red, or on the other side of the political spectrum yellow or Royal Blue. The side you chose owed its politics to large blocks which had coalesced as far back as the 1940s.

Social liberalism, in so far as it retained a distinct project, gave itself the task of completing a liberal agenda still set by the events of 1945: such demands as refugee rights, prohibitions on torture, universal declarations against racism, all made sense because they were an attempt (admittedly through the state) to prohibit a return to 1933 for ever.

Conservatism was credible only if it nodded back to Churchill (and not to the appeasers).

Conversely, when ultra-right parties emerged they did so led and funded by people who had been participants in 1939-45, or defined themselves by that moment.

In Britain, the memory of anti-fascist resistance was weaker than in almost any other country in Western Europe, but even here it left behind a certain moral calculus which was well established on activists on the far-left and which went something like the following.

1. Fascism is different from any other political philosophy under capitalism era. 2. It is different because if it triumphs it would abolish not merely revolutionary socialism but parliamentary socialism and in fact democracy itself. 3. Fascism is in addition the only political force which has enacted genocide against a domestic racialised other (plenty of European parties enacted racial wars against people in other countries, what was different about fascism was that it constructed death camps at home). 4. Because of 2) and 3) fascism is a repugnant enemy of all social progress. 5. Therefore it is appropriate to conduct a war against fascism, to fight it with violence if need be because the alternative is that fascism will defeat – and perhaps kill – everyone on the soft and hard left.

This theory was summed up in the phrase “no platform”, where the important word was not the second: we should try to prevent fascists speaking. The important word was the first: if fascism was to be stopped, it had to be stopped everywhere. 

The problem with anti-fascism as an approach to politics is that Europe and the world ceased to be recognisably post-fascist at some point in our recent past. Either in 1989, where Communism vs anti-Communism ceased to be the main fault line in politics. Or on 9/11 when the right acquired a “big story” which was no longer about 1939-45 but Muslims. On in 2008 when a series of ostensibly liberal or social democratic governments wagered the future of the welfare state on protecting the banks.

However it has happened, we have acquired a new and successful far-right which isn’t constantly replaying in its mind the battles of 1933-45.

In British terms, we saw this shift with the decline of the British National Party and its replacement by the EDL and UKIP. To say to an activist from the BNP, “You are a Hitler supporter,” was to call their politics bogus, was to point out the flawed, apologetic nature of their party’s relationship to the past. Supporter of the EDL, however, a party whose members met in pubs and sang themselves the Dambuster theme tune had less difficulty laughing off the same insult. And to be an anti-fascist against UKIP is, once again, to look for a secret point of shame among people who don’t see themselves as Hitler’s descendants and find the comparison not upsetting but bemusing and laughable.

This process, whereby the far right slowly frees itself from its historic fidelity to the politics of the 1933 is much further gone in the United States where the most successful advocates of proto-fascism were radio celebrities (Father Coughlin) and not party-builders.

A problem with the “no platform” politics of the 1970s was the idea that under developed capitalism you could have liberal democracy or you could have fascism and there was no space for anything in between. What we find today, instead, is that increasing number of states combine the forms of democracy (i.e. periodic elections) with style of politically authoritarian and nationalist leaderships in which large parts of civil society serve not check the state, but (just as under any dictatorship) choose rather to serve it. In what meaningful sense could Russia be called a democracy, or Hungary? How much democracy is left in India? Who will win the next elections in Austria or Italy or France?

Trump represents a new kind of politics. One enabled by conventional right-wing Republicans (think of all the old-school plutocrats who had to rally behind him in order to sell his candidacy to a sceptical Republican electorate, 90% of which ended up voting for him) but a regime in which the most extreme figures have all the advantages (powers of patronage, the legitimacy of a mandate) over the old guard. He brings to the White House narcissism and paranoia. His programme is to use the state to smash the few welfare reforms which still protect the most vulnerable, while reducing taxes on the rich as close to zero as can be reached while still paying for an expanded army and police force. He will ally with every nationalistic, militaristic leader he can find whether actual fascist (Assad), of fascist origin (Le Pen) or on some other trajectory (Putin, Farage) and they, along with the likes of Steve Bannon and the alt-right, will be invigorated by him.

