Corbyn’s Migrant Failure

Jeremy Corbyn’s speech to the Scottish Labour Party conference last week has drawn a lot of criticism from the SNP and others, for appearing to attack and blame migrants for the UK’s economic woes.  Corbyn’s defenders have naturally rejected these charges.  Paul Mason has dismissed the criticisms of Corbyn to the ‘pro-SNP media’,  whatever that is, while other Corbynistas have attributed them to the media in general, the Blairite right etc, etc

This furore was due to a single sentence – a phrase in fact – in Corbyn’s discussion of the May government’s Brexit policy.  Corbyn’s criticism, as usual, revolved around the incoherence and incompetence of May’s negotiatiating strategy, rather than its substance.  After trashing her record – not hard –  he reiterated Labour’s own ‘jobs first’ Brexit as the only credible alternative..  He talked about possibly staying in ‘a’ customs union, hinted at possibly staying in the single market, or at least seeking an agreement that would secure its benefits and advantages.  Corbyn then laid out various caveats that might prevent such an outcome, including the following:

We cannot be held back inside or outside the EU from taking the steps we need to develop and invest in cutting edge industries and local business stop the tide of privatisation and outsourcing, or from preventing employers being able to import cheap agency labour to undercut existing pay and conditions in the name of free market orthodoxy.

To his critics, this was blatant populist dog whistling, which echoes the UKIP and Tory framing of ‘mass immigration’ as a cause of low wages and poor working conditions.  To his defenders, Corbyn was criticizing employers rather than migrants themselves.   These criticisms are too strong, which doesn’t mean that the defence holds up either.

Corbyn’s ‘undercutting’ argument was on one hand an expression of his Lexit-tinged ‘euroscepticism’, with its implicit suggestion that the EU’s commitment to free movement is merely an expression of its commitment to ‘free market othodoxy’.  The use of ‘import’ is not a great word to describe the process by which people move from one country to another.  It’s a dehumanising term which reduces any sense of choice or agency on the part of migrants themselves and makes them sound a lot like sheep or cattle.  It also ignores persistent evidence that  migration does not undercut local pay and conditions – at least not on the scale that Corbyn and so many others have implied.

This does not mean that such ‘undercutting’ doesn’t happen at all.  But by mentioning it only in the context of a discussion about Brexit, and leaving it there, Corbyn leaves out a great deal, just as so many others have done before him from a very different perspective.

Firstly it suggests that the EU is complicit in this ‘undercutting’ – a variant on a UKIP theme.    Corbyn has also made this argument before and used the same kind of language, for example last year, when he talked of the ‘wholesale importation of workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry.’  This was reckless and inflammatory language then, and it still is.   Then, as now, Corbyn’s comments were partly a veiled criticism of the EU’s ‘Posted Workers Directive’ – a directive that brought 54,000 workers to the UK in 2015 – out of a total workforce of 31.million.

The extent to which the PWD has resulted in the ‘undercutting’ that Corbyn describes is debatable, to say the least.  Only 17 percent of these workers came from low-waged countries, and the majority of PWD workers came from Ireland.  The UK government’s own instructions to posted workers state clearly that ‘ If the country you’re posted to has a higher minimum wage, your employer must give you that rate or higher.’

So if this isn’t happening, then that is clearly a problem of national and local enforcement, rather than another EU ‘bosses club’ trick.  In addition the European Union itself is seeking to reform the PWD to reduce the possibility of ‘undercutting’, as Corbyn admits in the same speech, when he acknowledges that:‘The European Union is set to make changes of its own in the coming period especially in relation to the rules governing Eurozone economies and the rights of temporary migrant workers.’

So does the EU’s commitment to ‘free market orthodoxy’ have its limitations then?  Corbyn won’t admit anything of the kind.  Instead he merely concludes that ‘It would therefore be wrong to sign up to a single market deal without agreement that our final relationship with the EU would be fully compatible with our radical plans to change Britain’s economy.’

