Melenchon and the left alternative to the liberal front

France Election

Rally for Jean-Luc Melenchon in Marseille where he denounced Trump’s attack on Syria and read a poem by the Greek Communist poet Yannis Ritsos against war

(This is a column for the Morning Star newspaper in Britain written on Sunday 9 April)

The French presidential election moved further into uncharted territory this week following a televised debate between all 11 candidates.

A snap audience survey following the debate on Tuesday night found that the radical left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who was already rising in the polls, was seen to be the big winner of the evening.

The far left New Anti-capitalist Party’s Philippe Poutou’s withering attacks on fascist Marine Le Pen and the candidate of the mainstream right, Francois Fillon, also won wide recognition.

The first opinion poll conducted in the two days following the debate showed a dramatic tightening of the race. It put Le Pen and the liberal-centrist Emmanuel Macron both down to 23 percent.

In joint third were Melenchon and Fillon on 19 percent. Benoit Hamon, the candidate of the centre-left Socialist Party, had fallen to 8.5 percent. Other gainers included the two candidates of the smaller far left with 2.5 percent between them.

It was one poll, but it confirmed the steady rise of Melenchon and his France Insoumise (France Unbowed) election front, which is backed by the Communist Party of France.

This election was already unprecedented and is more unpredictable than ever with two weeks to go before the first round, which will determine the two lead candidates to go head to head in a runoff a fortnight later.

The Socialist Party and the centre right represented by Fillon have been for 40 years the twin pillars of the French political system, itself an anchor of the EU, to which both parties are firmly committed.

At the start of this year the socially conservative Thatcherite Fillon was the frontrunner. But his candidacy has been sinking under a weight of corruption allegations.

Hamon was the surprise winner of the Socialist Party nomination in a US-style primaries process. He is from the left of the party, but is more akin to the late Michael Meacher than to Jeremy Corbyn.

His selection in a vote of two million people indicated a desire among many Socialist Party voters for some leftwards shift after the disaster of the presidency of Francois Hollande.

Much conventional commentary predicted that as a fresh candidate of the historic centre left, he would eclipse Melenchon and emerge as the standard bearer of the left as a whole.

But after a brief poll bounce, he came crashing down. There are two reasons why.

First, the neoliberal right of the Socialist Party refused to reconcile to the selection of a moderately left wing candidate.

The defeated Manuel Valls has since led a string of right wing grandees to endorse a rival candidate to their own party’s – the investment banker Macron. He says he is neither left nor right and combines a cosmopolitan social policy with a promise to introduce shock neoliberal reforms.

This is a pattern in social democratic parties elsewhere in Europe. In Spain, the party barons preferred to oust a centrist leader and support the formation of a government of the right rather than entertain some move towards the left anti-establishment Podemos party.

In Greece, Pasok preferred to go into government with the right rather than look to the left. The once mighty party is now about to be dissolved in favour of some new centrist confection.

Those in the British Labour Party fomenting civil war against the Corbyn leadership should look to Europe and behold where their counterparts have ended up.

The second reason for Melenchon’s rise is more positive. It is the radical left policies he is standing on combined with an insurgent political campaign that emphases a break with the old political orthodoxies.

He is drawing huge crowds to rallies and making inroads with innovative techniques. His campaign has launched an imitation of the Mortal Kombat video game. It’s called Fiscal Kombat.

It is not just that his policies are more left wing than Hamon’s – a 100 percent wealth tax, for example. It is also his appeal to working class and popular France to rise up at the ballot box against a discredited system.

The disastrous experience of the Hollande presidency has deepened the alienation of millions from the mainstream political system. He came in five years ago saying that his “only enemy is world finance” and promising some limited reforms in the wake of the post-2008 crash.

But despite controlling the National Assembly and most regions and large municipalities, Hollande’s government rapidly capitulated to the demands of the employers and of the EU.

With a popularity rating of just 4 percent, Hollande was unable to stand for a second term. For those touting some centrist alternative to Corbyn – Hollande was it, the French Ed Miliband.

The backlash has been particularly strong among the young. Youth unemployment is at 24 percent.

