Back Corbyn over Article 50 – demand MPs vote with him

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Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the Tory defeat in the Supreme Court over the Article 50 process to trigger Brexit is excellent. He says:

‘The Government has today been forced by the Supreme Court to accept the sovereignty of Parliament.

Labour respects the result of the referendum and the will of the British people and will not frustrate the process for invoking Article 50.

However, Labour will seek to amend the Article 50 Bill to prevent the Conservatives using Brexit to turn Britain into a bargain basement tax haven off the coast of Europe.

Labour is demanding a plan from the government to ensure it is accountable to Parliament throughout the negotiations and a meaningful vote to ensure the final deal is given Parliamentary approval.’

And Keir Starmer, Labour’s spokesperson on Brexit, pressed the government today along the same lines. We need to understand what will happen next.

The government will – probably this week – table a bill in parliament to be voted on to trigger Article 50. It wants the discussion to be just about that.

Corbyn is saying that Labour will table an amendment. The substance of that amendment will be to rule out Britain becoming a corporate tax haven.

That was the blustering threat that Theresa May made at the end of her speech on Brexit last week. It looked like a misstep then. It can be turned into a big mistake now, but we need to fight to do that.

Labour’s amendment speaks to a part of the issues that really matter to working people in Britain and which in all sorts of ways underpinned the Brexit vote.

Most people want greater equality, not less over pay and wealth. They want public investment not corporate tax breaks. A million people use foodbanks while City bonuses are soaring again and the cabinet is stuffed with millionaires.

That’s what we want the antagonisms in Britain to revolve around – not where different working people come from.

The Labour amendment is a way to make those things central. There may be a procedural fight in parliament to get it heard. And everyone should be with the Labour frontbench in doing so.

The way the votes work in parliament is that when the bill is debated the first vote is on the amendment. Instead of a defeatist attitude to this move by Labour, it is a chance to argue everywhere to put every MP under pressure to vote with the Labour leadership in saying yes to democracy, no to threats of a corporate handover.

Those pro-EU Tory MPs who for their own – largely pro-business – reasons say they oppose Brexit need to feel pressure to vote for Labour’s amendment.

UKIP – led by a man who wants to privatise the NHS – claims it is for the ordinary person. Will it support Labour’s move to put people not profit first in the Brexit process?

The Lib Dems claim to be an opposition to the Tories. Will they be spending their time supporting the amendment or attacking the Labour leader?

Will all Labour MPs do the same? The SNP? Plaid? Caroline Lucas?

What Corbyn is trying to do is absolutely right. We have a good idea of how Tories and Lib Dems will be exposed by it.

But on the left – people really need to unite and try to make a popular argument around this, which the parliamentary response by Corbyn helps us to do.

Grandstanding from the Lib Dems 

The responses from the Lib Dems and, I am sorry to say, the Green MP today are little but grandstanding and headline-hunting.

They are offering no way forward for the vast majority of people and it is noteworthy that the hardship millions are facing now in Britain did not feature at all in anything that Tim Farron or Caroline Lucas said.

It is petty politicking – in the most ruthlessly realist terms as well as on the grander field of what the leaders of these parties actually offer.

The Tories have a majority in parliament – a small one, but a majority nonetheless. The Lib Dems have a big measure of responsibility for that. They put Cameron in when he failed to win a majority in 2010 and kept him there for five years. Then their anti-Labour, anti-leftism meant that their vote unwound in key seats to give the Tories a slim majority in 2015.

The only Tory MP who has voted against triggering Article 50 is Kenneth Clarke. It will be triggered.

That is leaving aside that three of the now nine Lib Dem MPs rebelled on the last vote and refused to go along with Farron’s line of trying to overturn the referendum result.

Farron cannot win a third of his MPs to his position. So leaving aside his anti-democratic policy, his talk of a second referendum is just grandstanding aimed at getting flattering coverage in the liberal media and perhaps winning a couple of seats at a future general election.

It is contemptuous of the mass of people who are suffering from the NHS crisis and much besides. And how does he hope to get a second referendum? Via a general election, perhaps? But he has refused to rule out going back into coalition with the Tories if there were a hung parliament again.

Caroline Lucas says she will “vote against Article 50”. But she spent half of her response to today’s news targeting Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Her opposition to the government is in danger of turning into a Trident missile and going off in the opposite direction to hit the wrong target.

Corbyn’s Labour is putting down an amendment in parliament ruling out Theresa May’s nasty but stupid threat to turn Britain into a corporate tax haven if the Brexit negotiations breakdown.

With Trump stuffing his cabinet with corporate billionaires, and a Tory government of millionaires, that is the ground to fight on. The SNP would do well to fight on that ground rather than some immensely convoluted case bent around a second independence referendum, which it is not clear that most people want and still less clear that they could win.

The Lib Dems do not want to fight on that ground because they are not opposed to corporate power. They helped make George Osborne chancellor, and he’s just taken a £200,000 post in the world’s largest hedge fund, while still daring to remain an MP – and take his salary plus expenses.

The Greens do oppose corporate power. But their one MP in parliament should in that case unite with Corbyn in doing so, rather than not even mentioning that the Labour leadership is trying to make the fundamental issue of inequality and ending austerity the political question around Brexit and not the right wing attempts to make it all about where different people come from.

If the Labour amendment were passed it would be an enormous blow to Theresa May.

Of course, the Tories have a majority. But people who demand voting against giving effect to the referendum result are in no position to say Corbyn is wasting his time by putting forward an anti-government amendment.

It has more chance of passing than utopian calls to vote down Article 50, when three Lib Dem MPs rightly didn’t do that on account of how anti-democratic it would be, not to mention most Labour MPs being – like most of the country – in favour of respecting the referendum result, even if only on democratic grounds.

But this is about how the whole question is framed in a country where people are on trolleys in hospital corridors, dependent on food banks and about to see an unprecedented cut to their children’s school budgets.

It was common ground on the broad left before last year’s referendum that we should make opposition to the rigged economy and austerity central to politics in Britain.

That should be common ground now.

It is also common ground that we are in favour of democracy, and mass political participation against the elites.

Yes to democracy, no to the corporate tax cheats.

That is what the Labour amendment and tactics in parliament represent politically.

And that is opposition to the Tories. Even in parliamentary terms it makes perfect sense. Fighting on that ground enables Labour – and any others who want to join them – in the Commons and Lords to bombard the government around amending the legislation.

It may even be possible to force the government into exposing itself further by using anti-democratic procedures to get the bill through unamended.

Most of that is for the tacticians in the Labour whips’ office.

But for the left we need to rally and take this argument widely. It would help very much if the Labour membership and groups like Momentum threw themselves into this as well.

This is the way to confront the Tory government.

 

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Europe’s far right under the microscope

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(This piece first appeared in Jewish Socialist magazine in Britain, issue number 69 in October of last year. You can subscribe to the magazine here)

We are now in the eighth year of what some economists have termed “a long depression” following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the US in 2008.

The European political systems – for so long a stable alternation between the governmental parties of the centre left and centre right – are now more emaciated than at any time since the Second World War. Despite two general elections, Spain has struggled to form a government this year. The social democratic parties in Greece and Ireland have suffered meltdown. Francois Hollande faces political collapse in France, which is under a state of emergency and wracked by violent labour confrontations. Political uncertainty grips Germany. In that once pillar of European order, the two historic governing parties are in coalition but together now muster barely 50 percent of the vote.

What of the extreme right; how severe is the fascist threat today? Comparisons with the 1930s now abound in the European media and it has become a journalistic commonplace that economic distress automatically brings the rise of the extreme right. That contains an aspect of truth. But it is hopelessly one-sided and can serve to exculpate political responsibility for the growth of racism and fascism. An economic crisis is not like a meteorological depression, which brings with the force of nature bad weather. Just because share prices fall, why should the level of racist and fascist activity naturally rise?

Such a view suits the European governments and institutions which continue to preside over crushing austerity and policies of racial exclusion of refugees, migrants, Muslims and other minorities. If the singular opponent is Marine Le Pen in France, the racist AfD in Germany or Golden Dawn in Greece, then surely our only choice is to cleave to the parties of the centre and their European institutions? This reasoning explains why each rise of a far right party hits the headlines in the European media, while electoral support for parties to the left of social democracy appears – if it does at all – as some local quirk. That, or it is conflated with the rise of the extreme right under the common rubric of “populism”. Otherwise intelligent journalists in Britain have claimed that “despite their apparent differences” the lifelong internationalist Jeremy Corbyn really “has a lot in common” with the racist, populist bully Donald Trump.

That said, the rise of fascist and racist politics is undoubtedly serious and we need as precise a measure of the threat as we can if we are to defeat it.

The crisis years in Europe have brought a return of fascist violence at a higher level and more extensively than at any time since the 1970s. In addition to racially motivated killings – which often flow, even if indirectly, from organised racist agitation – the last five years point to a trend of fascist murders of “political opponents”.

