Multiculturalism shorn of anti-racism
The argument “for immigration” was what was good for big business and the City of London. That is not the basis for convincing working class people, who are the victims of the bankers and big business, of a pro-immigration position.
The official image – supported by most of the middle class, liberal intelligentsia – was of a highly limited cosmopolitanism. In it, we were all supposed to be enjoying the financial benefits of getting our house done up by cheap Polish plumbers or having a cheap Baltic au pair. Most people did not “enjoy that benefit”.
And while we were all enjoying the smorgasbord of varied international cuisine (more working class people did have access to that, and it thus remains a powerful image of what is good about multiculturalism) the newly refurbished hierarchy of “cultural values” restated that there was a steep curve upwards.
At the bottom was eating with your hands (Bangladeshis eating naan and saag), then with chopsticks, up to the pinnacle of a knife and fork: from primitive to civilised.
There was one great principle, upon which the labour movement was founded and is defined, that offered an alternative to this kind of hierarchical, thin, cosmopolitan veneer upon the ugly subordination of people to the market and big business. It was class.
The basic sense of “them and us” has historically been a powerful counterweight to racism and scapegoating ideologies of all kinds. At least, a potential counterweight. Realising it has meant two things.
First, real struggles by working class people in which that community of interest has been forged. Second, a deliberately internationalist conception of what we mean by “the working class”. It has embraced not only recent arrivals into the domestic labour force, but has argued for a common class interest and identity across the globe.
Crucially, it has meant overcoming any narrow conception of “us” and any sectional organisation of working people which is either hostile to or actually excludes minority or migrant workers. How that has been done, and the role of newly arrived workers at the cutting edge of periods of working class militancy and advance, is beyond the scope of this piece.
The issue of the last 20 years is that the whole New Labour drive was predicated upon the further abandonment of class as the central defining feature of the Labour Party and the key axis around which society and politics is organised. It was more than just a response to the changes under the force of chaotic and destructive economic reorganisation of earlier working class communities.
The very idea of a politics based on class, and of a community of interests of the working class – old and new, was discarded. Indeed, it was extirpated, with a huge political and ideological effort put in to coming up with an alternative grounding of what Labour was. No longer a party of working people, but of Middle England, or whatever the ad man’s slogan of the day was.
With class out the window, but with real class divisions widening, a new sense of “communitarian identity”, as the fashionable theory put it, had to be found. The imagined community was – Britishness.
That Britishness, like everything else under the Blair and Brown governments, was meant to be new. It was meant to be “non-racial”, non-chauvinist and cosmopolitan.
The cumulative impact of struggles against racism – as well as other forms of oppression, such as homophobia (only latterly transphobia) – did lead to considerable social changes. There was an increasing “lived multicultural” reality. That was attested to by all the census data, despite attempts by various people to claim we were “sleepwalking” into a segregated Britain. But the “New Britishness” was only ever a pale, and distorted reflection of that.
And the New Britishness very soon came to assume fully the reactionary features of the Old Britishness. That was for reasons to do with the fundamental nature of the British state, of which Britishness is an ideological articulation, not the other way around.
The wars came. That meant Islamophobia. It also meant the renewed identification of Britain as part of the civilised West, of Britishness and British values as a variant of, or perhaps the apogee of, Western or European values (and by extension, American). For all the talk of newness, Britishness re-assumed the characteristics it had at the time of the British Empire, as an expression of European superiority against The Other. The Other was brown or black. The superior, European Britishness was white.
The second reversion to type was more associated with Brown than Blair, and more with the economic than the military face of British capitalism and imperialism. Brown drove the economic strategy of Britain as a part of the European single market, but seeking to forge a world financial centre based on the City of London. The imbalance in the economy which had long led to a disastrous rate of investment in manufacturing in Britain became worse.
It was already glaring on the eve of the great financial collapse of 2008. It was in 2007 that Brown, then prime minister, made his infamous “British Jobs for British Workers” speech. Despite The City booming whole communities were at best standing still, at worst going backwards as good paying jobs gave way to low-paid and low skilled employment, Brown did nothing seriously to reverse the growing disparity.
Instead of creating good jobs, he introduced a poisonous slogan into society and a part of the labour movement. What it did was give nothing short of prime ministerial sanction to the false idea that migrant workers were taking British jobs.
