Jeremy Corbyn has restated a view expressed to ITV in May that Brexit means leaving the single market and an end to freedom of movement across the UK.
In his own words, he told BBC journalist Andrew Marr that, “There would be Europeans workers working in Britain and British workers working in Europe as there are at the moment. What there wouldn’t be is the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry.”
He went on to say that jobs should be advertised locally and not recruited through agencies who would presumably recruit from abroad This is a disappointing but not unsurprising stance from Corbyn. The reality is that since the referendum Labour have shifted back and forth as to their position on the single market and freedom of movement with a series of contradictory statements that appear to have culminated in the worst possible position. This comes in the same week that YouGov polling showed 69% of people support freedom of movement if the rights of UK subjects to work and study abroad are accepted.
Pressure on the Labour Party by majority Brexit voting areas is a major concern for the party leadership. Many of these areas did vote to leave the EU on the basis of “controlling our borders” such a stance reflects a number of conflicting views, from outright racism against foreigners to both a real and perceived lack of investment and jobs, particularly in ex industrial towns across the midlands and north of England. A strong stand in favour of freedom of movement will of course alienate some of these people, that is inevitable. Nonetheless a betrayal of migrant workers and a failure to articulate the real cause of this decline, austerity and managed decline is not a fair substitute.
Once again ground is ceded to the Labour right to pose as those who will fight Brexit or at least in part. Their reasons are their own and any commitment to freedom of movement to them is as a payoff for access to the single market for British business. Defence of migrants and the right to work across EU borders cannot and will not be adequately fought for by Chuka Umuna. A Labour movement campaign for defend freedom of movement is urgently needed. Proposals to Labour Party conference that seek to guarantee this right will be another way that pressure can be put on the leadership.
Shamefully sections of the left still believe freedom of movement to be solely a neoliberal project to undermine working conditions. This is no more than a less explicit argument for British jobs for British workers, a slogan endorsed under the Gordon Brown Labour Government. Such a stand is nationalist poison, a hangover from Stalinism that still lingers across the Labour Party. Those who view fortress Britain as better than fortress Europe no matter how they term it, want to control who can and who cannot work in the UK. We should resist this push to the right, even when wrapped in anticapitalist language.
More disappointing is the change of emphasis by Corbyn towards allowing the myth that migrants undercut wages to become part of Labour’s arguments. As Corbyn well knows bosses and employers are responsible for low wages. Trade unions and the labour movement are responsible for trying to raise them. Unshackling the unions from the anti union laws, supporting a real right on wages — this would be an effective way to fight bad employers, not blaming the workers!
No such thing as left-wing patriotism
As a comrade remarked in response to last week’s launch of the “English Labour Network” (ELN), a pressure group calling for Labour to embrace English patriotism: who on the left could look at current events, from Brexit to the rise of Le Pen, Farage, Modi and Trump, and think “identitarian nationalism needs more promoting”?
The ELN’s founders include figures from Blue Labour, which promotes a supposedly “blue-collar” social conservatism under the ominously fascistic slogan “Family, Faith and Flag”. Alongside them is Sam Tarry, a TSSA union officer who has played a leading role in Momentum.
Announcing the launch, right-wing former MP John Denham argued that to win more votes in crucial English constituencies, Labour must reflect the “fears and concerns” of older, working class, Brexit supporters who are “strongly patriotic” and have found “rapid migration” “disconcerting”. Denham claims he doesn’t mean conceding to xenophobia. But in the weasel words of the Labour right, “understanding” anti-migrant sentiment has always and only meant endorsing it.
This is the same old Blue Labour routine of blaming migrants for UK-born workers’ troubles, to promote raised borders and harsher treatment of migrants. If they have one legitimate point, it’s the need for Labour to address the imbalanced patchwork of devolution, in which approval from a UK-wide Parliament is needed for matters in England that are decided by devolved bodies in the other nations. Some federal set-up could be better, but that has nothing to do with flag-waving jingoism.