Let’s leave aside the fact that Corbyn’s own proposals are no less nebulous and impossible to realize as May’s, and look at what else his ‘undercutting’ references to migrants ignore.  Corbyn delivered his speech at a time when 3.4 million EU citizens in this country and 1.2 million Brits abroad remain ‘in limbo’ after more than eighteen months.

All of them are being forced to accept a new ‘settled status’ that will put many of them under huge emotional pressure, that amounts to a dimunition of the rights that they enjoyed  when they came to the UK, and which will leave them at the mercy of the most brutal arm of the UK government: the Home Office.   All EU nationals in the UK, are in the widest sense of the term ‘migrants’.  Yet none of them have complained that they were ‘imported’ to the UK.

Corbyn, like so many members of the Labour left, ignores the free choices that they made.  He ignores the fact that free movement is a far better way  of preventing the exploitation and undercutting that he describes – when coupled with stricter local and national wage enforcement – than the kind of ‘control’ and restrictions that are likely to emerge post-Brext.

Corbyn could have made the argument that freedom of movement is one of the great progressive achievements of the European Union, compared with the closed borders of the 20th century and the gastarbeiter-type labour programmes that once left migrant workers far more unprotected than they are now. He could have discuss how trade unions might organise amongst migrants and non-migrant workers, and explained what a Labour government might do to enforce the minimum wage and prevent the kind of ‘undercutting’ that he describes.

He could have drawn attention to some of the recent successes achieved by smaller trade unions like United Voices of the World and the IWGB, which do organize amongst precarious migrant workers in various sectors.  He could have pointed out that immigration has been broadly positive for the UK, that migrants create jobs and pay taxes. He could have pointed out that demographics, skill shortages, and an aging population mean that the UK will remain a country of migration for decades to come regardless of whether or not we stay in the European Union.

If politicians are not prepared to make these arguments, then they are conceding ground to the right no matter how progressive they wish to be.  It’s no good saying that ‘ Migrants should not be scapegoated’ on one hand, and talking about ‘importing’ migrants and ‘undercutting’ on the other.  If you do that you’re merely suggesting that immigration is bad but migrants shouldn’t be blamed for its essential badness.

But when it comes to migration, Corbyn’s Labour Party is just as cowardly as its predecessors have been, just as calculating in its willingness to harvest the anti-immigrant vote in marginal constituencies, just as as unwilling to challenge evidence-free assumptions.

And that may not mean that Corbyn has gone UKIP, let alone that he is blowing a dog whistle, but if he wishes to chart out a genuine progressive alternative then he will need to do a lot better than this.

Edward Abbey: Desert Warrior

Over the last two years I’ve found myself reading a lot of what is often loosely called ‘nature writing’.  This is partly because of my forthcoming book  on the Pyrenees and my research into the so-called ‘discovery’ of the Pyrenees that took place during the nineteenth century.  This was a period when the Pyrenees were transformed in the imagination of the outside world from an austere border region into a landscape of pleasure and fascination, where tourists went in search of the ‘sublime’ and ‘picturesque.’

Tracing this transformation through the writings of nineteenth century travellers, artists and scientists has been a hugely enjoyable and poignant experience, whose pleasures were enhanced by own visits to some of the lanscapes they wrote about.  But their descriptions of mountain landscapes have also seemed especially moving in an era haunted by mass extinctions and very real possibilities of ecological collapse.

Nowadays hardly a week goes by without some grim new announcement of another disappearing species, from hedgehogs and skylarks or the incredible 76 percent decline in flying insects that has taken place in Germany in the last 27 years.  The writers who ‘discovered’ the Pyrenees from the late eighteenth century onwards inhabited a world in which such things were largely unimaginable.  They left the cities of an emerging industrial civilisation behind them in search of the emotions that ‘untouched’ grandiose natural spectacles were believed to offer, and they made these landscapes known through their writings – writings which in turn enticed more people to follow in their footsteps.