In 2011 Anders Breivik murdered 69 youth members of the Norwegian Labour Party and eight others. Neo-Nazi skinheads killed teenage left activist Clement Meric in Paris in 2013. In September of that year, Golden Dawn stabbed anti-racist rapper Pavlos Fyssas to death in Athens. This year saw the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in June by a man who was reported at the time to have shouted, “Britain First!” or “Put Britain first!” In September, Finnish fascists murdered 28-year-old Jimi Joomas Karttunen after he verbally confronted them.

Europe experienced a frenzy of fascist violence during the interwar period. Of course, the level is much lower today. But we should bear in mind the higher levels of political and social violence as a whole in the 1920s and 1930s – fascist violence then was relative to that. What makes its reappearance so dangerous today is the parallel electoral and organisational strengthening of far right parties, and among them distinctly fascist forces.

A typology of the extreme right

There is a range of far right formations seeking to build out of the European crisis. The fact that they all consciously occupy a space to the right of the mainstream centre right parties means they share a very general “radical right wing” character. If you want to build in that political space you need constantly to demonstrate in word and in deed that you are “more radical” than mainstream parties of the right. And those are increasingly turning to the politics of racism and scapegoating. The authoritarian centre right governments of Poland and Hungary are but hardline variants of that wider phenomenon. Beneath the general character of the far right, there remain important differences of strategy and ideology.

First, there are clearly neo-Nazi parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece or Jobbik in Hungary. Both parties are third placed in their respective parliaments. They make open reference to interwar Nazism. Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos has been captured on video telling members: “We are the seeds of the defeated army of 1945. We are National-Socialists.” The oath of allegiance for new recruits to Golden Dawn identifies the organisation’s primary enemy as “The Eternal Jew”. Characteristic of both parties, and central to their strategy for political power, is the organisation of what in Greek are referred to as “battalion squads” – the Squadrismo of Mussolini, the Sturmabteilung of Hitler’s Brownshirts.

Second, we have the parties of the “Eurofascist” extreme right. The term is an analogy to the “Eurocommunist” evolution of many Communist parties in the 1970s towards emphasising “a long march through the institutions”, especially parliament, as a strategy for political conquest as opposed to a sudden, insurgent advance. The most important are the Front National in France and the core of the Freedom Party (FPO) in Austria.

And third, we have the newer, national-chauvinist and xenophobic parties of the hard right, such as UKIP in Britain and the Alternative for Germany, the AfD, alongside older but broadly similar formations in Scandinavia and elsewhere. Along with these political parties we have seen anti-Muslim and violent “street movements” such the English Defence League and, much more substantially, Pegida in Germany.

This classification is important, especially when discussing tactical issues in the fight against the extreme right. It is evident that the murderous activities of the battalion squads of Golden Dawn in Greece present different practical tasks for the antifascist movement to those arising from confronting the xenophobic rhetoric of UKIP in England. Racist parties of the UKIP or AfD-type are different from the fascist organisations. But their appearance and rhetoric can serve both as a mechanism for further pulling the entire political landscape rightwards and as a precursor to more violent and fascist forces, whether those operate in the ranks of such parties or outside them.

Ideologically, the far right everywhere represents a radicalisation of the reactionary ideas of the right in general in each national political context. So everywhere they share hardened racism, particularly Islamophobia. But there are also differences. Anti-Roma racism features prominently in Hungary in a way it does not in Germany. Front National and UKIP MEPs have voiced support in Brussels for the authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin in Russia. To be on the far right in Warsaw or in Kiev, however, means to be virulently anti-Russian, with echoes of the extreme right’s denunciation in those parts of Europe in the 1920s of “Jew-Bolshevism”.

The far right across Southern and Eastern Europe continues to be marked by overt anti-semitism. The Front National in France under Marine Le Pen, however, has tried to distance itself from the public anti-Jewish outbursts of her father and party founder Jean-Marie. That has not stopped members of the Front National “stewarding section” chanting in the last year on demonstrations: “Robert Faurisson is right – the gas chambers are bullshit”, in praise of the French Holocaust revisionist/denier. That in itself should caution us from turning useful working categories into rigid distinctions which take no account of the evolution of these parties or of competing currents within them.

A radicalising threat

Again we confront a widespread media fatalism that far right parties making an electoral breakthrough will then naturally evolve towards the centre. There is, indeed, some logic of “domestication” in order to win over support from European publics among whom racist prejudice may be worryingly widespread but there remain very strong inhibitions on support for fascism. The process, however, is not so simple or only in one direction.

The rise of the AfD in Germany is a case in point. It was founded three years ago as a right wing Eurosceptic party by neoliberal economists reacting on a nationalist basis to the bailout programs for Southern Europe. The subsequent evolution of the party has been sharply to the racist right at the same time as it has grown electorally. A critical moment was the ousting of the original leadership last year and its capture by a group who made anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim racism much more central to the party’s programme. That was before the large-scale refugee flows, as was the explosion of the Pegida anti-Muslim street agitation into which AfD branches have immersed themselves. “Europe” hardly featured in the party’s advances in state elections this year. Stopping the supposed “Islamisation” of Germany was central to its propaganda. The radicalised racist rhetoric has drawn seasoned fascists into the party. It now contains a “fascis-ising” wing arguing for more radical – ie violent – tactics as a complement to the electoral front.

The older Austrian FPO led by Heinz-Christian Strache also illustrates the contradictory tendencies in the development of the European far right. It has long since managed to break the cordon sanitaire which existed around it in the 1990s. It is even a junior coalition partner to the social democrats in the eastern province of Burgenland. It stands perilously close to winning the national presidential election in December, which is being re-run thanks to staggering bungling by Austrian state officials, which has played into the FPO’s claim to be the only party able to “bring order out of chaos”.

The advance has depended on a calibrated policy of trying to appear respectable and of burying its leaders’ history in the far right, anti-semitic student fraternities which have been a seedbed of fascist politics for decades in Austria. Strache this year visited Yad Vashem on the invitation of two leading figures of the Likud party. The Austrian paper Die Presse said the motivation was to “make himself kosher in Israel” in order to be acceptable elsewhere. Beleaguered Israeli liberal opinion was outraged.

Not only is the party viciously anti-Muslim in words, it also organises street demonstrations. And just four years ago Strache circulated a Der Stürmer style cartoon of an archetypal Jewish figure being fed morsels by “The Government” as a starving “People [Volk]” looked on.

The coincidence at the heart of the FPO of Islamophobia and anti-semitism is symptomatic of something wider. A Pew opinion survey earlier this year found soaring anti-Muslim racism across Europe and rising anti-Roma racism as well – and not just east of the Danube. It also found an increase in anti-semitism, in social attitudes rather than state and institutional discrimination. It is a European conceit to regard anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish racism in our societies as some kind of import from the Palestine/Israel conflict in the Middle East. For one of the strongest findings of the Pew study was that those in Europe who hold the worst views of Muslims are also the most likely to hold anti-semitic prejudices of Jews. Both racisms are constitutive of European society and politics, and their modern discontents.

And both share structural affinities. The modern anti-semitism perfected as a political ideology in Paris, Vienna and Tsarist Russia before the First World War is more than just scapegoating – as all manner of anti-migrant racist ideas are. It simultaneously held “The Eternal Jew” as an existential threat to European civilisation from without, and a potential fifth column undermining the national organism within. Nazi ideology took what was a lingua franca among European and North American conservative elites ranging from Henry Ford to Winston Churchill, concentrated it and made it the cement for the incoherent drivel which passed for its political theory. In the Brownshirt imagination, “the Jew” is simultaneously responsible, as “Jewish finance”, for the manipulation of the money markets at the expense of “honest” National Capital and, as “Jewish socialism” (Marxism), for the deception of workers from the path of “honest” National-Socialism.

Islamophobia too is more than just a recoding of anti-immigrant prejudice against Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Arab, Turkish, Kurdish and other minorities in Europe who have for decades faced racist scaremongering about taking jobs or living on welfare. “The Muslim” and “Islamisation” in the context of the now 15-year-old “war on terror” are held up as an existential threat from without – on the increasingly fortified borders of Europe – as well as corrupting of Western civilisation, a threat to security, within.

So both racist ideologies can be combined in a concentrated form as an organising “world view”, not just as racist election propaganda, for fascist political forces trying to present themselves as an answer to systemic crisis.

A resistible rise

How the far right evolves in the coming year, which will see national elections in France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and elsewhere, is an open question. A large part of the answer depends on the response of the radical left and on our capacity to build broad yet militantly effective movements against both racism and fascism.

It cannot be left to the forces of the political centre. Angela Merkel this September gave the rising AfD a bigger victory than any it has won at the ballot box when she capitulated to its anti-refugee agitation and formally repudiated her “we can do it” policy of accepting refugees last year.

The “combined and uneven” development of the far right across the continent means that tactical priorities vary from country to country. But two features are common. The many-sided struggle against racism – and ensuring that movements against austerity contain a strong anti-racist current – is central. One of the great achievements of the anti-capitalist left in Greece has been to fuse together at the base of the society the fights against both racism and grinding austerity. That has required a deliberate political effort. So this autumn, teacher trade unionists are organising both to get refugee children out of the camps and into the schools, and to strike to reverse staffing cuts of the crisis years.