The movement against Trump needs to find its own language, to sound through the world as “They shall not pass” once did. But it must be slogans for our times not for the past.

My student; the anti-Semite

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Later today, Paul Nuttall is going to replace Nigel Farage as leader of the UK Indepdence Party. This will be a strange experience for me. You will see in the coverage of his past career that Nuttall was once, briefly, a history lecturer. Before that he was a student, and in 1999-2000, I taught Paul Nuttall for a year. A year was long enough to get a good sense of a man who is going to be part of our lives rather more in future.

Nuttall was then studying at Edge Hill College on a History BA. I taught in the history department, where I was responsible for various courses including a one-year course teaching the history of fascism in Italy and Germany, for which he signed up. Nuttall struck me as bright and cynical. He was 23 years old – as old as the graduate students we taught, not our undergraduates, almost all of whom were straight out of A-levels. He seemed to have a stronger personality than any of his peers. While most of the students knew only what it said in the various course books, he had read more widely, in books and on the internet. He didn’t express his views openly but from time to time you felt he was testing the water to see what he could get away with.

In early December 1999, Nuttall’s cohort were set a standard essay on the causes of the Holocaust. I forget the exact title, but the question was something like whether the Final Solution was principally caused by Hitler’s anti-Semitism or by other factors related to the German economy or state. To my surprise, Nuttall’s answer worked in two footnotes to different books by David Irving. I wasn’t expecting this, because Irving wasn’t on the course reading list: this was after his libel trial and historians regarded Irving as an unpleasant, racist crank who was beyond the pale.

Moreover the references did not engage with the subject that Nuttall had actually been set: it felt rather as if he had written them in to see whether he could shoe-horn these views into an academic context and “get away” with them.
One of the quotes (for an essay about the Holocaust…) was from a book David Irving had written about the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. The message of the other Irving quote was that that anti-Semitism had been popular in Weimar Germany: the quote exaggerated the extent of anti-semtiism and carried the implication that it had been popular because it was deserved.

The incident was one of the oddest and most unwanted experiences I’d had as a teacher. I had taught fascism courses in different institutions over the previous three years including to A-levels students at Tower Hamlets college. Those students were under enormous and sometime contradictory pressures from their family, the mosque and the big trends in global politics that were heading in the direction of 9/11. But nothing they had ever written compared to this. I had never seen a student argue anything that could even remotely be characterised as “the Jews deserved it”. While Nuttall’s piece as a whole did not go that far, that seemed to be the message of the quotation he had used

I met Nuttall to discuss what he had written and he gave a tearful denial, saying that his girlfriend had downloaded the references to Irving’s book from the internet, blaming her rather than his own judgment. He accepted that the words could be construed as having an unpleasant, even racist meaning. But he denied that this had been his intention. He seemed shocked to be challenged about anything – like smug, arrogant, people everywhere he was most comfortable in a small bubble where no-one could disagree with him.

Peter Picton (1934-2016)

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My uncle Peter, who died on Thursday, was many things: an entertainer, a proud trade unionist, an author. As Pierre the Clown he was a fixture on children’s TV in the 1960s and 1970s. As the owner of the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car from the film, he performed in the 1980s and 1990s at hundreds perhaps thousands of Christmas events, weddings and local shows. He would drive Chitty through crowds in their thousands, waving back as the children in his audience waved at him. He became an honourary, working-class, Royal.

 

Pete never talked about his childhood. As he told it, his life’s story began in his teens when he went to stage school. In his holidays, he worked as a chef’s assistant. In time, he began a new career as the apprentice to Coco, the head clown at Bertram Mills circus. “Coco had a marvellous act, pies and custard, pasting up rolls of paper, rolling them up, rolling them down, so that the paste went everywhere. The humour,” he used to say. “It was all timing, you know.”