And it is among young voters that Le Pen’s Front National has made the greatest advances in the last three years.

Her message fuses a fake anti-elitism and economic radicalism with weaponising the racism and authoritarianism which the French state itself has turned to with its state of emergency and targeting of the Muslim community as a result of its participation in the war on terror.

Until two weeks ago mainstream commentary was united on what the consequences would be for this pivotal election for the future of European politics.

The choice was to be between Le Pen and “the populist tide” and Macron, enormously hyped in every liberal and business paper in Britain and Europe as the saviour of the liberal centrist order following the shock defeat of Hillary Clinton last November.

As for the left – it should simply get behind the neoliberal investment banker as the only hope to stave of the fascist right.

Indeed, most foreign coverage of France ignored the Melenchon candidacy. Not now.

His advance has radically changed the picture. And it has not been simply that he has consolidated “the left vote”. His rise has come at the same time as Macron and Le Pen have both stalled.

It supports the case of the radical left across Europe that there is a strategic alternative to collapsing back behind the failing neoliberal centre which has opened the door to the far right in some countries.

It is that a radically insurgent campaign, based upon the interests of the working class and neglected majority and refusing the politics of racial division and scapegoating, can mobilise vast numbers of people for progressive change.

Can Melenchon’s rise take him into the second round of the election? It is still more likely that it will see Macron versus Le Pen. But no one is in a position to rule anything out.

In some ways as significant is the impact of the campaign already in shaping the politics of the election and beyond.

Speculative head-to-head polls put Macron beating Le Pen by about 59 percent to 41 percent in a second round election. That is a wide margin for a French presidential election, but a worrying large number of people who would cast a vote for a fascist candidate.

With those polling figures what it would take for Le Pen to win would be 90 percent of those who say they would vote for her actually to go and do so, as against just 65 percent for Macron.

There’s the rub. Le Pen’s support is much more solid than Macon’s is. Strangely, large numbers of people are not too keen to vote for an investment banker as the default candidate.

Many French voters have yet to make up their minds. The abstention rate could be close to 30 percent, historically high.

So even on the sole measure of stopping the far right, the Melenchon campaign, which is exciting wide layers, makes an impact. It is likely to bring more people out into political action and to stop Le Pen. And it can lay the basis for the left to play a role in the social and political struggles to come.

For whatever the result of this election – France is set to become the latest site of the breakdown of the European political system and of growing social turmoil.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Trump gang, Huntington and ‘ideological-race war’


Abu Ghraib 2003 – war of torture and racial humiliation

Donald Trump apparently doesn’t read books. The far right gang around him do.

The book that springs to mind looking at their outpourings in the last week is Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. It was popular in hard right circles when it came out 20 years ago, as the Steve Bannon generation of fascistic ideologues were cutting their teeth in a post Cold War World.

Huntington gave a racialised rationalisation for the widening military conflicts and interventions of the US, which he said would characterise the new “World Order” rather than the disappearance of conflict through global trade and what became known as neoliberalism.

China was already beginning to rise. There was much anguish in the US about “American declinism”. And the backlash in the Middle East to decades of US and foreign power domination, and to local tyrants, was also underway. Both have developed apace since. Declining US power has not stopped them.

Huntington claimed that the conflicts arose from a fundamental “clash of civilisations”. He divided the world into 10 supposed fixed civilisations (though the number varied) – Western (of course), Islamic, Orthodox (Russia), Latin American, Sinitic…

There was no reality at all in the categories – “Orthodox civilisation” was defined by Eastern Christianity; “African civilisation”, geographically by just the southern two thirds of the continent of Africa.

The logic of the enterprise was to justify the imperial clashes the US would engage in.

So to rationalise both war in the Middle East and increasing military tension with China, Huntington came up with the nonsense idea that there was a common “Islamo-Confucian” civilisation, which brought together Muslims and Chinese as a joint enemy of the US, leading the superior bloc of “Western civilisation”.

Now the Trump gang are lashing out at Muslims in general, putting Iran “on notice” of possible military action and musing about a major war in the South China Sea.