At the same time we do not face only the longstanding problem of racism – institutional or in social attitudes. We face also the particular threat of a radicalising right, and within that of actual fascism. The specific anti-fascist response in Greece, of which the ongoing trial of Golden Dawn is a part, has been critical to halting its rise and confounding predictions that the retreats by the left government of Syriza must inevitably bring another breakthrough for the fascists.

At key moments it has also provided a focus for mass mobilisations in which more general arguments against racism and anti-immigrant politics have found a wider audience.

The checking of Golden Dawn’s growth in Greece has had a demoralising impact on those forces elsewhere in Europe looking to adopt its explicitly neo-Nazi strategy. But no one can be complacent, even in somewhere such as Britain where the success of previous antifascist struggles has left the neo-Nazi right fragmented, despite a serious increase of racism in general.

What this fluid situation does call for is unity, confidence and the intelligent application of all the tactics and strategies our movement has developed, not least in Britain since the East End rose in October 1936 and slammed the door on Mosley’s rise.

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Free movement: control capital, unite all workers

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Deliveroo workers, many of them migrant or recent immigrant workers, on strike this year

Introduction

Unite leader Len McCluskey writing in the Huffington Post to launch his re-election bid as general secretary of Britain’s biggest union says of the free movement of labour:

“Unions understand that workers have always done best when the labour supply is controlled and communities are stable. While we must reject any form of racism, and help refugees fleeing war, we must also listen to the concerns of working people.

“They understand that the free movement of labour means downward pressure on wages, in some sectors at least.

“That’s why I have called for new safeguards that would ensure any employer recruiting from abroad must be covered by a proper union or collective bargaining agreement, stopping companies cutting costs by slashing workers’ wages and transforming a race-to-the-bottom culture into a rate-for-the-job society.”

That was reported in the Guardian newspaper – which hosted the launch piece for rival, right wing candidate, Gerard Coyne – as McCluskey calling on unions to “fight to end free movement [of labour within the European Union]”. So great was that misrepresentation that the paper took the unusual step of taking down the article after a vigorous complaint from McCluskey.

Most of the swirl of online commentary took the Guardian’s headline and misrepresentation as its point of departure. A few likened McCluskey’s words to a recent intervention in parliament by Labour MP Andy Burnham. He had this to say on 7 December:

“We need to make the argument for an immigration system that allows for greater control and that reduces the numbers coming here, but that does so in a fair way… It is time for many of us on this side of the House to confront a hard truth: our reluctance in confronting this debate is undermining the cohesion of our communities and the safety of our streets.”

But Burnham called for tighter immigration controls to cut numbers of immigrants and not, as McCluskey put it, “safeguards that would ensure any employer recruiting from abroad must be covered by a proper union or collective bargaining agreement”. The two are different. One talks of stopping people coming to Britain; the other, of imposing union agreements on employers who will still be “recruiting from abroad”. Burnham added the incendiary claim that it is the Labour Party – not the Tories, UKIP and far right – which is risking racially motivated violence on the streets and even riots by purportedly refusing to deal with the issues, not of how the labour market functions, wages and “free movement”, but of cutting immigration as whole

The reality is that since the referendum there has been nothing but pressure from elements of the Parliamentary Labour Party opposed both to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and to the Unite union’s support for it under Len McCluskey to be tougher on immigration. Stephen Kinnock MP went much further. He said recently that Labour should stop talking about multiculturalism and fighting sexism or homophobia. In contrast to McCluskey’s call to “reject any form of racism” and to “help refugees fleeing war”, Kinnock derided the Labour Party for being “obsessed with diversity”.

While left wing frontbencher Clive Lewis and others have also called for restricting free movement from the EU, Kinnock’s intervention is a reminder that there is a left/right divide on immigration, racism and xenophobia. Len McCluskey is firmly on the left.

I want to engage with what he is actually arguing, not with misrepresentations. Nor will I comment on the Unite election as whole, where McCluskey and Coyne are joined by a third candidate, Ian Allinson, standing on a left, rank and file platform.

I will argue that there is a potentially dangerous ambiguity in calls to “control the labour supply” and that downward pressures on pay are caused by the lack of control exerted over employers, not by too little control on the movement of workers. The history of the trade union movement – surveyed in this first of a two-part piece – reinforces the point. As at key moments throughout the 150 years, the trade union movement today faces a fork in the road: either unambiguously fighting for control in the workplace, organising more extensively across the whole workforce (and in communities) and seeking political change on that foundation, or the self-defeating path of looking to the state to exclude other workers on account of where they come from or who they are.

Controlling the labour supply – by whom, for whom?

McCluskey writes that workers do best “when the labour supply is controlled”. But who is to do the controlling of the “supply of labour” and to whose benefit?

The labour supply in apartheid South African mines was rigorously controlled. Black men had to obtain a permit to leave their townships and villages to be billeted in company-owned barracks close to the mine.

The mining conglomerates through the apartheid state had near absolute control over the supply of labour and ruthlessly exploited the workforce. Was that kind of “control” of any benefit to the miners or to the oppressed Black South African? Obviously not.

Or take miners in Britain. The Mines Act 1842 excluded women and children (under 10) from working underground. It was the product of an outcry about fatal conditions in the pits. There was working class and philanthropic pressure for reform.

The Act was also the start of a wave of legislation driven by Victorian concern at the decimation of the industrial working class to the extent that it threatened capitalist interests. The burden of reproducing stable working class communities was to be thrown onto individual families, with the unpaid labour of women in the home at the centre.

The Mines Acts were still in force in 1926, the year of the General Strike. The strike was abandoned by the TUC General Council and the miners at the centre of it were left to be locked out and smashed by the coal barons.

There was mass victimisation. Trade union membership across the board halved in the succeeding few years. There was no change to “the supply of labour” in the sense of workers moving from elsewhere to get jobs in a pit. What there was, though, was a shift in control of the job and of the balance of power in the workplace between the miners’ union and the employers.

Len McCluskey may have in mind by historic control of the labour supply something more like the experience of the docks industry, which he knows very well. He came into the union movement as a docker.

But the history of the dockers and the TGWU union, now merged into Unite, dispels any ambiguity about what “control” for workers must mean if it is to serve our interests.

Until the late 1880s the dockers were unorganised. Trade unionism in Britain was centred on a minority of skilled workers, with conservative union leaderships who collaborated with the employers and their political parties. Instead of looking to extend trade unionism across the whole of the working class, they sought to restrict the supply of workers in their own specialist areas in the hope of increasing their bargaining power.

It was the New Unionism of the late 1880s which transformed the picture through an upsurge of militant strikes by previously unorganised workers. At the centre of that was the London docks strike of 1889 led by Ben Tillett.

One of the gains of the New Unionism was that it led to the end of the practice – which any of a certain age who grew up in a port city will have learned about from childhood – whereby dockers would line up in the morning with the lucky ones picked out for work by foremen. That is a form of control of the “labour supply” – one wholly in the hands of the bosses.

Gains were made by workers asserting some control of their own – eventually getting permanent jobs and a national agreement – against the bosses. But it took a militant strike wave and extension of unionisation to achieve that. Many of the dockers who struck and became New Union members were Irish immigrants.

It was not some disembodied “control of the labour supply” which benefited them. It was their own collective struggle against those who continue to wield enormous control today across society – of rents and mortgage rates; of social spending and taxation; of when to produce, what to produce and where; of investment; of the main media outlets; and much more.

Tillett later moved away from that approach. He became Labour MP for Salford North (right near Andy Burnham’s seat of Leigh) and an enthusiastic supporter of Britain in the First World War.

The slide was greased by an ambiguous attitude to immigrant labour. Tillett told a meeting of Irish workers in Tower Hill: “Yes, yes you are our brothers and we will do our duty by you. But we wish you had not come to this country.”

That flew in the face of the experience of the very strike Tillett led. It had not sought to stop workers entering the gates of the workplace, still less entering into Britain through the port of London. It sought to organise in a union those working in the port. And most of those who struck to achieve that were recent arrivals. That was the basis upon which national “union and collective bargaining agreements” were later established and maintained.

Post-WWII: unrestricted supply and closed shops 

The longest period of increase in wages and of the share of national output going to labour was during the post-war boom. Economic expansion did not mean an automatic increase in living standards. That depended upon the trade union and political strength of the working class movement.

Throughout the 1950s there was virtually no immigration control for those coming from Commonwealth countries and there were large scale arrivals from the Caribbean and Indian sub-continent. Immigration to meet demand was dwarfed by another source of expansion of the paid labour force. Women entered the labour market in unprecedented numbers. Women’s participation in the labour force has continued to increase ever since.

Wages rose in the post-war boom and the National Health Service was constructed – all with little restriction upon people coming into the country and none upon women joining the labour force. Women remained banned by law from working underground. That did not mean that the pay of miners shot up as women flooding the labour market supposedly suppressed wages elsewhere. In fact, pay for miners lagged gains in other industries, a legacy of the savage defeat of the 1920s. Though mining communities were settled and stable, we have only to recall the recent 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster to see that that did not equate to workers doing best, under a callous management even though the mines were owned by a nationalised corporation.

There were areas of industry in which trade union power grew on a strong sectional basis. Workers through their unions were able to assert some control over the workplace.

