In his recent speech to the Fabian Society, Keir Starmer used the word “internationalism” a lot. But the substance of what he said — or didn’t say — made clear that he plans to stoke nationalism as an election gimmick, and bolster an international order that is responsible for appalling crimes around the world. A real internationalist alternative is needed.
For socialists, internationalism is the beginning of wisdom. If we believe that the important division in society is between exploiters and exploited, then it follows that British workers have more interests in common with Algerian or Vietnamese workers than they do with British bosses. To defeat our shared enemies — bosses and exploiters all over the world — we have to overcome the things that divide us along national lines.
Brexit is a fine example of this imperative. The Leave vote was inspired by decades of rhetoric demanding harsher treatment for foreigners, in the UK and abroad. But as the Tories’ recently-published post-Brexit plans to rip up workers’ protections make clear, Brexit will bring harsher treatment for all workers in Britain. The end of freedom of movement and the stripping-away of rights from foreign-born workers is a thin end of the wedge: it makes it easier for employers to undermine the rights of all workers.
Starmer made his speech on “internationalism” a few days after declaring (to Andrew Marr, and contrary to Labour’s conference policy) that if in government he would not attempt to rescue the freedom of movement rights scrapped by Brexit. Just before that Marr interview he had made his clownishly flag-mad “Covid address”, gloating patriotically about how Britain would get the vaccine before other countries.
In his latest remarks he said nothing about migrant rights, but described Labour as “proudly patriotic”. Starmer is signalling that, like the pro-Brexit “left” clustered around the Morning Star and Tribune (which pushed the “progressive patriotism” pitch of Starmer’s rival Rebecca Long-Bailey), he thinks that Labour can and should use anti-migrant sentiment as a tool to manipulate voters.
What was positively “internationalist” in Starmer’s speech was his championing of the institutions of the international capitalist order. The theme of the Trump era has been trashing these institutions: pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, doing down NATO, cursing the UN, raising trade tariffs in spite of G7 resolutions. Trump and his right wing co-thinkers in power in Eastern Europe, Turkey and elsewhere represent an alternative to the old US-led international capitalist order — a worse alternative. But trying to get back to pre-Trump (or pre-2008) “normality” by returning to the embrace of these international capitalist institutions is only a recipe for continued barbarism on a global scale.
NATO is a military cartel that contains and strengthens some of the world’s most appalling war criminals. Most recently, NATO has given tacit backing to Turkey’s campaigns of ethnic cleansing against Armenians and Kurds. The G7 and G8 conferences are designed to uphold an unjust world economic order. Starmer lauds Biden as an “internationalist”, a symbol of the kind of international co-operation he wants to see. But during Biden’s last spell in government, the US gave diplomatic and economic support to Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen.
In recent years, against both Blair-style “NATO internationalism” and Neanderthal-nationalist anti-migrant agitation, a louder and louder socialist internationalist voice has been heard from the Labour Party’s grass roots. In 2019, motions for the abolition of all migrant detention centres, and for defending and extending free movement rights won a majority at Labour’s conference. Majorities in both the Labour and the Momentum ranks called for the party to take an unambiguous stance against Brexit.
The control of Corbyn’s leadership by Morning Star-line figures like Andrew Murray and Seumas Milne allowed Keir Starmer to capture some of that genuine internationalist constituency. Many socialists (Starmer voters among them) have been demoralised by the party’s clear rightward lurch this year. Some have drifted out of activity in recent months.
We need to rally and re-organise the socialist, internationalist current of the Labour Party grassroots, and make it a compact force which can then ally with different constellations of other groups as issues emerge. The force that was so recently able to re-write conference policy needs to be stirred back into life. Momentum Internationalists, Young Labour Internationalists and our co-thinkers are on a renewed drive to do that, on the basis of a shared programme of internationalism, democracy, and class struggle.