In doing so – as with the planned turn to protectionism – they are putting forward their plan to secure the interests of American capitalism and imperialism. They are also talking up trade wars with Germany and the EU capitalist bloc. Deep US interests have had to grapple with a rising China and the question of the Middle East long before Trump entered the White House.

George W Bush tried to do it, with Tony Blair, in 2003. But their efforts came to nought in Iraq. They were defeated there – that’s the principal reason why Trump falsely claims he was against the Iraq war: it was a loser.

Barack Obama modified the strategy. Not boots on the ground, but drone wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a “pivot to Asia” based upon building up a trading bloc and deepening military alliances against China. That is a zone of trade protectionism in itself – just that it was to stretch beyond California, across the Pacific and into southeast Asia through the TPP trade deal. That deal is now dead.

Obama’s Middle East policy also failed, especially when he lapsed back into the delusions of regime change in Libya and Syria.

China’s rise continued under both Bush and Obama. They attempted to manage it. But they could not make it serve a renewal of US dominance. In any case, Obama is out now.

So there is a continuity in what the Trump gang is doing. But there is also a break – a very dangerous one.

The war on terror necessitated anti-Muslim racism at home and abroad. But it was not driven as a “race war” or a religious war. Those who referenced Huntington were marginal in the Bush administration. The ideology instead was that the exercise of “shock and awe” in Iraq would provide a “demonstration effect” in the region that would rapidly lead to political change and the embrace by new, pro-Western and liberal regimes of the global order, US-centred corporate power and all the neoliberal fantasies.

Blair reheated the old European “liberal imperialist” ideology of the 19th century, making a keynote speech in Chicago in 1999 – before 9/11 but at the time of the Nato war in Kosovo. The idea of imperialism and colonialism as a “civilising mission”. He brought it to the table of the neoconservatives who came to power with Bush.

They regarded the Islamic Middle East as “backward”. But they saw themselves as civilising it, arrogantly believing they could “nation build” by war and occupation (and, naturally, profiteering and pillaging – as 19th century European imperialists had done).

They cannot be civilised

The Trump gang does not believe you can “nation build”. And Theresa May said much the same when she was in Washington.

They share the old idea that Muslims are inferior, but believe they are irredeemable. You cannot civilise them, or the Chinese. You have to crush them. That means crushing them as a people, a “rival civilisation” – eliminating the threat.

So those who thought that a rejection of Bush-Obama era “regime change” was somehow a rejection of war were seriously mistaken.

It actually means more war, but with an even more barbaric and dangerous justification, ideology and conduct.

The war on terror has beaten the bloody path to this. As the anti-war movement pointed out at the time, a war on something called “terror” would have no boundary, no point at which an armistice could be declared, no peace negotiations, no post-war, but endless war.

Trump deliberately talks now of “Islam-ic terror”, not of “jihadi terrorism” or “Islam-ist terrorism”. However imperfect those latter two terms are – and they have always suggested there is something specifically Muslim that is the problem – they did leave space for saying there are “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims”.

George Bush was at pains to point out – whatever the hypocrisy – after 9/11 that he was not going into a “war of civilisations”. At the time, even Tony Blair said the same – though in the years since he has increasingly claimed that the fundamental problem is within Muslims as a whole, the “good” are covering up for the “bad”, all are implicated in “the problem”.

The Trump gang is going further – and saying so is no backhanded compliment to what went before.

From what we know of them already, at the heart of the gang are people sympathetic to the idea of a war of civilisations – the superior eliminating the threat of the inferior. Trump himself has said, “It is not true that all men are created equal.”

War – the major wars that Trump’s gang say they are prepared to contemplate – are barbaric in themselves. Does this alternative ideology and justification, then, make any actual difference?

Trump’s defence secretary General “Mad Dog” Mattis oversaw the near annihilation of Fallujah in Iraq – all in the name of nation-building and creating a liberal global order. The British empire in China and India oversaw the starvation of at least 12 million Chinese and six million Indians between 1876 and 1878 through a deliberate policy of exporting food from the famine areas in the name of free trade. All under the Victorian ideology of the West civilising the Rest.