The bugbear of bosses and what would become the Thatcherite New Right was the militant shop steward and “the closed shop”, which was the imposition upon employers of an agreement that everyone in a workplace had to be a member of a recognised trade union. One minority form of that was that hiring could take place only from among those who were already members of the relevant unions. The original motivation was to counter blacklisting and victimisation of union activists.

What was central to being able to drive up living standards, however, was the organisation of those in the workplace to extract concessions from the employer, and that was the foundation for extending through industry-wide or national agreements, or through government legislation better conditions to less organised areas. It was not determining through some bargain with the management or government who could or could not enter the workplace (still less the country) as an employee. Indeed, the latter was a double-edged sword.

It could be an expression of the power of the organisation of a particular group of workers. Or it could become an expression of the opposite, and a means to weakening that power. In the conditions of McCarthyism in the US the mafia took over the union of longshoremen (dockers) in several ports. They forged a corrupt relationship with the employers. Control over hiring went through organised crime. Just because it was not done through the “free market” no one would claim that it was of benefit to workers. The mafia-run wharves in the US are an extreme case.

In parts of the British docks industry in the 1960s there was a semi-formal arrangement which preferred the recruitment of sons of dockers, who joined the union when they came of age. On one level, it gave some security to dockers’ families. But it could also lead to a narrow and sectional outlook, ripe for reactionary ideas about other groups of workers. In any case, it meant nothing when the ports bosses went on the offensive in the late-1960s. They did so by utilising a technological change – the development of containerisation – to break elements of control that dockworkers had over the labour process.

No amount of “control over the labour supply” stopped that. It was in a state of demoralisation following a big defeat that workers on the Royal Docks Group in London walked out in April 1968 in support of Tory ultra free-marketeer Enoch Powell following his “Rivers of Blood” speech predicting a race war if immigration were not reversed. That was the prime impetus to the growth of the far right and fascists over the next eight years.

The 1960s saw the imposition of three pieces of anti-immigration legislation – in 1962, 1965 and 1968. There was a further major Act in 1971. They came under Tory and Labour governments. And from 1966 onwards both parties also sought to curb trade union power in the workplace. Increased control of immigration went together with government and employers’ measures to weaken what workplace control workers had established in parts of industry.

Any view which saw immigrants to Britain as a problem, or women going to work, or other workers as “competitors on the labour market” was unable to meet such a twin offensive by the Wilson and Heath governments. The left in the trade union movement had fought against the underlying sectional outlook. It was a demand of the militant left, for example, that bottlenecks in production should be met by hiring extra workers, rather than by existing employees doing overtime. Not limiting labour supply, but expanding the workforce. The argument was three-fold. The basic wage should be high enough so you do not have to work overtime. We want a shorter working week. And we want more people in work rather than keeping them out in the hope that luck might shine on those of us who have a job.

Those kinds of arguments had been made by the left of a recovering trade union movement in the mid-1930s when there was mass unemployment, which employers sought to use as a “reserve army of labour” to push down wages by threatening to swap employed workers for someone on the dole queue who might be compelled to work for less.

What beat the anti-union offensive in the early 1970s was an eruption of struggles beginning in less organised areas, often employing women and immigrant workers: textile workers in Yorkshire, refuse workers, the Ford women machinists. That was the context in which in 1972 the London dockers struck again, but this time on a general basis, against the Tory government and the courts, not in support of a racist Tory demagogue, and thus shattering the government’s anti-union laws.

Unemployment, immigration and ‘the reserve army of labour’

Workers have done best historically not through seeking to restrict the supply of labour, but through fighting to increase the supply of jobs. And that has required the extension of trade union organisation in two senses. First directly against the employers, and secondly to struggle through trade union and political means to assert the interests of working people as a whole across society against the interests of capitalism as a whole.

One of the most defiant steps the British trade union leaderships have ever taken was in 1931 to refuse to concede, in the “national interest”, a 10 percent cut in unemployment benefit under a massive austerity scheme demanded of the Labour government by the bankers. That meant standing up for those looking for work, not just for niche areas of already employed skilled workers.

Mass unemployment is a weapon of the bosses against working people. Government papers released under the 30-year-rule confirm what many argued at the time: that Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph deliberately increased unemployment in the early 1980s as part of a seven-year offensive against the working class movement.

But unemployment has nothing to do with immigration, or migrant labour and not even with the size of the population. Here there is a confusion on parts of the left of the working class movement extending from Britain to Greece which in its most sophisticated form draws on a misreading of what Karl Marx had to say about “the reserve army of labour”.

The term was used by Frederick Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. It drew a portrait of the appalling exploitation and misery of early industrial capitalism, pre-union and before the creation of the welfare state. Theories of “surplus population” which saw unemployment as a natural phenomenon arising from some propensity of the poor to breed to excess were widespread. Indeed, at this time of year it is worth recalling that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge voices the Malthusian idea that starvation is but a natural means to “reduce the surplus population”, was published in December 1843.

Yet Marx’s argument in Capital is that unemployment and downward pressure on wages are not caused by the number of workers but instead by the drive of capitalist accumulation, which means deploying what should be welcome technological advances to squeeze more out of a smaller workforce rather than less out of the existing one:

“capitalistic accumulation itself… constantly produces… a relatively redundant population of workers, … It is the absolute interest of every capitalist to press a given quantity of labour out of a smaller, rather than a greater number of labourers, if the cost is about the same… The more extended the scale of production, the stronger this motive. Its force increases with the accumulation of capital.”

And the process is intensified through the repeated crises of the capitalist economy, such as the long depression we have lived through since the 2008 financial crash, since when real hourly wages have fallen by 10.4 percent.

‘The secret of the impotence of the English working class’

The last time wages fell in Britain – for the first time since the Great Depression – was in the crisis years of the mid-1970s. Mass unemployment returned, despite the fact that a potential source of labour through immigration had been cut off by successive anti-immigrant laws.

There was a flurry of nostalgia a few months ago recalling 1976, which has been deemed by two Australian researchers into quality of life to be “a golden year” in British history. The mid-1970s certainly saw peak trade union membership at over 13 million. Income inequality and the share of wealth going to the richest have steadily increased since then in what is now referred to as the neoliberal period.

Its origins lie in the decisive shift in the balance of power in the workplace and in society from labour to capital beginning 40 years ago and then rammed through under the Thatcher governments. The generalised crisis brought an end to the post-war regime of managing capitalism and a vicious reorganisation along more free-market lines. It was the political failure of the labour movement – in all its aspects, trade union and party – to respond adequately to that which ushered in the epoch of neoliberalism that is now facing its own systemic crisis.

It had nothing to do with immigration, migration or any other change in the potential supply of labour – such as the feminisation of the workforce. Union organisation in engineering was undermined by scabbing on strikes by “indigenous” members of other unions, not by Polish or Pakistani migrants. Immigration featured, however, in this respect. The right wing politics of scapegoating immigrants, and upon that entrenching racist divisions, were a major part of sapping the capacity of working people to become the masters not the victims of the huge changes which brought about “globalisation”.

If mass unemployment and the threat of the sack are blunt instruments to batter working class people over the head, then the scapegoating of immigrants and support for Tory campaigns to keep out newcomers through immigration control are a chemical cosh, introduced intravenously by drip feed or rapid injection. Those on the British and European left who snatch the odd phrase from Marx mistakenly to compare immigration with unemployment and “the reserve army of labour” tend not to refer to his letter three years after the publication of Capital, when there was, as now, complete free movement of people between Ireland and Britain. He wrote:

“And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists… The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

“This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”

That was in 1870. And the above is history, ending 30 to 40 years ago. But it is important if we are to identify under what conditions and with what form of politics working people have done best and can do in the future. One objection is that circumstances have changed hugely and, in any case, the problem identified is something called the “free movement of labour [within the EU]” not immigration. We will turn to what free movement means in the second part of this article.

For now, we should be clear that whatever employment abuses by bosses of the labour market Len McCluskey and other trade unionists have in mind, this discussion takes place in a fevered atmosphere in which little distinction is made between EU rules governing the labour market on the one hand, and immigration, migrants or refugees on the other. That is not restricted to those intoxicated by the Daily Mail or UKIP propaganda. It is exactly what Burnham did in parliament. He started by saying “free movement [is] being used to undermine skilled wages”, he segued through a call to “reform the immigration system”, and he ended up raising the spectre of riots in the streets – all in four minutes.

We can safely dismiss the notion that the spectre of racial violence he had in mind was between directly employed and agency boilermakers on two different rates for the job at an oil refinery, or between permanent and supply teachers in a school – one with paid holidays, the other not, or full-time and bank nurses in an accident and emergency department.

Resisting the xenophobic and racist reaction that mayoral candidate for Manchester Andy Burnham is accommodating to with artful elision requires clarity. And it is no answer to say that working people “know that free movement of labour means downward pressure on wages, at least in some sectors”. By the same token, working people “know” that the reason for austerity is that we have to pay down the national debt. Most people do think that. It happens not to be true – austerity is a political choice and not an economic necessity. And as we will show, neither is it true that the free movement of labour is depressing wages. Bosses cut wages. Not workers.