 

By 1954 Pete had adopted his stage name of Pierre the Clown. In 1956-7, weeks after the Soviet tanks had put down the workers’ uprising in Hungary, Pete was one of the first western acts to be allowed into Budapest. He worked there with another friend, an Italian clown called Cavalini, “Huge numbers came,” he said. “They love their circus in Eastern Europe, it was their main source of entertainment. For me, they were wonderful days, but the atmosphere was strained, you knew something was wrong.”

 

He had a favourite prop, a black Model T-Ford. Pierre would try to open one door but it wouldn’t and another swung open in its place. Then the doors would open, but they fell off. Miming between each setback incredulity, defeat, renewed hope, Peter attempted to drive the car from its back seat. The car would start before finally spilling him onto the floor.

 

The chef Robert Carrier worked with Pete, and sent him touring around schools talking about dental health. A special poster was commissioned, in typically sixties lurid blues, reds and yellows, “Pierre the Clown says End you meal with an apple. It’s nature’s toothbrush.” Pete was the clown handing John Lennon an apple at the opening of the Beatle’s Apple Boutique.

 

In 1967-8 Pete was now at the height of his celebrity. In 1967, by which time he was the father of a young son Jon, he released a pair of singles, Pierre the Clown in Nursery Rhyme Town and Pierre the Clown in Space Rhyme Town. They start with familiar rhymes, but the rhymes take detours. They become something new and wonderful and strange. He wrote The Gourmet’s Guide to Fish and Chips; and a children’s guide to Hastings.

 

He worked for the Rolling Stone on their circus tour. He was also at his most active within Equity, negotiating the clowns’ pay rates with the major circuses.

 

In 1968, Pete worked as a driver on the film ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. At the end of the film the props were auctioned off and Pete was able to buy the working car complete with its Gen 11 numberplate. The car was to become the mainstay of Pete’s working life, and for the next forty years he performed at countless shows acting Pete’s own creation, a mixture of Dick van Dyke dashing inventor Caractacus Potts and Lionel Jeffries’ eccentric Granda Potts.

 

In the early 70s, Pete met Susie and they were to live together more 42 years, in Belgravia, then in Shipston and for thirty years in Stratford. They married in 1988.

 

In 2013, Susie and Pete sold Chitty. It was an inevitable and a right decision. Pete  suffered intense arthritis in his hands and knees and found the work hard. But he fought retirement for many years. Even without Chitty, he was still a local celebrity: he couldn’t go to the bank or a shop without meeting or making a friend.

 

Pete was one of those rare adults who believe in children, who are aware of the powerlessness that the young can feel. A stream of youngsters came to Susie and Pete’s house, were given presents of sweets, make-your-own models of Chitty or Smurf stickers. “Here’s something,” Pete would say and they would leave with a five or ten pound note. 

 

Pete was one of those big, bold people whose lives evade categories. Someone who hated racism and homophobia and who paid his union subs years into retirement. But the newspaper he read, even in hospital, was the Daily Mail.

 

I visited him two days before he died, his face covered in an oxygen mask. He could communicate only in sign language and whispers. But he wanted to know how I’d travelled there, how my children were. His face creased in a broad smile when he heard that they were acting and dancing. All of sudden he waved, he pointed. I was wearing trainers, bright red running shoes beneath my grey trousers, my grey top. He pointed to them and he laughed. “I like them,” my uncle the clown said. Even in hospital, Pete was still thinking of other people rather than himself. Fighting for his life, he cheered us up by making a joke. 

It doesn’t have to be Weimar

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The old swung it. There’s no mystery about why Exit triumphed; it had its core vote among the over 65s, among the generation who could remember Biggles and Baked Beans and when diversity on TV was the Black and White Minstrel Show. Of those young people who voted, three-quarters voted to remain but a greater proportion of the old actually voted and it is their greater turnout which explains why exit won.