There was a genuine issue of pro-business European law – the so called Posted Workers Directive – being a direct mechanism for employers to “post workers” from abroad and exempt them from many domestic employment standards and rights.
A part of EU law, which is today being lionised by the British TUC, was explicitly crafted to undermine trade unions in this way. Worse, it created the conditions for employers, with legal impunity, to operate a two-tier workforce. The result of that was real antagonisms between settled and posted workers.
That did not have to lead to chauvinist calls to “kick the migrants out”. But avoiding that meant either the government saying it would break the EU law, or the trade unions being able to organise and impose the higher standards and pay.
Instead, Brown stuck solidly with the big business logic. And right wing trade union leaders who sought partnership not confrontation with big business followed him down the national chauvinist route. They collaborated with a highly reactionary press in targeting not the “bad employer” but workers from other EU countries.
Forces of the left – particularly within the Unite union – were able to halt the slide towards anti-migrant agitation and chauvinism becoming a major feature of the trade union movement. But the Labour government continued down the pro-business route. Then came the introduction of austerity, which deepened the bitterness and antagonisms in society.
Anti-racism and the radical left
The last six years of first Coalition and now outright Tory government have meant savage austerity. They have also brought deepening racism of various forms.
Cameron’s response to the riots in 2011 was to reheat racist myths about young Black criminality which had largely been declining (or at least eclipsed by the rampant Islamophobia) over the previous 15 years. A number of us had warned that the advance of anti-Muslim racism at the beginning of this century would legitimise other racist, pseudo-explanations blaming other ethnic and racial groups for various social ills.
That is not the same as saying that there is a huge surge in popular racism or that racism is being generated from the mass of people. There is both the acceptance of racist ideas – most obviously against Muslims. And the rejection. London has a Muslim mayor.
But the Tory campaign in London showed that what we are seeing is not just “a lot of racism”. We are seeing the highly political use of racism, by governments and politicians across Europe – of the mainstream, and not only by the far right.
David Cameron sought to organise the Tory vote in London on the basis of anti-Muslim racism. The far right and fascists across Europe also seek to organise their political support on the basis of various forms of racism, while posing falsely as outsider, anti-establishment forces. Fascism does something else. It organises not only its electoral support through racism, it organises the actual murder gangs which racist politics gives rise to. ultimately
That is what is specific about fascism. And that’s why it is necessary to have a specific political effort to stop fascism from growing and organising.
The main problem and driving force of racism in Britain at the moment, however, is not fascism. Neither is it uniquely coming from the anti-immigration propaganda of the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. That is foul.
But it was David Cameron who called the referendum on the back of a deal with other EU leaders whose central thrust was falsely claiming that other EU nationals are milking the British welfare system. That, and a “guarantee” that the City of London would continue to be the loosely regulated centre of the European financial markets.
That deal creates a further, legal segmentation of the labour force in Britain with another category, intra-EU migrant workers, stripped of some rights (claiming benefits for four years). That is a recipe for more super-exploitation of groups of workers, upon which “concern about immigration” can lead not only to out and out racist ideas, but to racist actions against foreign workers. It is also exactly what a race to the bottom looks like.
Cameron has done this. The official Labour campaign – as evidenced by the deployment of Gordon Brown today – is conjoined with Cameron. Not one Labour figure is saying that Labour will rescind the anti-migrant deal that Cameron negotiated.
There is no way that either an anti-racist or pro-migration argument can be advanced seriously inside the working class on that basis.
The issues go way beyond the referendum, upon which the radical left is divided.
Immigration remains both a cypher for real issues of economic hardship and inequality and also a code for racism.
That is going to be met only through the development of popular and militant movements both against austerity and against racism, in all its forms.
Building those requires a radical left which is wholly independent from the establishment politics, which is being seen in the referendum campaign to be so out of touch with vast numbers of people.
It means also seeking to organise those movements and those ideas within the working class, at work, in communities, in unions and elsewhere. That cannot happen if the arguments are connected with “what is good for business” or “what is good for Britain”.
We need a complete break in the labour movement with the disastrous politics of Blair and Brown. Nowhere more so than in reasserting militant, class-based anti-racism – where it is the common struggle of migrant and non-migrant workers which redefines how people think about “immigration”.