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Brexit: ‘national economy’ and class

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Food-bank Britain: not on the referendum ballot paper, but central to ‘Brexit’

Ed Miliband is staking out the kind of territory on Brexit he tried to occupy as Labour leader.

His argument concedes to calls for cutting immigration. But he says that there is a trade-off between that and “access to the single market” of the EU, which is in the “national interest” of the “British economy”.

Politically, the case then tries to base itself on the rising worries people are reported to have about the economic impact of a Tory Brexit as a way to displace the immigration question.

There is a difference between Miliband’s argument – which he voiced in the parliamentary debate on 7 December 2016 – and interventions by the likes of Andy Burnham who, for transparently electoral reasons to do with his mayoral bid in Manchester in May, made an appalling anti-immigration speech, with incendiary language.

But it is a weak position – just as it proved to be under Miliband’s leadership. The initial “balance” he struck in the first of three major speeches as leader on immigration rapidly vanished. We went through Yvette Cooper’s tenure as shadow home secretary, constantly attacking the Tories for failing to cut immigration numbers, and ended up a couple of years later with the anti-immigration mugs in the 2015 election.

You cannot meet the anti-immigration propaganda by refusing systematically to argue against it. Xenophobia or racism will not be pushed back by saying: look – we do need to cut immigration, but if we want to be able to sell things in Europe then we will have to put up with some immigrants.

If you never challenge the false idea that immigrants are a bad thing, then it is wishful thinking to imagine that you can get people reluctantly to accept a bad thing in the hope of achieving a good thing that they do want. Any “success” on that basis will turn out to be built on a sand of rising resentment.

That was the approach – by implication – of the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years: unwelcome immigrants are the price you have to pay for Britain’s economic success.

In so far as there was a positive case, it was put largely in terms that could make sense to better off people and not to the rest. I remember several Blairite columnists a few years ago responding to the claim that Polish plumbers were undercutting the price for the job with the argument: “What’s wrong with that – I’ve just had my bathroom done at lower cost?”

That argument does not carry to people who do not fairly regularly get their house done up. And that applies to most people – though not to most national newspaper columnists.

This is the main problem with the whole approach. It wants to put “economic concerns” centre in order to trump “immigration concerns”. But it talks of “the economy” as an abstraction and in terms fixed by the neoliberal period: the EU single market, trade with the rest of the world, the success of the City, the level of the FTSE 100, and so on.

It is “the economy” emptied of class content – and 0f economic realities. That just fails to speak to what has happened to people’s lives. It says that unless the core economic relationship between the British economy and the EU is maintained, then things will be bad for ordinary people. Brexit means economic contraction and that means austerity. Some go further and equate any call for an alternative plan to the Tories’ over Brexit as tantamount to a call for austerity, unless it amounts to overturning the referendum outcome and staying in the EU.

Austerity is a political choice 

Leave aside the enormous damage the left would do to itself if it were to go down the Blair/Lib Dem route of undemocratically overturning the referendum result (which is not going to happen given the balance in parliament, in any case). This line of argument exonerates those who have been responsible for austerity – now, and in the last seven years: not at some point in the future.

We have had austerity since the end of the Gordon Brown government in 2009-10. We had austerity in years during which the EU expanded and deepened.

Hourly wages in Britain have fallen by 10.4 percent. The only other advanced country where that has happened is Greece, enforced by the European institutions, lest we forget.

John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn were right in seeking to popularise the soundbite “austerity is a political choice not an economic necessity” (I hope that the Labour frontbench can find ways to return to doing that – it was effective).

Governments decide on austerity, NHS cuts, wage freezes, lower spending per pupil in schools, tax cuts for the rich and higher VAT for the rest of us, inducements for the City and for the bosses of Nissan while a regime of threats is applied to working people, cuts to disability benefit…

If you start to say those things are a product of something called “the economy” or that “the balance of trade” means that “public spending must be cut” or that “the fall in sterling” means that “you will be worse off due to inflation”, then you analytically cut out all the intermediary steps between those “causes” and “effects”.

More importantly, you miss out entirely that these things do not operate as a blind force of nature. Decisions are made by governments and bosses to bring about those effects. “The economy” comprises opposing interests, and clashing social and political forces. If you do not insist on that, then you end up with saying that the reason we have public spending cuts is because of “the national debt”. But that is precisely what the Tories say to justify austerity. It is what the IMF and ECB say about Greece.

For socialists, there is no such thing as “the economy” abstracted from the share of production that goes to capital or to labour. There is no economy without profit rates, without rates of investment, without shares of wealth owned by different classes, without a private and a public sector – and without looking at how that public sector works, who it serves, who it takes from in taxation and gives to in services. There is no economy in Britain without rising tuition fees for students and corporate speculation by universities. There is no “Great Britain PLC” without food banks on the one hand and Sir Philip Green’s $150 milli0n yacht on the other.

These were points emphasised brilliantly by the Polish-German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg over a century ago. We can add to her forceful polemic insights once made by Karl Marx but which are now much more widely shared: there is no economy without its impact on the relationship between human beings and nature. In the case of fossil-fuel capitalism, that means no economy without climate change and environmental devastation.

More recently, the basic points were made by then mainstream labour movement figures against Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s when she tried to usurp the parable of the Good Samaritan by claiming that the good-doers had to have made a profit in the first place in order to have the wherewithal to dispense charity.

You do not need the Marxist commitment of a Ralph Miliband to recognise this: just the basic class politics which are the rationale of the movement in whose name Ed Miliband takes his parliamentary seat in Doncaster for the Labour Party.

What’s at stake with Brexit

The political consequences have been acutely apparent in Greece over the last two years. The argument that it was in the interests of the “national economy” to stay in the euro at all costs meant that a left government elected on the basis of opposing austerity has ended up enforcing it in order to secure that national economic outcome. That has meant the burden being thrown in even more extreme ways onto working people and the poor in Greece to “turn the economy around”. This is not new. This is capitalism.

The argument over Brexit is but an aspect of a more fundamental question. Who is to pay for the restructuring of society and its way of producing wealth (or wasting and destroying it) to escape the long depression which began in Europe with the EU at the height of its power? In whose interests will that restructuring be done? That question was posed by the post-2008 global crisis, not by the British referendum in June.

That is what the labour movement and the left have to fight over. And we would have had to fight over that if the referendum outcome had been different. That outcome would have meant the continuation of the David Cameron government and of George Osborne’s methods of implementing austerity.

It was common ground on the left in Britain, whichever way one viewed the referendum, that the fundamental antagonism in British society is one of class, that the British economy is structured to the enormous benefit of the rich against the interests of the rest, and that we need to present a radical alternative.

The Brexit vote does not change that common ground – or should not. There is no essentially separate Brexit question. The reason why Brexit appears in the opinion polling as the central concern for most people is precisely because it crystallises the pressing issues that shape people’s lives: their job or lack of, their loss of pay in the last eight years, their economic and social well being, the deteriorating health service…

That is the content of people’s “concerns”. And that is the content that the left and labour movement need to give answers to, rather than to become mesmerised by reified talk of the “national economy”. As if what was good for Nissan, Amazon and Sports Direct was good for “Britain” – and by extension for working people in Britain. The logic of that argument goes way beyond any debate about Brexit. What it leads to is that in order for working people to have a life, capitalism must make profits. That’s capitalist ideology, against which socialists seek to offer an alternative.

Ed Miliband cannot make this radical political case. He is tied to the strategy of pursuing the national interest and a view of how the economy and society work which absents the fundamental class antagonisms. The left – boosted by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Miliband’s successor – is not thus inhibited.

It is also on the basis of common class interest that the arguments against the anti-immigration brigade stand a much better chance of being won. They will certainly not be won by telling people that immigration is good for something called “the economy” when that economy – supposedly enhanced by membership of the EU – has resulted in them losing 10p in every pound of hourly earnings in the last few years.

Before June of this year it was uncontroversial on the left and in much of the labour movement in Britain that we needed to fight for a radical alternative to Cameron’s austerity. Since then, the referendum has happened and Cameron has gone. The government of Theresa May is trying to carry through Tory priorities in the course of Brexit. It ought to be uncontroversial that we should respond with fighting for a radical alternative to that also. That is what a People’s or a left Brexit means.

And just as with opposing Cameron, it is about building movements which are not restricted to what the Labour frontbench can achieve in parliament – under the adverse circumstances of the entrenched opposition from internal party opponents.

There is, for example, a growing crisis in the NHS. It is the politics of despair to respond by harping on about the lie that Michael Gove and Boris Johnson span during the referendum campaign over £350 million a week for the NHS if we vote to Leave. I suspect that the response of most people would be “so they lied – they all lie”. And that is essentially the truth.

Instead, we need to focus the issue around a demand for money for the NHS and against the Tories’ mass privatisation plan.

Leave aside what the economy might look like in two years’ time – pay is stagnant now. Pay is not determined by Britain’s membership of the EU. But agitation for pay increases should be what the labour movement raises over Brexit.

These are all things which can be fought for at every level – from a local hospital campaign in Shropshire to the left wing members of the Labour frontbench supporting union pay campaigns or the drive for a living wage.