You could, if you wanted to, blame the young for not voting in even large numbers. But who with their heart beating could vote happily for the Europe of Schauble and Merkel, the Europe that imposed water charges on Ireland, the Europe that forced bankruptcy on Greece?

The main organisations of the British left have hardly covered themselves with glory in recent weeks. A year ago they said that UKIP was an existential threat to socialists and demanded that everyone unite with them against its threat. This week, they were not Standing up to Ukip but Voting with Farage. All the rest of us still defer far too much to them.

The new left says “Defend” – starting with the rights of the EU migrants which are now in jeopardy. This is a humane and necessary  response. I will be part of it, starting with the first protest for migrants’ rights this very evening.

But the referendum shows us that the will to protect what we have is insufficient.

The reason the right won is that they were not defending. They were not maintaining a position from the past. They were demanding something new. We live in a moment when social resources are rationed, and everyone who depends on them can see for themselves that in future there will be less free education, less free health care, less social housing. In circumstances where people are told repeatedly that our defeat cannot be reversed, it is not absurd to conclude that if only foreigners are excluded from the welfare state then there will be more for “the likes of us.”

It felt as if remain was saying “we have enough rights now”. This was a weaker and more defensive argument. How could the poor be better off than they were already? Even those of us who argued for left remain positions could not say that “voting with us will make things better”, only that it would not make life worse.

The British population has grown in sixty years by 20%. Let us concede the possibility that to host 20% more people you need 20% more houses, 20% more jobs, 20% more cars. In the same period, GDP has grown, not by 20 or 25% but by 2500%. There are more than enough resources to go around. Limiting benefits by nationality is not a strategy to maintain the welfare state but to surrender it.

This is the argument the left needs to win, and we can only do it in the same way as previous generations: by making demands and winning them and showing that it is possible without racism to win more for those without.  A hundred years ago, people argued for pensions, for benefits for the unemployed. With each reform that was won, people’s ambitions for the future were raised. The task in our own time is to show, as Corbyn briefly argued a year ago, that the homes of the landlords are not theirs for life but can be returned to the people who rent. To restore the corporations and the rich to the tax system, which they have been allowed to escape. For a universal basic income, available to all irrespective of nationality.

Only if the left learns to defend less, and demand more, will we avoid more wretched mornings like this one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giulio Regeni mural, Cairo

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There are any numbers of photographs of Giulio Regeni with cats. His cat has been tortured (the bandages), in common with so many victims of the regime and it has the wings of a martyr of the revolution. The cat’s eye has been painted clear in memory of the protesters whose eyes have been shot out. On Giulio’s face are the words of his mother at his memorial, that he was killed like an Egyptian.

Solidarity and love to all those fighting for justice for Giulio.

Sherrl Yanowitz: Rest in Power

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My friend and comrade Sherrl Yanowitz has died this evening. She became a socialist at Berkeley in the mid-1960s, joining SNCC and Core and hearing Hal Draper speak. She was part of a generation that sat down on train tracks to stop military trains and marched on the Bay Area docks to stop ships loaded with weapons for the war. She came to London in 1969 and was a part of the women’s and anti-racist movements, I remember finding an archive photograph of her and her partner Neil Rogall, both with giant hair, on a protest against the NF’s racist landlord Robert Relf in 1975. She joined the International Socialists, later the SWP and was amongst many other things a member of that party’s unofficial AgitProp committee, whose launch statement declared, “This first national AgitProp meeting wants an end to drab socials, colourless meetings, boring education, unconvincing propaganda and bad jokes…”

In 1977, Sherrl had the idea for a Stuff the Jubilee badge: the printer laughed at her when she took him the design, but so popular did it prove that in the end 40,000 of them were stamped, and the slogan took a life of its own, inspiring other leaflets and events. She was a woman in the male-dominated printing industry, and on strike at Wapping, and toured the country speaking on behalf of the strikers.