Of course these places were never as undiscovered as these city-dwelling writers believed.   But the expectations they brought with them gave their writings a real intensity and depth of feeling.   You find a similar sense of discovery in Charles Darwin’s descriptions of Brazilian rain forests or the Galapagos, in W.H. Hudson’s memoirs of his Argentine childhood or his descriptions of his travels in Patagonia.  And it wasn’t necessary for urban readers to go so far afield.   “Why, we must have been blind all our lives; here were the most wonderful things possible going on under our very noses, but we saw them not”, wrote Water Besant on reading Richard Jefferies’s descriptions of the English countryside.

‘ Nature writers’ often address this ‘blindness’.  The best of them, like Thoreau or Barry Lopez, have an ability to evoke and describe the peculiarities of individual landscape, and also to make their readers feel what it’s like to be in the places they describe.  I’m currently reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire – a quirky and brilliant evocation of the desert landscape around the town of Moab, at what later became Arches National Park in southeast Utah, where Abbey worked for a period as a park ranger in the mid-50s.

Abbey was an unusual and quirky character.  Photographs of him show a gaunt and forbiddingly intense Old Testament figure with a long beard – the kind of guy you might expect to find in a Clint Eastwood movie living in a cabin in the middle of nowhere with a Winchester rife ready to receive any unwanted or unannounced visitors.  He looks not entirely unlike the Unabomber, and Abbey has more than a hint of the rightwing anarchist technophobe about him.

He is a beautiful, angry and often acerbic writer however and Desert Solitaire (1968) is a magnificent piece of work.  On one hand it’s a poetic evocation of the extreme desert landscape of southern Utah, mixing physical descriptions of the desert and its flora and fauna with tales of Indians, cowboys, uranium prospectors, in memorable passages such as this:

Time and the winds will sooner or later bury the Seven Cities of Cibola, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, all of them, under dunes of glowing sand, over which blue-eyed Navajo bedouin will herd their sheep and horses, following the river in winter, the mountains in summer, and sometimes striking off across the desert toward the red canyons of Utah where great waterfalls plunge over silt-filled, ancient, mysterious dams.

Abbey’s book is also a staunch defender of America’s wild spaces.  He was an outspoken and sarcastic critic of what he calls ‘industrial tourism’ – a phenomenon that he saw expressed in the national park system through the construction of roads, hotels, to cater for a new generation of motorized tourists.  Abbey rejected the notion that ‘any and all forms of construction and development are intrinsic goods’ and warned that such a philosophy would result in ‘ the eradication of the last remnants of wilderness and the complete subjugation of nature to the requirements of – not man – but industry.’

For Abbey, such parks transformed landscape into mere commodities and denied visitors the visceral physical connection with the natural world that he regarded as the essence of the wilderness experience.  He called for roads and cars to be banned from national parks altogether, since:

A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.  Better to idle through one park in two weeks than try to race through a dozen in the same amount of time.  Those who are familiar with both modes of travel know from experience that this is true; the rest have only to make the experiment to discover the same truth for themselves.

Writing about nature can sometimes be a substitute for experience, particularly when such writings deal with far-off landscapes that readers are unlikely to visit.  Abbey’s book was not intended to do this.   It’s certainly possible to ‘experience’ the Utah desert through his compelling prose, but ultimately his book is an invitation and an urgent call to action to his fellow citizens to re-immerse themselves in the wild spaces that even then he recognized were under threat.  At the end of the book he writes:

The tourists have gone home…the great majority of, answering a mystical summons, have returned to the smoky jungles and swamps of what we call, in wistful hope, American civilization.   I can see them now in all their millions jamming the freeways, glutting the streets, horns bellowing like wounded steers, hunting for a place to park.  They have left me alone here in the wilderness, at the center of things, where all that is most significant takes place.

Abbey’s remarkable book is a reminder of why even one of the harshest and most inhospitable landscapes in the United States was significant, not only to itself, but to American society.  Today, in the early 21st century where industrial civilization has placed the survival of the planet – and our species in doubt- it reads like one of many warnings that were ignored.