The slaughter of the First World War was unparalleled up to that point – motivated by a simple clash of rival powers (not supposed civilisations) and justified to the public by modern national chauvinism.

Liberal capitalism has its own horrors. But it is also capable of producing reactionary forces and ideologies which take that horror even further. Trump has arisen from the crisis of neoliberal order, and through the main party of US capitalism.

War and eliminationist racism

On one level Hitler’s regime in Germany in 1939 was merely carrying out the expansionist war policy which the aristocratic military in 1914 had pursued and which was to meet the agreed aims of German big business, to be achieved by one means or another. German capital and its state functionaries wanted the end of the enfeebling Versailles Treaty. Hitler ended it.

But the German expansion eastwards in the Second World War came with a new ferocity and barbarity, flowing from the worldview of the masters of the Third Reich.

The anti-Semitic policies of the 1930s in Germany – legal discrimination and segregation against Jews, daily propaganda campaigns, Jewish Germans marked out as no longer full citizens, and therefore not protected by either the law or the normal values pertaining to proper citizens – gave way to the Holocaust from late summer 1941 onwards.

There were stages and thresholds crossed to turn an ideology for the elimination of the “malign influence” of a people in national life, “corrupting the national organism”, into the physical annihilation of millions of people on account of who they were.

One of the key elements enabling the others was the ideology shaping the kind of war that was to be fought to the east of Germany.

It would be mass, mechanised murder, for sure – as was 1914-1918.

It was to be a war of conquest and grabbing resources (Trump says once the US was in Iraq it should have just taken all the oil). That was also the case on all sides in the First World War.

But in addition, it was to be something else: an “ideological-race war of annihilation”; a war of existence – of “being or not being” – the existence of the “superior” race and its civilisation to be secured by the destruction of inferior cultures and the elimination of the people who bore them (peoples and races used interchangeably).

That was the ideology for the invasion of the “Judeo-Communist” Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. It was translated into orders down to unit level to ignore “the rules of war”, such as the protocols against torture and killing prisoners. And it was in the crucible of that horrendous theatre of war that the ultimate barbarity of the Holocaust was forged.

The point is not some direct comparison – still less equivalence – between Trump and Hitler.

It is merely this: imperialist wars generate of necessity murderous racism. The US war in Vietnam killed two million people and maimed millions more. You cannot do that day in day out without regarding the victims as somehow less human than yourself as perpetrator, whether torturing peasant farmers or incinerating them from B52 bombers.

And that inhuman racism gave rise to the mindset of the US force at My Lai, who systematically tried to annihilate a whole village – going door to door – for no military purpose but with a state of mind we can describe only as genocidal.

Abu Ghraib and the occupation of Iraq revealed similar horrors of our own time, accelerated by the dispensation from “normal rules” that the US state gave itself in the abnormal war on terror.

But if the racism arising from the mass murder of war becomes not an incidental though necessary feature but firmly embedded in the reasoning for war itself, in its commanders’ choice of targets, of weaponry, of methods of terror (which is what war means), of the war’s aims, then a threshold may be crossed.

Not callous disregard and sickening excuses for mass murder. Not the haphazard My Lai massacre, covered up by an embarrassed US high command.

But extermination as policy. Extermination of the inferior culture-race. The elimination or amputation of a civilisational rival, which happens to be a strategic adversary as well.

We have already glimpsed over that threshold from the bloody peaks of the war on terror and ensuing disasters unleashed to halt the Arab Spring.

We know full well what the US war machine – the largest among its rivals and in the world – is capable of. Now in the part of the US state machine nested in the White House are people who are more than comfortable with the use of the terrible power. They also at the very least entertain fantasies of racial supremacy and a worldview which sees conflicts over plunder as coming down ultimately to conflicts between superior and inferior peoples.

How will that develop? We do not know. But are we really to wait and see?

The time to stop the Trump gang is now.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

First he has come for the Muslims – how many mosques must burn?



Mosque in Victoria, Texas, burnt down the day after Trump announces his racist ban

Trump is attacking on a broad front. There are many reasons to fight him and to stop him coming to Britain for a propaganda boost.