In 1991, when I was in central London and under-employed on a gap year, Sherrl made me an honorary member of the SOAS SWSS group, and persuaded me to give my first political talk (the title, “What’s wrong with British Justice?” turned out to be a larger part of my life than I could have guessed). She was comfortable in a diverse left which included anarchists and orthodox Trotskyists (Paul Mason was standing behind another SOAS table), academics, both Marxist and otherwise. She shared the memories of her working life: speaking with Paul Foot about Wapping, sharing an elevator once with the hulking, sweating evil that was Robert Maxwell.

She found her own path in the 1990s and patiently for her friends to join her, telling me on my first departure in 2003, “Welcome to the biggest political party on the left in Britain, ex-members of the SWP”. She left and she never stopped being an activist. In 2003 she was taking photographs against the war and helping build the movement. She did not hide her view that the leaders of Stop the War were failing the movement but few things gave her (as an anti-zionist Jew) more pleasure than watching the sudden dialogue that emerged between the socialist left and British Muslims. Where people were in the wrong she could be as hard on them as nails, but when people (sometimes the same people who were otherwise at fault) got something right, she did not stint in her praise of them.

Sherrl was the most generous friend that anyone could ask for. She lived by another dissident US Marxist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s idea, that you can tell the worth of a leftist by the love they show to children. She came to see us and photographed my eldest son when he was just three days old. The picture still is on our walls at home and in Sam’s grandparents’ home.

When the crisis happened in the SWP in 2013, Sherrl knew immediately what side she was on and behind the scenes gave the most support she could to the people who fought. When a new organisation, RS21, was launched, it felt to her that here was a chance – at last – of creating the principled left that for years she had missed. I can’t promise that we are, or ever will be, quite what she wanted. But thanks in part to Sherrl we’re still trying. My love to her and my love to her partner Neil.

One day we’ll win and when we do, I’ll be thinking of Sherrl.

The tactics of Exit voting

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For any readers missing the argument for a left exit vote in the coming referendum, here’s one I prepared earlier. In the EU’s rush to take austerity positions since 2008, the budget mechanisms of the EU have been reimagined and the Commission and the ECB have become devices for forcing cuts on the poorer European states. It is a condition of continued membership that budgets are submitted to the EU each year and there they are scrutinised to ensure a continuous process of cuts, privatisation and diminished collective bargaining. In Ireland, Greece and Spain, EU policies are leading to a rapid diminution of union bargaining, and if these are the worst affected, the direction of travel is the same all across the continent.

That said, while I can recognise that the left exit position can have a principled basis, it’s problem if anything is that it is too principled. I have yet to encounter a left exit argument which finds a transmission mechanism between the high socialist hopes of those that I hear espousing exit and the vote. Why, I want friends to explain, will an exit vote improve the balance of forces for the left in Britain?

Here, it seems to me are the main areas where the advocates of a conventional Brexit are tactically ahead of their temporary allies among the exit voters of the far left:

The vote is / the vote isn’t a vote for restricted immigration. If you study the polls carefully, I understand it is possible to construct an argument that the EU exit vote isn’t just about immigration. When people are asked to explain why they are voting for exit, they do not always put immigration as their sole or even necessarily their top priority. Now one (relatively weak) response would be that data on voting intentions often has this character: if you study people’s reasons for UKIP voting, say, often people have complex and conflicting reasons for voting the way they do.