We don’t know yet whether it is too late to do anything about this.  But Abbey’s urgent insistence on the ‘significance’ of wilderness remains no less relevant than it was when it was first written, and it can still serve to remind us of what we are in danger of losing forever.  

 

Fantasy Island

I haven’t written anything on this site for a while now.  It’s actually rather difficult to know what to write when confronted with the astonishing spectacle of national self-destruction that is unfolding in front of our eyes.  Nowadays hardly a day passes without another  reminder that the UK has entered a new political dimension in which delusions of grandeur, magical thinking and ideological fantasy have replaced anything that we once thought had any connection to the real world.

These tendencies reach across the political spectrum.  You can find them in George Galloway, doing the full UKIP/Churchill thing on Arron Banks’s Westmonster website (sorry not linking to this) and reminding Europeans that WE saved them during WWII and that ‘If not for us not a single European politician would hold office anywhere unless as a Quisling collaborator of the German Reich.’  For the Churchillian war-child Galloway this means that ‘ when I hear a “Schnell” or an “Achtung” from the Junkers (sic) of this world I don’t consider it music in my ears.’

Let no one spoil this demagogic rant by telling Galloway that Jean-Claude Juncker comes from Luxembourg not Germany. He already knows that.  But for Galloway, anyone who has anything to do with the EU is close enough to Nazis to make no difference, and anyone who says otherwise, like Churchill’s opponents, belongs to what he calls ‘the gang of appeasers and fifth columnists within the British elite.’

Such idiocy, as we have seen for some time now, is not confined to the fringes.  Take Boris Johnson’s latest fatuous suggestion comparing the border between  Northern Ireland and Ireland to a congestion zone between Westminster and Camden.  Never one to resist blowing his own trumpet, Johnson reminded Radio 4 listeners that ‘ when I was mayor of London we anesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people traveling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks.’

Many people have pointed out that it may not be so easy to ‘anesthetically and invisibly’ bypass Irish history or a conflict that cost 3,000 lives.  It’s a bleak testament to the current state of things that such arguments even need to be made, or that a self-aggrandising buffoon like Johnson has any influence on anything at all.  But his continued presence in the corridors of power is a symptom of a detachment from reality that only seems to grow wider as the Brexit process slouches incoherently  towards political Neverland.

For eighteen months now the May government has been asking for things it cannot have, promising things it cannot deliver, bluffing, posturing, and pursuing things that cannot be achieved, even as its own impact assessments predict that the country will be worse off in every single Brexit scenario.   Yet when civil servants point out the potential damage that the country is likely to inflict on itself, they are dismissed as traitors, quislings, closet Eurocrats or members of the ‘pro-European elite’.

Humankind cannot bear very much reality, wrote TS Eliot, and Brexiters cannot bear any reality at all that conflicts with their fantasy of a global buccaneering Britain, freed of EU red tape and the unwanted immigrants that the country depends on, able to proudly smoke in pubs once again and singing Rule Britannia as we surge toward a brave new world that we now know will not be a ‘Mad Max-style’ dystopia.

In fact a country that allows its politics to be driven by ideological fantasies and straw man constructs is likely to find itself inhabiting a reality that is more dystopian than its opposite, and the right aren’t the only dreamers in Brexittown.  On Monday, Jeremy Corbyn once again demonstrated that the left is no less prone to magical thinking than the Rees-Mogg/Nadine Dorries crowd.

Corbyn’s speech was hailed by his fans as a ‘ bold Brexit vision’, because his fan base will never say anything different about anything he says.  But despite – or perhaps because of – its attempt to be everything to everyone, his speech was littered with little reminders of why His Majesty’s Opposition has presented very little opposition whatsoever to the Brexit process,  and has largely fallen over itself in its eager desire to bring the debacle even closer.