This was the spirit that animated the various fronts of struggle against the wave of austerity imposed by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition following the 2010 election. An array of initiatives worked together – from Disabled People Against the Cuts to the People’s Assembly Against Austerity. And that is the spirit which underpins the People’s Assembly event on 19 January, which is a step towards cohering a radical alternative to the Tories’ Brexit.

Throughout the Coalition years the then leaders of the Labour Party – at the time including Ed Balls – did not embrace that approach. They failed at the 2015 election.

As the Tories struggle with the enormous problems of implementing the referendum result against a backdrop of their own divisions and the mourning of the British capitalist class, we have a chance, thanks to the election of Corbyn, to create a much more effective and radical response this time. We should seize it.

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National Conservatism: Trump, May and anti-Semitism

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Some 75 percent of anti-Semitic incidents in Britain are the responsibility of the far right, says a committee of MPs.

The actual figure may be higher. That is both because the committee has demonstrated a consistent bias in seeking to locate anti-Semitism, absurdly, in the Labour Party and not on the far right, and also because the indirect responsibility is not considered.

Just how much of the anti-Semitic imagery and propaganda which you can find online, and which some people believe, is actually generated on the far right – a lot of it highly professionally by neo-Nazis and White Supremacists based in the US?

All the MPs on the committee are bitterly opposed to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. So for either party (the Tories) or factional (Chuka Umunna and pals) advantage they twist the report to skip over actual anti-Semitism and create headlines against Corbyn and the left.

Next month will see a four-week trial of the man accused of the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox. At the time, the police said their main line of inquiry was a “far right connection”. The man accused of killing her was reported to have shouted at the murder scene: “Britain First!” or “Put Britain first!”

Last Tuesday in Parliament we had the sickening spectacle of one Tory MP after another waving the shroud of Jo Cox to argue for military escalation in the Syria war, including a preparedness to shoot down Russian planes.

We do not, tragically and self evidently, know what the murdered Labour MP would have said – precisely because she was murdered.

That did not stop Tory MPs who opposed the opening of the borders to refugees, from Syria and from elsewhere, which she campaigned for. And unlike them, she did not vote in December of last year for David Cameron’s bombing.

There is a deeply shocking reality which no one on the left and no anti-racist in Britain can allow to stand.

A Labour MP has been murdered – with all the hallmarks of a fascist-inspired assassination – and there is zero recognition in British public life or from most MPs that that has happened. Instead, there is the most squalid politicking aimed at undermining the leader of the Labour Party and the movements of the left.

There is zero official acceptance, of course, of the endemic Islamophobia in Britain. It is expressed not only in hate crime – as with the woman who was assaulted in north London recently and her hijab ripped off. It is also structured into the state and society – institutionalised, a matter of policy also: the Prevent Strategy.

Then we have Theresa May making a National Conservative turn – with talk of patriotic Britons being undermined by “left wing human rights lawyers” (that would fit Shami Chakrabarti, by the way) and rootless “international elites”.

Donald Trump went further, naturally, in a speech in Florida on Friday. He said that Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international financiers whose wealth and immorality are unlimited and that they conspire to bring down the working man of the US, sending jobs to Mexico and China.

It is precisely in this National Conservative paranoia – of which May’s is but on a spectrum which includes Trump’s – that actual fascist ideology is incubated.

Fascism has little in the way of a distinct ideology. It is everywhere the radicalisation of the domestic drivel of the mainstream, hard right and of the historic ideologies of its state.

All the rudiments of the Nazis’ ideology were to be found in the National Conservative elites of the 1920s – ranging from Henry Ford in the US to Lord Rothermere in Britain – but with a German national specificity.

In theory you could conceive of a fascist movement without racism and anti-Semitism at its centre – by way of a thought experiment of a capitalism with a different history and in a different world on a different planet.

But history is in the present. And the far right and fascism have no comparable instrument other than racism in all its forms. They have to take the instruments they find from their histories; they cannot simply reinvent themselves out of thin air.

In this actual world we face sudden declines in the value of a currency; national antagonisms and chauvinism; illustrated by the cases of Poland and Hungary, huge numbers of a national population who had been encouraged to take out mortgages in foreign currencies by banks overnight find that they have been pauperised, made homeless, by a single movement on the money markets.

In these circumstances – which will get more acute – there is no more potent a lie for either National Conservatives or fascists than the old one of the rootless, cosmopolitan Jew sucking the blood of the nation via the banking system. Perhaps also through the “Jewish socialism” of the Marxist and radical left, “they” are sapping the national unity and will from within.

There has been a big turnout and very productive deliberations at the international conference in Athens this weekend hosted by the KEERFA anti-racist and anti-fascist coalition.

The cynicism of the anti-Corbyn MPs’ parliamentary report stands in absolute contrast. It is enraging. So too is the sight of the usual suspects touring the radio and television stations today to spread the lie that it is the party of labour and not the right which is the danger over racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

The sooner there is a stronger fightback by Labour Party members inside their party over that, the better.

But even that is but a small aspect of the fightback we really need. That is a truly mass movement in the society against racism, wars and national chauvinism – but also providing the radical answers to a world in crisis and flushing down the sewer the radicalising right’s false explanations for that.

There is not a moment to lose.

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Cable Street – from petitioning to street barricades

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Eighty years ago today the working class in the slum housing of the East End of London rose up and stopped British fascism in its tracks at the Battle of Cable Street. This is an excellent account of the lead up to that historic day and of what happened on it.

It is from the site of the “Cable Street 80” committee, which is organising the major commemorative events in Whitechapel this coming Sunday.

Cable Street is well remembered on the British left. It is something that all of us feel rightly proud of, particularly if we have lived in or been associated with the East End of London. It provided a reference point for later bursts of intense anti-fascist activity: from stopping the National Front at Lewisham and the Anti Nazi League in the 1970s, again at the Battle of Welling in the early 1990s, and into this century.

Cable Street is rich not just in inspiration but in political pointers for the anti-fascist movement still. Its relevance is all the greater when we consider some of the aspects which may be detail to the overall story, but which will resonate with activists today.

British Union of Fascists leader Sir Oswald Mosley announced his intention to converge on the East End of London and rampage through the heart of the Jewish area only at the very end of September 1936.

It is important to see how things felt at that time. There had been repeated attempts at fascist incursion on the fringes of the East End. In areas bordering Bethnal Green on the northern boundary of the large, Jewish working class community there had been frequent physical attacks. People had been killed.

The overall situation in Europe looked grim indeed. General Franco had issued his pronunciamento announcing a fascist uprising against the Spanish Republic on 18 July. Just two months later, as Mosley announced his plans, Franco had managed to advance at great speed from Spanish-occupied Morocco, through western Andalusia to within 80 km of taking Madrid. He was halted. But at the beginning of October 1936 it looked as if another country was about to fall imminently to fascism, joining Italy and Germany. The Berlin Olympics in August had just projected depressing news footage of Hitler firmly in power.

The people of the East End who were about to engage in a major fight were in no sense looking for one. They were far from optimistic in their assessment of where Europe and Britain were heading. They were indignant at the threatened march. But all accounts record that there was also great fear.

Communist activists through the Jewish People’s Council against Fascism and Anti-Semitism, which they had initiated, launched a petition calling on the Home Secretary to ban Mosley’s march. Within 48 hours they got 100,000 signatures. It was an incredible feat, not exceeded since the days of the Chartist agitation in Britain a hundred years earlier.

They handed it in on Friday 2 October. The Tory Home Secretary refused to ban the demonstration – just two days before it was to take place.

As they petitioned, the Stepney branch of the Communist Party had been making the argument to block Mosley even if the Home Secretary would not. The Labour Party’s position was to rely only upon the petition, and if that failed for people to clear the streets on Sunday and let Mosley pass.

The government’s refusal to respond to the mass petition sent shockwaves. The agitation to stop Mosley took off like a rocket.

The Young Communist League in London had been building for a rally in Trafalgar Square in solidarity with the Spanish Republic on 4 October. They had called it well before Mosley announced his plans.

Remember – Franco was almost at the gates of Madrid, which seemed about to fall. Rallying for Spain in central London was far from some ritualistic action. It was to be the first big mobilisation for Spain. It too was an emergency.

Understandably, people did not want to call it off at six days notice and still with the possibility that the government would have to yield to popular pressure. How would comrades in Spain feel that the first protest in their support in London had been cancelled?

The thinking was also that if it was called off then Mosley would be able to force the cancellation of any big event just by announcing a demonstration at short notice. He would have a veto on left wing activity. Anyone who has been part of organising a major event in such circumstances knows these kinds of dilemmas.

In the six days running up to Cable Street there was intense debate between Communist activists in the heart of the East End and the London-wide leadership.

The first position was for people across London to go to Trafalgar Square and afterwards to east London to support the anti-fascist mobilisation called by the local party and others.

But it became clearer as the few days rolled on that what was happening in east London was a massive groundswell, reported by the local activists who could see and feel it. Then the shock on the Friday of the rejection of the petition swung the argument right over. Trafalgar Square was cancelled that afternoon and leaflets and posters amended calling everyone to Aldgate East on the Sunday.

