At best, Hannah Sell’s article “Brexit and the left” (Socialism Today, the magazine of the Socialist Party, Issue 207, April 2017) is a series of platitudinous banalities. At worst, it is a wretched concession to nationalism.
In a rare direct polemic against other group on the left (the Socialist Party prefer to plough their own sectarian furrow, acknowledging the existence of other tendencies only occasionally), Sell makes a number of claims about Workers’ Liberty which range from the distorted to the straightforwardly untrue. She accuses us of “having consistently argued that the EU is progressive”. This is not our position.
The institutional infrastructure of the European Union, like all capitalist institutions, is a class instrument, constructed to enforce the rule of capital. But the continental integration it brings with it provides a higher platform for working-class solidarity and united struggle than the hard right’s alternative — a Europe of competing national-capitalist blocs, walled off behind high trade barriers and intensive immigration controls. That was the choice on offer in the 23 June referendum; that is why Workers’ Liberty was for “remain”.
She next accuses us of having “no concept of the limits to capitalism’s ability to overcome the barrier of the nation state”. In fact, we have repeatedly cautioned against the view that capitalism has bypassed the nation state entirely, echoing the arguments of Ellen Meiksins Wood and others. Rather, nation states themselves “globalise” by making themselves attractive sites for international investment, and plugging into interconnected world markets. This globalising logic creates objective, material basis for a greater degree of working-class unity than “national” working classes struggling solely against “their own” ruling class, behind barriers and borders.
Sell scoffs at the idea that capitalism might “carry through the task of the unification of Europe and that this would be ‘progressive’”, apparently impervious to the reality of the degree of European integration and unification capitalism has already achieved. To repeat: the existence of a single market, and the erosion of borders throughout substantial parts of Europe, provide an objectively higher, better, basis for working-class unity than the vision preferred by the right, and apparently by the Socialist Party, of rigidly delineated national-capitalist blocs. For that process to be reversed under pressure from economic nationalism and xenophobic “sovereignism” — currently the only meaningfully hegemonic forces behind the drive to break up the EU —would certainly not be “progressive”. The article finishes by repeating the Socialist Party’s wretched position on immigration – that is, an unquestioning acceptance of the idea, which does not survive contact with evidence, that migrant labour straightforwardly depresses pay and conditions for domestic labour, and that the solution to this is to apply controls at the border.
Migrant workers are as much part of our class as British workers. Our politics must be as much for them as for British workers. We must defend their rights – their rights to migrate freely and safely, free from the violence of border controls, and their right to legally seek work – as vociferously as we defend the wages, terms, and conditions of domestic labour. To adopt any other position necessarily implied that the rights of British workers come first, simply by dint of the fact that they are British. There is no other word for this but “nationalism”.
Sell’s article says that “the only way to push back is for a united struggle of all workers”. Quite so. But in the context of what is essentially a polemic against a policy of free movement, and for restrictions on immigration, it is plain that, for the Socialist Party, “united struggle” is not the “only way to push back”; they also favour legislative mechanisms to restrict immigration. Sell cites the 2009 Lindsey oil refinery strike, where workers protested at bosses’ use of Italian migrant labour on terms that undermined collectively-negotiated agreements, as an example of the kind of struggle necessary.
That strike began as a strike demanding “British jobs for British workers”. Undoubtedly the Socialist Party comrade involved did play an important role in shifting the dispute away from such racist slogans and onto politically healthier terrain. But those who, while supporting the Lindsey workers’ fight for national agreements to be respected, sounded a note of caution about the risk of viewing migrant workers as the enemy, were right to do so.
Sell quotes Giorgio Cremaschi, leader of the Italian union Fiom, supporting the strike, but none of the Italian migrant workers themselves. Migrant workers’ agency is missing from the Socialist Party’s picture; the implication is that “united struggle” in fact means struggles by British workers against the way migrant labour is “used”. The fact remains that the Lindsey scenario is rare. There, a unionised domestic workforce, with collectively-negotiated national agreements, saw their employer physically bus in migrant workers and employ them on terms outside the existing agreements. This is not the basis on which any significant proportion of migrant labour comes to Britain - or, to use the Socialist Party’s schema in which migrants are passive instruments of neo-liberalism with no agency of their own, “is brought”.
Ending free movement, which is the Socialist Party’s policy, would not do anything to meaningfully protect trade union agreements. It would, however, significantly disadvantage working-class people from EU countries attempting to move to make a better life for themselves and their families. The Socialist Party give their pro-immigration controls position a labour-movement gloss by claiming that the “control” they favour is a kind of (presumably state-enforced) closed shop, whereby employers wishing to “recruit abroad” must be “covered by a proper trade union agreement or by sectoral collective bargaining”.
But the vast majority of migrant labour does not consist of workers directly “recruited abroad”, but of workers who come to Britain, sometimes as a result of acute poverty and lack of opportunity in their countries of origin, looking for work. Does the Socialist Party propose to have border police checking union cards at Dover? Should we expect to see Socialist Party delegates at Britain’s airports and docks, telling migrant workers – the very people who, in previous generations, helped lay the foundations for our modern labour movement – that employers will use them to undercut British workers, and that the class conscious thing to do would be to get back on the plane or boat and go home?
All workers – local and migrant – should be “covered by a proper trade union agreement or by sectoral collective bargaining”, but this will be imposed on employers through class struggle. To propose it as policy we want the existing state, with its Tory administration, to adopt as a fix for a perceived immigration “problem” is a political contortion undertaken by a tendency visibly uncomfortable with the implications of its own perspective.
The Socialist Party should take some responsibility for the logic of its position. Be honest! Just say it, comrades: you think immigration depresses pay and conditions for domestic workers, and to solve this problem, you think there should be less immigration. That is the substance of your view. No amount of gloss, nor any amount of reassurances that you do not consider migrant workers to be at “fault”, as Sell puts it in the article, change that fundamental fact.
Workers’ Liberty takes a different view. Our view is that no human being should be “illegal”. Our view is that the right to move freely, including to move between states, is a fundamental human right, and that restrictions on that right cannot be imposed except by state violence. Have employers sometimes attempted to “use” migrant labour to lower their costs? Of course — just as some employers historically exploited the entry of women into the workforce to drive down wages by paying them less than men. In proposing restrictions on immigration, however packaged and presented, the Socialist Party echo the Lassallean socialists of the 19th century who opposed women’s entry into the workforce on the basis that they would be “used” to undercut existing, male, workers’ wages.
The free movement that exists between EU member states should be extended, not restricted. Bosses’ use of migrant labour to undercut local labour should be met with common struggle and demands for levelling up, not calls to end free movement. By arguing that the rights of British workers can be protected by restricting the rights of migrant workers, the Socialist Party give ground to nationalism.