But we should be clear – firmly in the crosshairs are the Muslims. He has started his assault on all of us by attacking them.

The racist travel ban targets Muslims. The far right media and Fox in the US tried to claim the terror attack by a white supremacist and Trump fan on the mosque in Quebec was actually committed by a Muslim. A sickening lie worthy of Goebbels.

A mosque was burnt to the ground in Texas on Saturday, hours after Trump announced his racist ban. This is a nightmare, and it is happening.

Why Muslims?

In part, because Trump’s team are themselves viciously racist against Muslims. But it is also that anti-Muslim racism and prejudice have been growing for 20 years, fuelled by the war on terror.

It is the central propaganda lie that the fascist Marine Le Pen hopes to use to win the French presidential election. The far right AfD in Germany has made Islamophobia the lynchpin of its advance. And it is the prime justification for ever more wars, which Trump is prepared for, in a different way from the previous government, but in the same places in the Middle East.

The forces of reaction and barbarism everywhere see Trump’s attack on Muslims as their path to power, including the reactionaries of ISIS who believe it will bring them more recruits.

Amid all the apparent chaos around the Trump gang’s Executive Orders, we can safely conclude there is a strategy. They think that by taking the anti-Muslim racism one stage further with the racist ban they can rely on the pool of Islamophobia that has already been built up.

If they can make the ban hold, if Theresa May can bring Trump to Britain with the ban in place, then the door will be open to all the other attacks where the Trump regime wants to go, but is nervous to implement now.

There is a draft anti-gay Executive Order, but Trump pulled back from signing it yesterday. Do you think he will hold back forever? If he gets away with the Muslim ban today, he will feel confident to legitimise anti-LGBT bigotry tomorrow.

Women’s rights: the Trump gang want to ban all abortion and he would like to make his misogyny the new normal. If five year old Muslim children can be handcuffed at an American airport today, women can be handcuffed, abused and forced to carry a pregnancy they do not want tomorrow.

He has announced that he will indeed build a wall with Mexico. Work hasn’t started yet. Stopping that work tomorrow, means ending the Muslim ban today.

Trump’s plan faces two big problems. The reality of the ban has led political figures and many ordinary people who may have gone along with or even supported previous Islamophobic measures and military actions in Muslim countries to speak out and oppose this one because they think it goes too far.

The echoes of the 1930s – burning places of worship, terror attacks on a congregation at prayer and people denied the right to travel on the basis of their religion – are just too close.

More importantly, masses of people have taken action to stop it.

If not now, when?

We all need to do what we can to build on that and take it wider still. That means uniting everyone who does not like Trump and what he represents, and explaining to everyone we know why we must take a stand now against this racist ban, which is a critical part of the Trump gang’s bid for power.

The protests are working. Trump had to cancel a visit to a factory tomorrow for fear of protests. He had to retreat on a part of his Muslim ban on Saturday and exempt US Green Card holders, whom his chief of staff, the White Supremacist Steve Bannon, had initially included.

The protests are forcing divisions in Washington. In Britain they can force Theresa May to come out against Trump, the ban and the state visit.

A hundred and one reasons to oppose Trump – one of them we must all raise in common now if we want to stop him in his tracks: the racist ban on Muslims.

Many people are recalling the words of pastor Niemoller in Nazi Germany: “First they came for…”

Well, first the Trump gang has come for the Muslims.

Will we all stand together now to fight that and prevent what may come next?

Please encourage everyone to join the protests, to sign the petitions and to raise their voices with all their imagination and creativity.

In London – to the American embassy on Saturday.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

No to Trump – some next steps for a new movement


London’s Whitehall blocked by over 30,000 people on Monday evening

The US

Trump sacks the acting Attorney General, saying she has betrayed the government for declaring his racist travel ban illegal.

His press secretary says complaints that the White House’s message on Holocaust Memorial Day did not even mention Jews are “pathetic”.

Senior Republicans in Congress complain that they were “kept in the dark” about the Order.

