As today’s right-wingers exploit the debate on immigration, Labour should look to Churchill in the fight against intolerance

Dave Cohen


Watching the last weeks of the US election was like witnessing a slow-motion repeat of June 23, itself a more divisive encore of the 2015 general election. We know the pattern now: hear the result, then angry disbelievers take to the streets while the baffled commentariat post well-written, well-researched and well-meaning articles about understanding the rage of the forgotten people, the collapse of neo-liberalism and countering the lies of the populist press.

Next comes the blame game, starting with the candidates (anyone remember “we picked the wrong Miliband”?), then each other, arguing among ourselves while the winners get on with life.

Where does Labour fit in to all this? If it is any consolation, and in these dark days anything is, it makes us realise our embattled party is not the lone embodiment of existential left-wing angst. This is bigger than all of us, regardless of whether Jeremy Corbyn is your problem or your solution.

It may seem laughable that Labour, trailing so badly in the polls and riven by division, could be the party to restore some kind of sanity. But I think we are better placed than most to achieve it.

However, if we’re going to get anywhere, we need to tell a different story.

For too long we’ve been responding to the dominant right-wing agenda. Every article I read about finding solutions or understanding what’s going on, is framed in response to the right-wing agenda. All our logical arguments about the collapse of neo-liberalism, or the enrichment of our nations from the culture and taxes of immigrants, prove only this year’s lesson that logic is not a vote winner.

What is our story? It’s going to take a while to work out. But we have a starting point, it’s one the left in this country have ignored for decades, and it’s where we invoke the name of our great hero of the 1940s – no, not him, the other one: Winston Churchill.

Churchill helped to save the world in 1945, he was, to quote Clement Attlee, “the greatest leader in war this country has ever known.” It’s time we re-appropriated his name from the right and the xenophobes who have cheapened his attack on fascism by likening it to an attack on ‘Europe’.

I’m not talking about Churchill the deeply unpleasant opportunistic politician who undermined the working class, or the man used by lazy right-wingers with no understanding of our history – like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson – to browbeat the left about refusing to accept what was Britain’s finest hour.

Churchill may have been staunchly anti-Communist in the early days of the Soviet Union, but by the 1930s he was telling anyone who would listen that the real threat came from Nazi Germany. We should never forget that Churchill was for many years alone among world leaders citing Hitler and fascism as the real enemy.

Labour has always been a party that seeks concrete and believable solutions. Years of battering from mainstream media meant the Ed Balls-Ed Miliband budget for economic recovery was costed down to the last penny. And it was subsequently adopted in large part by George Osborne, that well-known stranger to detail. But, in opposition, it hasn’t got us anywhere.

At this stage, our story doesn’t have to be factually verifiable. The Tories didn’t have a plan for winning outright in 2015, the Leavers had no plan this year and the US Republicans have yet to articulate how they intend to make their country great again.

Labour is currently a mass movement with numbers on the ground in search of a cause to rally behind. Surely this is it. Within groups like Momentum there is now a divisive split that seems largely concerned with due democratic process. While such matters are important, from today we have a bigger priority.

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, away from the daily racist taunts, I found a home in the world of the far-left. They may have held endless meetings arguing with each other while annoying everyone in the Labour party, but there was no one else fighting fascism like they did. As soon as word got out that the National Front were organising a march, Rock Against Racism would ensure that there would be ten times as many people on the street opposing them. Churchill would have approved.

With Remembrance Day still fresh in our minds, think how much harder it would be for the right-wing press to attack a party that cites the Greatest Ever Englishman as a hero of the left. We didn’t end racism in the 1970s but our actions sent a message to the armchair xenophobes: don’t even think about attacking foreigners. We’re not going to change people’s attitudes overnight. But it’s time to stop being defensive, and instead to celebrate our hero.

Winston Churchill, fighter of fascists, belongs to us all.

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