More important, is an understanding of how the national exit vote has been planned. The strategists of the exit vote are aware that: i) they have a big lead among the demographics most likely to vote (i.e. over 65s – see graph at top), ii) there is an equally big stay majority among the groups of people least likely to vote (i.e. under 25s), iii) these majorities have different weight. Because over-65s are much more likely to vote (in general and in this case in particular), exit can win without a popular mobilisation, in fact the more that it polarises people the greater the risk that today’s possibly-non-voting stay voters will be converted into tomorrow’s actual stay voters, iv) therefore anything that feels like racism is counterproductive – the UKIP/migration vote is already primed and ready to vote (of all the parties, UKIP supporters report the greatest interest in the referendum and the greatest intention to vote). Raw anti-migrant politics will only produce a reaction in terms of stay voting by the young.

This, I think, explains the way that the exit argument is positioned both in the national media and locally. There is a constant shuffle backwards and forwards between “immigration” and “other” arguments. One day, we are told that the NHS is dying under the weight of prospective immigrants, the next day that migrants are dragging British workers into poverty. Then as soon as these arguments are put, they are withdrawn and replaced with a blancmange of emptiness which is the characteristic mode of the exit argument. It is the same with the local literature: for every letter you find in which exit is presented in terms that would make a BNP voter smile, there are two fliers in which the No campaign avoids text and slogans and limits itself to stating that there is an Exit position, the politics of which are already assumed.

That said, while you can make an honest argument that Exit politics have been “less horribly anti-migrant” than many on the left predicted; you can’t make a compelling case that any significant part of the exit argument in this referendum has been an argument for redistribution, unionisation or socialism.

Who gets to interpret the meaning of a large Exit vote. Imagine a different context: a Labour government is elected, led by Jeremy Corbyn. The government has widespread popular backing and introduces a programme of nationalisations. Some EU institution (the ECJ? – it would only get involved as a result of a legal process starting in the UK, so we are planing already a two-term Labour government) announces that the EU which has previously allowed such nationalisations as Northern Rock now no longer approves of them. Corbyn calls a referendum to leave the EU in order to deepen his reform plans.

Here, I’m not making the obvious point that “this isn’t how we got here” but a (slightly) subtler one. In a democracy, the people who get to interpret a popular vote are the government of the day. Under a Corbyn government the left decides what a vote means, under a Tory government it’s the Tories who choose. A 55-45 exit vote will be interpreted as a the greatest possible popular affirmation of the politics of the Tory right and UKIP in just the same way that a stay vote will be used to bolster Cameron, Osborne and also (although to a lesser extent) Corbyn.

So, while the left exiters might want to interpret a 55-45 vote in “their” favour as an argument for socialism, that’s not how it will be interpreted by the government, and therefore by Parliament in the making of new legislation, or by the members of the main parties. Let alone by trade unionists, migrant workers or the young. (All three of whom have good reasons to fear an exit vote). In all these different constituencies, the dominant interpretation of an exit vote will be a vote for faster neoliberalism, the greater unpicking of reforms, faster privatisation, etc.

Who is actually voting. I’ve alluded to these points already, but to bring them out more clearly. The exit vote corresponds exactly to the demographic of the people who consistently vote for the worst political options in Britain: above all, it is an age vote. In just the same way that Miliband was ahead among the young and lost in every age group above 40, so it is with the exit vote. It is the vote of the old, of UKIP and the worst Tories. Friends on the left shouldn’t tell themselves that you can mobilise the very people in society who are most opposed to you, on their favoured issue, in circumstances they have been preparing for 30 years, with their government is in power and expect anything good to result.

All of this is relevant not merely to how people should vote but what the effect of a large exit vote will be. We live in a society that has for four decades increasingly criminalised migration, and in which non-EU citizens resident in Britain have been denied the vote in the referendum that will decide their future.

It is already the case that such non-EU migration as the UK still allows overwhelmingly comes as a result of EU law. Both EU and non-EU citizens will find it harder to come to Britain in the event of an exit vote and harder to stay. A large exit vote is going to mean an attack on EU migrants – if the left is seen to have voted for that attack we will be in a weaker position to resist it afterwards.

My own view remains that this is a referendum that the left cannot win and that either option will result in further attacks. Yet in the choice between two bad options, one of them is worse.