The result was the epic day in working class history described so well on the Cable Street 80 page linked to.

That is the big story. So why the pettifogging details?

Strategies, tactics and living struggle

In the course of many decades of retelling sometimes Cable Street has been shorn of its vital and lived reality and turned into a simplistic political homily. A straightforward clash of tactics – broad campaigning versus direct action. Broad campaigning: conservative and bad; direct action: militant and good.

Now some key features of what happened do reveal a straightforward strategic clash of good and bad. The official leadership of the British Jewish community was useless throughout. It was separated in all sorts of ways from the working class community of the East End: by class; by geography (it was based in better off parts of West London); by politics (it was anti-left); by status and origin – it was much more established from older Southern European immigration and not recent refugees from Eastern Europe; and even by patterns of religious observance. Its advice was just to ignore Mosley.

The Labour Party too was highly ineffective. It supported the petition. But once that failed it called on people to stay at home and not confront the fascists.

It was not just the party’s right wing, represented by Herbert Morrison. He held a big rally in Hackney Town Hall (just two miles from the East End) on the eve of Cable Street calling on people to stay away.

The leading figure of the left, George Lansbury, who was the most left wing leader the Labour Party has ever had, also called from his fastness of Poplar in east London, a short walk from Cable Street, for people not to mobilise on Sunday 4 October.

It is also true that on the radical, Communist left there was a major strategic divide. There was the official policy of the “Popular Front”, which emphasised trying to get unity of all classes in the defence of democracy against fascism. In contrast, was the “United Front” policy of the exiled Leon Trotsky emphasising a militant working class unity which would have to clash with “democratic capitalism” if it was to conduct the necessary fight against fascism.

Vital as that strategic debate still is today, it would be a mistake to shoehorn Cable Street neatly into some ideological mold. The reality of the struggle itself was more powerful than ideological debates, necessary as they are.

A petition handed to the Home Office by a Labour MP, a priest, the secretary of the London Trades Council and two East End Jewish community representatives might seem the height of respectable campaigning. If left at that, it is. And that is where the conservative bureaucracies of the labour movement and of the official Jewish community wanted to leave things.

But the act of petitioning had stirred people – agitated them – throughout the East End. And who had done that and organised others to gather the petition? Radical forces who put the argument to each signatory that whatever the government did, Mosley had to be stopped. The radical minority were clear that confrontational tactics would most likely be needed. They prepared people for them. But most people were not clear about that. A week before the day, the East End was boiling with indignation. But it is was not in its majority envisaging that they would be taking part in street battles the following weekend.

It is the beginning of wisdom to see that one tactic is insufficient and a more militant one necessary. But the genius of what happened 80 years ago was that a militant minority was able to help the majority to see the same thing very rapidly, and to act – moving from a respectable and very British tactic of petitioning, to a very French tactic of street barricades. That had happened on a massive scale with Chartism and the birth of the working class movement in Britain.

The movement from one to the other in 1936 was symbolised by the graffiti that appeared in the East End. In huge letters was painted: “Ban Fascism!” That contained an ambiguity. Who was to ban fascism? The government, or somebody else? The ambiguity was resolved as people moved to realise that it was they who had to impose a popular ban on the fascists’ activities because the government would not.

There was naturally great tactical debate among the Communist militants. That intensified in the months after Cable Street. Joe Jacobs is often identified as representing the “street fighting” or direct action pole of those debates, which became overlaid with other political and strategic arguments. Phil Piratin, who would become Communist MP for Mile End in 1945, is often taken as personifying the other pole, of the wave of agitation the Communist Party undertook throughout east London over housing and social conditions. That undercut the fascists – and the mainstream parties. It also tended towards clashing with big business interests, not appealing to them to join a “democratic front” against fascism.

But seeing Cable Street 80 years ago today primarily through the polarising prism of later political divergences or just as a playing out of an ideological clash over strategy within the Marxist left does not do justice to the lived reality of what happened. And it yields only the most perfunctory of lessons for us today.

It was the “street-fighting” Joe Jacobs, after all, who wrote to the local paper – then, as now, the East London Advertiser – not to play up the violent and wholly justified clash with the fascists, but to highlight the 100,000-strong petition and the callous disregard of a Tory Home Secretary who spurned it.

Cable Street, with all its rich shadings, was brought vividly to life for a number of us in east London five years ago. The racist thugs of the English Defence League announced that they would march through exactly the same area that Mosley had been blocked from. This time the march in 2011 was to intimidate and demonstrate supposed racial superiority over the Muslim Bangladeshi population now living in the same streets as Jewish immigrants had in the 1930s.

A Tory Home Secretary again refused our petition. Her name was Theresa May. She instead said that she would ban us and would impose merely a limit upon the EDL which still allowed them to gather in threatening numbers. They then hoped they would breach police lines or force a march to take place and to invade the East End. Once again, the mass agitation in east London turned to collective defiance as thousands blocked the Whitechapel High Street and Bangladeshi-led battalions protected the housing estates on the frontlines from fascist incursion. The radical independent then mayor of the area, Lutfur Rahman, and his councillors were on the Whitechapel High Street. The EDL did not set one foot into the East End.

Cable Street, with its images of Jewish seamstresses uniting behind barricades with Irish dockers, continues to inspire across the working class movement. For that reason alone it is a story which should be widely shared, given the circumstances we face today.

Additionally, for those who have set themselves on a path of socialist politics and agitation, it provides very rich lessons in dealing with strategic and tactical dilemmas which are never identical with those previously, but which do recur perennially.

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Immigration, the labour movement and the left in Britain today

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Memorial to Arkadiusz Joswik, a Polish facotry worker murdered in Harlow in England

Unite leader Len McCluskey said in his speech to the Labour Party conference: “I believe that the question of free movement of labour is a question not only in the UK but in Europe. No one talks of countries where migrant labour come from being denuded of skills.”

 
He did so in the context of explicitly supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to concede to calls from the right wing and soft left of the Parliamentary Labour Party for further immigration restriction into Britain, something which is now set to be a central dividing line in British politics. 
 
McCluskey said that Corbyn’s call for collective bargaining rights, a minimum wage of £10 and hour and stronger union organisation addressed the issue of bosses super-exploiting many migrant workers.
 
At the same time, the British labour movement does have many examples of how this argument about immigration into Britain or other advanced countries coming at the expense of poorer ones has a very slippery history.
 
In the 1960s the Labour Party and trade union movement gave in to right wing demands for more immigration controls. There were figures on the right of the movement who used the argument about robbing poorer countries consciously as cover for that capitulation. Unlike leaders such as McCluskey today, they had up to that point shown little interest in opposing the way that colonialism and imperialism impoverished large parts of the world, forcing people to uproot.
 
Theirs was a very cynical argument to obscure their real position of “keep them out” and sometimes to gloss their own racist prejudices about black and brown newcomers to Britain.
 
From others at the time who were not racist, and even anti-racist, the argument was put more with the motivation of seeking to evade the difficult job of opposing head on the anti-immigration agitation. That meant having to deal with racist and anti-immigrant ideas among trade unionists and working class people.
 
It meant being prepared to fight within the membership you represented against all reactionary ideas, rather than just seeking to reflect the balance of averaged opinion and restricting your fight to taking on only what most people would regard as extreme and unacceptable racism.
 
We can see this argument deployed in that kind of way today in the European labour movement, even on parts of the radical left. Jean-Luc Melenchon in France tends towards this tactic of evasion in much of what he says about immigration and refugees. So do some figures in Die Linke in Germany. And it has for many years been common across the radical left in Greece, even as it fought successive austerity governments.
 
How should the anti-capitalist left respond? First we must recognise that the direct argument against the anti-immigration brigade cannot be evaded, avoided, “reframed” or otherwise dealt with through apparently presentational techniques. It has to be met head on.

This requires being uncompromising in asserting some fundamental arguments:

1) Migrants do not lower wages. Bosses lower wages.

2) It is the Tory government which has cut welfare, health and education spending. Migrant workers pay through taxes for those services just as much as anyone else. Often their education has been paid for out of taxation in the countries they came from. So they bring their capacity to work and their skills to a society which has not had to contribute to developing them in the first place.

3) It is immigration control, with all the repressive apparatuses of the state, not immigration which creates conditions for the employers and the Tories to attack all workers. Special work permits, removing the rights of some workers (new arrivals) to access welfare and legal protections and so on are the kinds of things which make them more vulnerable to greater exploitation.

If you were brought up in Hartlepool and you move to get a job in Leeds, you are not lowering the level of wages in Leeds. But if in Leeds you are not granted the same rights as those who were brought up there, because you have come from Hartlepool, then bosses in Leeds are in a stronger position to exploit you all the more. This is especially so if you have hanging over your head the threat of deportation to Hartlepool if you step out of line in Leeds.

4) Without trade union and labour movement organisation bosses and the governments which serve them would have a totally free hand to exploit people. Workers organising together at work, in communities and in radical movements for change can fight against that. Dividing workers is crucial to the rich preventing us from doing so.