Senior Democrats rush to airports to be filmed supporting protests which originated and are driven way beyond the Hillary Clinton campaign last year. It acknowledged in October that it faced an “enthusiasm gap”. Well – there’s no lack of enthusiasm across these rising protests now.

Opponents of Trump in the US political system and state have overseen their own terrible policies, including under Obama. But in opposing Trump now they have to – either intentionally or by the logic of events – go outside of the golden circle in Washington and encourage collective resistance which is anything but a part of the partisan game in the beltway.

So Obama breaks all norms, says he opposes Trump’s racist ban and supports the protests at US airports.


Unprecedented protests of tens of thousands take place on a Monday night against Trump and him visiting the country.

The leader of the opposition says Labour will vigorously oppose and will support the demonstrations.

A petition against Trump and his visit is now approaching one and three quarters of a million people.

The parliament calls on the US government to drop the racist ban.

The foreign secretary complains that people are “demonising Trump”.

The prime minister refuses to join the parliament in opposing the ban, but merely says that Britain does things differently.

She says Trump will come to Britain, as she stands alongside the Irish prime minister who himself is facing a revolt over his intention to visit Trump in Washington.

It is revealed that May was privately briefed about the incoming ban when she met Trump. But she did not say so and pretended she knew nothing.

She lied – either because she agreed with the ban and did not want to say so, or because she was too weak to say no to Trump.

Her big push to appear strong on the world stage is turning into an incompetent shambles.

Weak, lying and incompetent – that’s the picture that is emerging of the British prime minister. People might put up with one or other of those characteristics, but they won’t put up with all three for very long if they come to see that that’s what Theresa May is.

Any cautious thought that the initial wave of protest – the women’s marches 10 days ago – would be the peak has now gone with the wind. This is not a spasm of opposition to be followed by bitter and grudging acquiescence.

The first wave of protests has brought out people who have never demonstrated before. They have seen in a few days that they can have an effect. They protest – it is mentioned in parliament, MPs come to visit their protest, the leader of the opposition supports them and calls for more, the demonstrations are in every news outlet, the government faces growing demands to back down.

Millions more have seen that. And more too can feel that they can stand up and be counted at this moment and change things.

Large numbers of people in Britain will only just today be discovering that there is a petition of unprecedented size.

They will know something is going on, but they won’t yet know the things that those who have already protested know.

If they get to know those things from those who do know, then many will join in.

Simple things and basic points:

Do you like the idea of a sexual predator who calls women “pigs” being treated as “our closest friend”? Come join the protests – he’s not welcome and his racist ban must go.

Obama says he is against Trump’s racist ban and says it’s right to protest against it. Why won’t Theresa May say that? We should make her listen.

Trump’s government says it’s “pathetic” to to talk about Jewish victims on Holocaust Memorial Day. We have to take a stand today – never again!

Gay people are frightened that he is coming for them next – first the Muslims and the refugees, then the gays… We’ve all got to add our names, get out on the streets and stand together. We won’t let this happen.

He’s a billionaire who made his money by cheating his workforce and small contractors. He’s a fraud. That’s why he gets on with half the Tory cabinet.

This is racism – of the worst kind. If you are banned from travelling because of what you look like or your religion. What comes next? We cannot allow that to come next.

Millions of people are up in arms against this in the US. Saying no to Trump is not being “anti-American”, it’s standing with most people in America.

The Tory government are not ignoring the protests. Look at the news – they are all over it. Far from ignoring them, the government is looking closely at them and is very worried. We can force them to end this shameful relationship with Trump.

Margaret Thatcher said that the poll tax would stay for ever. Six months later the poll tax went and so did she.

Theresa May is no “iron lady”. She’s weak and shifty.

So let’s join the movement, get people to sign the petition, go to the demonstration in London or elsewhere on Saturday. And let’s see what we can do in our area, school, college, workplace, church, mosque, synagogue, gay village, community group, trade union and neighbourhood… on- and offline.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Back Corbyn over Article 50 – demand MPs vote with him



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.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Europe’s far right under the microscope


(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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Free movement: control capital, unite all workers


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


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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment