Richard Farnos writes
Corbyn’s “relaunch” speech on Tuesday (10/1/17) has only managed to muddy the waters. In it he said: “Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle,” then bizarrely added “but I don’t want that to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out.” This position was made even more nebulous in his rounds on the morning news programmes in which Jeremy refused to clarify what exactly his or Labour’s position on immigration actually is.
We all know the score. Corbyn has throughout his political career been a great internationalist and defender of the movement of people. This relaunch, rather than being a sign of Corbyn’s leadership of the parliamentary Labour Party, is evidence of his imprisonment by it.
Rattled by the EU referendum result and growing signs of UKIP making inroads into Labour areas, an increasing number of Labour MPs are calling for abandonment of the free movement of labour in Europe. Underneath these rumblings there seems to be developing a kind of politics that seeks to twin a closed nationalism and a social conservative agenda with radical economic policies more often associated with the left. This political repositioning has been called “Red UKIP” or “Blue Labour”. I think should be called “National Labourism”.
Prior to Labour conference Rachel Reeves, the Labour MP for Leeds West, echoing Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech, described her constituency as a “tinder box” and demanded the party reverse its position on immigration. More recently a member of perhaps Labour’s most dedicated Europhile dynasty, Stephen Kinnock, clamoured for a system of work permits for Europeans coming to the UK to work.
Nor is it confined to the right of the party. At a conference organised by the left-wing think tank Class, Len McCluskey General Secretary of Unite, Britain’s largest trade union, claimed without any evidence that “if all you have to sell is your capacity to work, then its value is going to be affected by an influx of people willing to work for less money and put up with a lower standard of living because it nevertheless improves their own lives. Supply and demand affects the sale of labour too, pitting worker against worker.” He concluded that companies recruiting foreign workers should be obliged to negotiate with a union over terms and conditions. A position that was quickly parroted by Clive Lewis, Labour’s shadow business secretary, who told The Guardian:
We have to acknowledge that free movement of labour hasn’t worked for a lot of people. It hasn’t worked for many of the people in this country, where they’ve been undercut, who feel insecure, who feel they’re not getting any of the benefits that immigration has clearly had in our economy.
Ironically this is just a year after Clive Lewis had reassured his constituents on his website that he was quite clear: “lurching to the right-on immigration is a red line for me”
Even John McDonnell, Corbyn right-hand man and shadow chancellor of the exchequer, is on record as saying: “Let’s be absolutely clear on the immigration issue. If Britain leaves the European Union, the free movement of people, of labour, will then come to an end.”
The election of Trump to be President of the USA has emboldened this view and those who postulate a “new” political vision.
There has always been a strong “left-wing” in UKIP, indeed many of its founding members considered themselves on the centre-left. “Red-UKIP” have very successfully cast the anti-Europe and anti-immigration agreements through the perspective of the white working class. In 2104 in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election, the UKIP candidate prioritised two demands on his posters: “Protect your jobs and benefits/End Open-Door Immigration.” There have been “Red-UKIP” fringe meetings at UKIP conferences in which anti-immigration politics is twinned policies such as rail nationalisation, increased public expenditure and ensuring that every big company pays a fair share of tax.
Whereas “Red-UKIP” development has been through gluing together popular and populist policies, Blue Labour is more philosophical approach. Set up in 2010 it describes its role as:
Critiquing the dominance in Britain of a social-cultural liberalism linked to the left and a free-market liberalism associated with the right, Blue Labour blends a ‘progressive’ commitment to greater economic equality with a more ‘conservative’ disposition emphasising personal loyalty, family, community and locality.
The Blue Labour project had the wind taken out of its sails by the election of Jeremy Corbyn, however it has been revitalised by Brexit and the Trump election. In “The Mortal Threat to Labour”, first published in the Financial Times, Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham, develops the Blue Labour pitch:
The vote for Brexit in June’s referendum was primarily an English working-class insurrection. It challenged Labour on how it engages with a dispossessed, abandoned and often despised tribe that created the party in the first place. There has been a rupture of trust between working-class values and culture and the dominant cultural liberalism that holds sway on both sides of the Labour debate. It is telling that as the working class reasserted the primacy of parliament by voting to Leave, Mr Corbyn claimed that sovereignty resides with the membership and not the parliamentary party
Corbynism is essentially a liberationist hard-left politics that recognises no borders, bolted on to a tech-savvy middle -class protest movement. In certain respects, it is not too dissimilar to the remote liberalism of what today passes as Blairism. Both are heavily economistic —as was the Remain campaign. Both disregard relationships and place, earning and belonging in favour of a kind of universalist proceduralism.
Common to both Red UKIP/Blue Labour is a central National Labourist discourse: that white working class people, especially men have been abandon by a liberal elite; an elite that is out of touch and has imposed neo-liberalism as well broader liberal values supposedly alien to the class; an elite that allowed mass immigration detrimental to the white working class and favoured the interest of “minorities”.
Cruddas’ conflation of the politics of Blair and that of Corbyn is simultaneously laughable and worrying: laughable because Corbyn was one the greatest critiques of New Labour and neo-liberalism; and worrying because the only liberal intersection between Corbyn and Blair is that both men were supportive of issues like lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. There is guilt by association – social liberalism, the struggle of Black, women’s and LGBTQ liberation is conflated with economic liberalism – i.e. deregulation globalisation smashing trade unions. Whereas in reality, of course, all they do share is a word. And for want of delineation Cruddas leaves the door open for hate.
While it’s certainly true that large numbers of working class people voted for Trump and Brexit, these victories are not a “working-class insurrection.” They depended on more solid support from traditional Republican and Conservative middle class voters respectively. A class collaboration, that far from challenging the status-quo simply has put the worst elements of “the elite” in charge.
There are many in Labour, and indeed the wider left, who believe that the UK can somehow climb back into the Atlantic bubble of post-war Europe. A period when European capitalism was on its back, and where a deal could be made with American capitalism to support imperialist adventures abroad to ensure social democratic reforms at home. This was unprincipled and politically short-sighted.
Capitalism is in crisis; the burden is not however on capitalists, but ordinary working class people of all races, genders, sexuality and impairment. National Labourism, in whatever its forms, offers no solution; only an ongoing vivisection of common folk, minority by minority in a cannibalistic frenzy fitting of a “Soylent Green” dystopia.
Left Unity remains resolved. We are wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens and beyond as a point of principle. Our enemy is not other working class folk, only those who would seek to exploit us.
Left Unity is active in movements and campaigns across the left, working to create an alternative to the main political parties.
Events and protests from around the movement, and local Left Unity meetings.
Saturday 30th June, 12 noon
#OURNHS70 – FREE, FOR ALL, FOREVER
Portland Place, London W1: More details here
Friday 13th July
Together against Trump national demo
2pm in central London
More details here
European Left Summer University
More details here
Sunday 19 August, 14.00-15.00
Peterloo Massacre 2018 Commemorative Rally & Picnic
In Manchester, hosted by Greater Manchester Association of Trades Union Councils. More info on Facebook
Sign up to the Left Unity email newsletter.
Get the latest Left Unity resources.