Thus there was a leftwing version of the ‘£350 million for the NHS’ pledge in Corbyn’s promise to ‘use funds returned from Brussels after Brexit to invest in our public services and the jobs of the future, not tax cuts for the richest.’  While insisting that there should be ‘no scapegoating of migrants’, Corbyn once again promised that ‘Our immigration system will change and freedom of movement will as a statement of fact end when we leave the European Union.’

So migrants won’t be scapegoated, but immigration will be.  And freedom of movement – one of the great progressive achievements of the European Union – will end in order ‘ To stop employers being able to import cheap agency labour to undercut existing pay and conditions’.

Never mind that there is very little evidence to suggest any such thing.   When Corbyn last mentioned this ‘importation’, it was in relation to the construction industry, which has a skills shortage and where wages are actually rising.   But Corbyn, like the Lexiters moving in his political orbit,  clearly believes that immigration is nothing more than a ‘bosses club’ ploy to exploit migrants more easily and in Brexit Britain what you believe is always more significant than what actually happens.

Despite making more emollient noises than the Maybot, Corbyn insists that he won’t accept a ‘ deal that left Britain as a passive recipient of rules decided elsewhere by others’ even though the EU has always made it quite clear that it will not accept cherry-picking deals that allow the UK to continue to enjoy a privileged position after leaving while escaping the obligations of membership.   Despite this, Corbyn is optimistic about the outcome because:

‘There will be some who will tell you that Brexit is a disaster for this country and some who will tell you that Brexit will create a land of milk and honey. The truth is more down to earth and it’s in our hands. Brexit is what we make of it together, the priorities and choices we make in the negotiations.’

Not really.  Because whatever priorities and choices we decide upon, the UK is negotiating within a very limited set of parameters and is almost certain to find itself worse-off than it was before, no matter what is ultimately decided.  The tragedy is that neither the government nor the opposition want to admit this. Mesmerised by their own narrow party or personal career interests, wide-eyed and prostrate before ‘the will of the people’, they offer fantasies and pipedreams and demand the impossible in an attempt to square circles that cannot be connected.

Sooner or later the consequences of this political cowardice and dereliction of duty will become impossible to ignore, and when that happens things may get far uglier than many of us once thought possible.  Because there are historic mistakes that cannot easily be undone, and Brexit is one of them.

For now, it seems, the millions of us who are unwilling passengers on this runaway train can merely sit while it heads towards the buffers, hostages to a political nightmare that we seem incapable of waking up from, shouting out warnings that those who are driving this process seem unable or unwilling to hear.  From the point of view of a writer – and a citizen – that is not a comfortable position to be in at all, and it is very difficult to say anything knowing that whatever you say will make no difference whatsoever.

 

 

1 Day Without Us: Let’s Have a Different Conversation About Migration

The One Day Without Us campaign came into existence in the autumn of 2016, out of a conversation on Facebook. We were migrants, EU citizens and UK nationals, all of whom were appalled by the shocking increase in anti-migrant hate crime on the streets, by the scapegoating of migrants in the media and on social media, by the cynical disregard for the EU citizens whose lives have been plunged into turmoil as a result of Brexit, and by the “hostile environment” polices enacted by the UK government which have deprived undocumented migrants of the basic supports necessary for survival in a civilised society.

Our campaign set out to counter these developments. In the face of the relentless denigration of migrants, we wanted to celebrate the positive contribution that migrants have made in our communities, schools, workplaces, and families. At a time when migrant voices tend to be marginalised or ignored in a one-sided national “debate” about immigration, we set out to create a platform that would enable migrants of many different backgrounds and perspectives to make themselves heard, and which would also express a more positive affirmation of the UK as an open and welcoming society.

On 20 Feb these aspirations brought tens of thousands of people across the country to take part in the UK”s first-ever national day of action in solidarity with migrants, with the support of universities, trade unions, cultural institutions and charities. Next month, on 17 February, 1 Day Without Us will hold another national day of action. For 24 hours we invite migrants and their supporters to mobilise their organisations and communities around the campaign message “proud to be a migrant/proud to stand with migrants.”

At present, the loudest voices in the UK’s immigration “debate” continue to be those who describe immigration as a problem and a threat. At its most extreme fringe are those who attack the Grenfell survivors as “illegal migrants” sponging off the state, who accuse British Muslims of being nothing more than terrorists and grooming gangs, who tell men and women who have been living here for years that they should “go home” or stop speaking their own language.

It is easy and convenient – to attribute the more outrageously xenophobic or racist expressions of anti-migrant hostility to a “few idiots”. But such rampant xenophobia and hatemongering is the most unacceptable manifestation of a broad consensus that extends across much of the political class and the media and a significant section of the public, which depicts migration as problematic, threatening and dangerous.

Such is the power of this consensus that even politicians who recognise the necessity and the inevitability of migration are reluctant to stand up for migrant rights, or challenge the often evidence-free assertions that blame and scapegoat migrants for social and economic problems that they did not cause. We do not take a position on Brexit, but these tendencies have clearly been exacerbated by the referendum result, as migrants and the descendants of migrants find themselves more under threat than at any time since the late 1970s.

Today we live in a country in which  a woman who reports rape to the police is arrested on immigration offences; where  a Jamaican woman who has been living in the UK for fifty years is threatened with deportation; where 3.4 million lives have been held “in limbo” for the last eighteen months; where migrant workers are simultaneously blamed for lowering wages and “undercutting” British workers or accused of being “health tourists” or “scroungers”.

We believe that such actions do not reflect the best traditions of this country – and also that they conceal a far more positive picture of migration that is the routine experience of communities up and down the country. On 17 February we are asking our supporters to show their solidarity with the men and women who have made the UK their home and also to celebrate the culturally and ethnically diverse society we have become.

 

In our new campaign video, one our young migrant interviewees says “migrants are just people, who come from another country.” It is astonishing how often that obvious message is forgotten. Today, the word “identity” has become a staple of our national conversation about immigration, usually in order to present migrants and migration as a threat to who “we” are, or as an anomalous aberration.

We believe that migrants are part of that first-person plural, that 21st century British society is the sum of all its parts and its many different communities and identities, and that our common interests would be best served by embracing that reality and finding ways to make migration work for all of us.

Because if we are to prevent the UK”s ongoing transformation into a hostile anti-migrant fortress, we need to acknowledge and defend the gains we have made and the society we have become. We need to remind our politicians that there are millions who reject the stigmatisation and victimisation of the men and women we have known as colleagues, neighbours, workmates, family members and friends. These are the people who are routinely categorised as “migrants” a term that has too often been a pejorative term in British political discourse.

Migration in the UK encapsulates many different expectations, historical experiences, day-to-day realities and legal jurisdictions. Nevertheless we do not believe that migrant should be ever an insult or an object of shame, and we reject the distinctions between “them” and “us” that it implies. We celebrate migration as an entirely normal activity, and we celebrate the kind of society the UK has become as a result of migration.

We don”t pretend that a single day of action can change entrenched attitudes in a single day. But if we are to shift the narrative about migration in a more positive direction, then we need to be bold, positive and proactive in affirming our vision of the UK as an open society that is comfortable with its diversity and confident in its ability to construct a future in which all its different components can find a place. So we invite all those who share that vision to join us on 17 Feb. Look for 1 Day Without Us events in your community, which you can find on our website at:  www.1daywithoutus.org. If there aren’t 1DWU groups in your area, then create one. Or organise an event that best reflects your community, your organisation and your priorities.

Do what best suits you and what you are best able to organise. Hold a rally. Protest or demonstrate. Link arms around a public building. Organize a communal meal. Photograph yourselves with your migrant colleagues and post them on social media. Wherever and whoever you are, join in our unifying action at 2 o”clock, and post pictures of whatever you do.

For 24 hours, let the country and world know that there are millions of people up and down the country who are proud to be migrants and proud to stand in solidarity with the people who have made this country their home, and who are now a part of us, just as we are part of them.