Lineker's crime was to stand up to the Tories' racism
Labour's line was tested and it failed
The Labour Party is ahead in every poll because of a catastrophic collapse in support for the Tory party. Central to the Tories’ slump is the sharp decline in household incomes. Real household disposable income per person is set to fall 7 per cent over the next two years, the biggest fall on record. Widespread reductions in household incomes involve bringing down the spending power of the entire working class, affecting people on middle and lower incomes alike. Within this, stagnation in wages is compounded with real terms pay cuts for millions, particularly amongst public sector workers.
The Tory strategy is obvious: Rishi Sunak’s government wants to change the subject of politics onto asylum and immigration and to shift politics rightwards - away from the wages crisis and the collapse in household incomes. Whilst the Tories may establish a lead on immigration and channel crossings, their difficulty is that the public is still more concerned with the cost of living and the NHS. So it might be easy to think that their efforts on immigration are futile. But even if Sunak cannot win outright on this question, he must hope to use it to crowd-out other issues and shift the general dynamic on to terrain that is more divisive and therefore better for the Conservatives. Ultimately the Tories will hope to reap the benefits of a poisoning of the discourse.
However, it would be a mistake to oversimplify the Tory strategy as merely a brief dead cat tactic, some kind of grotesque distraction. It is far worse than that. One, because it is involves horrific human consequences. But two, the Illegal Migration Bill is the latest stage in the long pattern of Conservative party actions. Some have argued that the Tories’ racist Bill is a British variant of Trumpism: from ‘build the wall’ to ‘stop the boats.’ The former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett made exactly this point to Andrew Marr this week, saying that the Bill is a ‘Donald Trump playbook measure.’ Whilst there are many Tories who would love to emulate Trump, the party does not actually need to copy any US politicians on race and division. The Conservative party has traded in racism and bigotry throughout its entire history.
This is the party that spawned Enoch Powell and hosted generations of far right fellow travellers. As leader of the opposition Margaret Thatcher was explicit in her pitch, arguing in 1978 that “people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.” Tory bigotry has never been limited to racism, as Section 28 amply demonstrated. Tories maintain hegemony by seeking to control the terms of politics through a process of forcing through reactionary ideas.
Gary Lineker is now at the centre of a massive furore is precisely because he openly stood up to the government on racism at a time when they had placed it at the centre of their strategy. In return he experienced a deluge of hate from the right, many seeking to drive him out of his role at the BBC. But the right’s attack also led to a surge in solidarity with Lineker.
So the Lineker affair has become a particularly intense battleground - because it functions at such a mass level within popular culture - in which the Tories’ racist immigration policy, their political strategy, issues of freedom of speech and the double standards of the right are all being played out.
However, the Lineker row has exposed the problems with Labour’s position too. The Labour Party limited its response to the immigration Bill by framing it at the level of the Bill’s cost and effectiveness. Social media content was shared by the front bench that fundamentally accepted the framework of the debate rather than challenging the Tories’ racism or their motivation.
In the immediate aftermath of Lineker’s tweet Labour did not rally round him but argued that the question of his tweets was a matter for the BBC. So when the BBC inevitably acted, completely wrongly - and was hit with a huge backlash - the Labour front bench found itself behind the curve of the entire dynamic of what was happening, scrambling to catch up.
The Lineker controversy has first and foremost drawn out real opposition to the Tories’ racist onslaught. But secondarily it has exposed the weakness of Labour’s line, which was tested and was not adequate. A racist onslaught has the capacity shift all politics rightwards. You can’t fight a racist ideology by pretending it isn’t happening and hunkering down on technocratic points. It is necessary to stand up to the Tories on racism and bigotry - and simultaneously have a big answer to the cost of living crisis with the objective of constantly driving that as the central dividing line in British society.
…And you have to defend Gary Lineker or anyone else who stands up to the Tories’ racism.