Sam Tarry’s support is, in its way, more dangerous for the left. Tarry rationalises a socialist English patriotism using the freedom-fighting histories of the Peasants’ Revolt, Tolpuddle Martyrs, Chartists and suffragettes. He is the latest in a long line of leftists attempting to argue that because left-wing movements happened in their nation’s history, patriotism can be left-wing. His proposal requires an assumption that there was something specifically English in what socialists celebrate about any of those movements — which is nonsense. There’s nothing peculiarly English about fighting for social justice, democracy and workers’ rights, and the rulers they battled were no less English/British than them. What does characterise them, and what they share with their equivalents in countries around the world, is not nationality. It’s the universal struggle by the oppressed and exploited to fight back against their subjugators.
In fact, some of Tarry’s examples are historically wrong. The Chartists and suffragettes weren’t specific to England but organised across Britain. Socialist, internationalist suffragette heroes like Sylvia Pankhurst and Minnie Lansbury would be spinning in their graves to hear their legacy used in this way. Indeed, at that time, Jewish migrants like Lansbury faced anti-migrant agitation in the workers’ movement on the same lines as that of Tarry’s new bedfellows. Like any society’s history, England’s and Britain’s include both heroic progressive movements and horrific reactionary crimes (and the casualties of British imperialism’s historic brutality and ongoing legacy might suggest countering apologism and selective amnesia about the Empire should be of greater concern).
Picking and choosing which bits “count” in a nation’s heritage is dishonest and dangerous. Last week, the French social democrat Jean-Luc Mélenchon – whose populist nationalism is a model for many UK leftists looking to jump on the bandwagon – claimed France bore no responsibility for the enthusiastic collaboration with the Nazis in the Holocaust by the Vichy government and much of French society.
The inescapable tendencies of any politics revolving around national identity, however liberally framed, are to pull a nation’s working-class closer to at least some segment of its ruling classes, and to artificially distance workers from their counterparts from other nations. It pits us against each other, whether in economic rivalry or outright war, for our exploiters’ benefit. This directly contradicts what socialists understand are the real interests of the working classes and oppressed groups. And Tarry’s declaration that “a socialist vision is a patriotic one, because nothing is more patriotic than building a society for the many; not the few” contradicts socialist goals.
Neither the society we live in, nor the one we fight to build, stop neatly at the lines on maps carved out by our rulers’ historic rivalries. Socialism does not patriotically serve our nation-states: on the contrary, we aspire to transcend and, ultimately, dissolve them. Politics revolving around nationalist identity are not terrain where the left can win anything more than limited, short-lived gains. The left’s recent experiences in Scotland testify to that.
Scottish Labour leaders chose to cling to the coat-tails of unionist British nationalism. Much of the hard left backed Scottish nationalism. Neither was able to capitalise. As anti-capitalist activist and theorist Mark Fisher wrote, "it is imperative to reject identitarianism, and to recognise that there are no identities, only desires, interests and identifications." Different identifications, and how important they are to people, shift as both material events and political discourse impinge on people, and as they weigh different ideas about the world.
As politics focussed and polarised increasingly around competing national sentiments, alignment to British unionism or Scottish separatism became increasingly central in people’s understanding of themselves and society. Centrist Scottish nationalists and unionist Tories were the beneficiaries of this feedback loop. Class politics took a back seat and Labour suffered a disastrous squeeze — it is only just beginning to recover.
Nationalist identity is politically important to many working-class people, it’s true. But those ideas should never be treated as set in stone, to be accepted and appealed to with a clever political marketing strategy. This identitarian approach exacerbates things, and patronises them — as if they aren’t capable of political discussion and thought.
It’s Labour’s job to win hearts and minds and convince people of a different politics: one that puts class, not nation, front and centre. We do this by bolstering anti-oppression and class struggles that bring workers together and emphasise our shared interests and shared enemies, and by engaging with people to clearly and unhesitatingly argue for internationalism.