Immigration controls serve the rich in two ways. First, they are used to create a category of workers who can be more exploited – and that is then used to increase the exploitation and robbery of working people as a whole.

Second, they depend on and further reinforce the idea that working people do not share a common interest with one another. They spread the pernicious idea that you have more in common with someone like the boss of Sports Direct because you were both born in Britain than you do with the people being exploited by him no matter where they came from – whether from Hartlepool or Hungary.

Racism is not just a weapon used by the capitalist class. But it is, indeed, a weapon used by the capitalist class. Lots of people who reject racist prejudice still fall for the idea that their lives would be improved by stopping immigration. It is not necessarily racist to think that. But immigration controls are both themselves racist and always produce more racism, which serves the interests of the rich and powerful.

These are arguments which the militantly anti-racist left has made for two generations in Britain. Of course, the patterns of migration and of the labour market change. But they remain fundamentally the same. So do the arguments. They need to be developed and filled out with all of the evidence and experience of today.

But they do need to be made. And it is only because these arguments were made and have been acted upon over the last 50 years that we are in the position we are in now to defeat another wave of anti-immigration agitation from another Tory government, its backers and the racist right.

Our free movement and freedom versus theirs

What of the point Len McCluskey makes, as part of trying to oppose the Tories and the racists, not aiming to endorse them?

The point speaks to a real and ugly truth. The population of Latvia, a recent member of the European Union, has declined by a sixth over the last 15 to 20 years thanks to free market economic shock therapy. People, especially the young, have had to leave to find work elsewhere.

The number of teachers in Latvia has fallen by more than a sixth. It is down by nearly a quarter. So there are fewer teachers in Latvia per pupil than there were 20 years ago. No socialist can ignore the calamity that means for working class children and parents in Latvia.

In Greece about a quarter of a million people under the age of 30 have left the country in the crisis years. They include doctors, nurses and health workers made redundant with the closure of hospitals and health services.

Officially, one in six people in Greece have no access to healthcare. The real figure is probably one in five. That is because the immigration controls imposed to serve the rich and powerful mean that there are large numbers of people in Greece who do not have official residency permits. They are both more likely to be super-exploited and cannot access the services that citizens can.

Some of those health workers are now working in the British National Health Service. They are among the tens of thousands of migrants, and hundreds of thousands from families of one time immigrants, who keep it going. The NHS gets the work of a Greek-trained doctor, but people in Greece paid for the training.

It is not so very different for so-called unskilled workers, like the Gambian-born Spanish labourers who were killed two months ago in a horrific industrial accident at a scrapyard in Birmingham. All the resources to bring them up, provide them milk as infants and give them the skills and capacity to work for a highly exploitative boss in Britain were borne by people in Gambia.

Greece needs more doctors and nurses. Gambia needs more employment. But the answer to these problems is not to stop people moving from one country to another. It is to stop big business robbing one country or another and exploiting working people everywhere. In Ireland it means stopping Apple from making profits everywhere but shifting its accounts so that it pays due taxes on them nowhere.

Stopping a Greek-trained psychotherapist coming to work in the British NHS will not improve mental health provision in Greece. Banning workers from Gambia from working in Birmingham will not improve the living standards of a single family in its capital, Banjul. And allowing them to be stigmatised as “migrants” will make it easier for bosses to skimp on health and safety standards to the detriment of all workers, just like those at the Didcot power station who suffered a similar fatal incident a few months before the Gambians in Birmingham.

To do that requires confronting big business and the capitalist class which exploits people the world over. It means in Britain demanding an end to the debt bondage imposed upon working people in Greece by the European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF. It means opposing the wars, the expansion of Nato and the nuclear missile madness, not going along with them.

But that struggle is weakened and can never happen if any concession is made to one of the principal weapons that big business and the Tory government use to prevent radical opposition – racism and the idea that if we side with them to control the movement of other working people then somehow we will be better off.

And this is their policy even when they talk in the bureaucratic language of the EU through terms such as “free movement of labour”. What do they mean? They do not mean that working people are truly free from all the pressures and powers of those who run the system. They mean that people should be free to be exploited. Freed from any control over their lives and “free” to move – but only under the strictest conditions. Free to fill fluctuating demand in the economy in one place or another. But equally free to drown in the Mediterranean because they come from the wrong place. Above all “free” from the rights and capacities to organise with others to resist their exploitation.

“Free movement” is one of those buzzwords. We on the left should break down what it means. The “issues with free movement” for the labour movement are not that it allows too much, but that it is not free enough.

Three decades ago the economic devastation wrought by Margaret Thatcher hit famously a town in England called Corby. The steel industry which dominated the town shut. It was devastated. Many young people, and those older who could, left. Many of them were from families who had come to Corby from Scotland, when an earlier wave of capitalist economic destruction had forced people to move down south.

Nobody said in the 1930s that stopping people moving from Clydeside to Northamptonshire was the way to protect jobs and improve the lives of working people in England. And nobody said in the 1980s that stopping people moving from Corby to London was necessary because “London is too full”. At the same time, nobody except the Thatcherites welcomed that perverse “freedom” which made the bosses free to close down industries as they wished and to uproot communities.

There was no answer for the labour movement in calling for the movement of workers to be limited. The answer lay in uniting working people against the ravages of big business. The labour movement failed sufficiently to do that. But that remains the only answer today, whether we are talking about people moving from pauperised smaller cities and towns in the north of England to get work elsewhere in the country, or from Poland or fleeing war in Syria or the effects of climate change in the Sahel region of Africa.

The labour movement is in a potentially strong position to make these arguments, thanks in part to the battles waged by anti-racists against previous waves of anti-immigration agitation.

That requires two things. First, an iron-hard determination not to concede to the anti-immigration arguments. Second, a sustained, collective effort to find all manner of means to put our arguments throughout the working class movement and to root them in the experience of working class people and the realities of austerity Britain. That means finding the best ways to put the case, not clever means to evade the argument.

The biggest problem we face is not so much that there is confusion in parts of the labour movement over this question, or even that those who are more at home with the CBI than with the trade unions are now pushing an anti-immigration line.

It is that not enough of the movement of the left, now more considerable than at any time in 40 years in Britain, is putting these arguments. And that means that chances to change the whole balance of the debate are at risk of being lost.

Five black migrant workers in Britain’s second city were killed in just one industrial accident two months ago. Few people would be indifferent to the crushing by falling metal of five men at work and the impact on their bereaved families who have lost their breadwinners. But how many people know about this? How many union branches have raised this and the deaths of three men, who were not black migrant workers, in similar circumstances at Didcot Power station to make the point and win the case?

A month ago a Polish factory worker in Harlow in Essex was beaten to death in what police believe to be a racially motivated attack. The Metropolitan police have said that the spike in racist attacks following the Brexit vote was principally directed at Eastern European people. It may be subsiding now – we shall see next month with the publication of the extensive figures of the British Crime Survey.

There was a heartfelt response from people in Harlow to the murder. The same also following anti-Polish attacks in Leeds and other cities. How many in Britain know the name Arkadiusz Jóźwik? More important even than the precise formulations our unions and the Labour MPs come up with is this question: what has been done to rally the majority of working people who whatever their confusions about immigration in general are sickened by racist murders like this?

There are nearly a million Polish workers in Britain. They are largely not in unions and are reporting the ugly results of racist agitation which is always churned up by the anti-immigration bandwagon. What efforts are being made in their direction?

The Trade Union Congress highlighted two months ago the outrage that Theresa May’s government is refusing to guarantee the rights of EU migrant workers who are already in Britain. She has adopted the position of using them as a bargaining token, hoping to utilise their fears to squeeze governments such as the Polish and the Hungarian in the Brexit negotiations.

Theresa May did not budge. What has been done since? This is an issue over which we, not the hardened anti-immigrationists and racists,  have majority support. Some 84 percent of people in Britain say that the rights of EU nationals already in the country must be guaranteed. There is little difference between those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain in the EU referendum on this question – 74 percent of Leave voters agree to the rights of EU migrants in Britain.

They are working across the economy and many in areas which have a considerable union presence, such as the NHS, transport and education. Is anything being done to secure their rights, which their fellow workers support, and thus both inflict a defeat on the Tories and the racists and also create a better climate for dispelling wider anti-immigrant and racist myths?

These are the pressing questions now. And there exist the potential means to answer them. There are half a million members of the British Labour Party. Most of them joined to support Jeremy Corbyn in the last 16 months and most are at least sympathetic to his refusal to join the anti-immigration bandwagon.

There are about 20,000 Labour Party members now organised in the left wing Momentum group. That is a very considerable increase upon the numbers of organised socialists in Britain whether in or outside the Labour Party.

There are more who are organised through the structures of the trade union movement. There is great scope and need for debate and learning from one another about how best to put the arguments over immigration. But we will not win those arguments by discussing how to put the arguments.

We will win them only by actually putting the case and taking action over the increasing number of instances where the barbarity of what the anti-immigrationists stand for becomes clear even to people who fall for some of what they are saying.

The answer to how to put the argument against the anti-immigration brigade lies in taking them on, not finding ways to avoid doing so. Taking them on in word and deed.

It is time for all the left of the labour movement to act.

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