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.

Waiting for the Barbarian

Anyone familiar with horror films will recognize the following scenario: a group of people are being terrorised by a monster/serial killer/alien.   They find a hiding place and fortify it. All their attention is focused on keeping the intruder out. Not until it is too late do they discover that the monster is already inside the building.

There is something of this trope in the response of the UK public to the political horror film starring the orange-haired beast known as Donald J. Trump.

Last week a poll revealed that 1 in 10 people would be willing to protest against a putative “working visit” from Donald Trump next year on a date that has yet to be determined. It is still not certain that this visit is even going to take place. Yet already the community networks that helped organise last February”s Stop Trump/Stand Up to Trump protests are bracing themselves for the occasion and putting dates into their diaries.

On one level this response is admirable. It”s a healthy sign that so many people are willing to disregard the grovelling decision by May and her hapless cronies to invite Trump anywhere near these shores. But we should not allow the beast in the White House to distract us from our own political monsters already in our midst. Because like Godot, Trump may not come. And as far as migrants in the UK are concerned, Trump is by no means the most pressing threat that this country faces right now.

My piece for Ceasefire Magazine.   You can read the rest here:

You can also check out the new 1 Day Without Us campaign video, which we have just launched this week.

 

 

Twilight in Brexitland

Yesterday evening I shared a horrific post on Facebook about a tetraplegic woman whose disability benefits have just been cancelled, and has just been summoned to a job interview by her local job centre.  As shocking as it was, this dreadful decision was a fairly typical example of the cruelty and incompetence that has been repeated again and again under the brutal sanctions regime introduced by successive Coalition and Tory governments.  Most of the commenters were as outraged as I was, but there were also messages like this:

No shame when it comes to the white British benefits office. Maybe if she was immigrant that’s might of made a differance (sic).

It’s deeply depressing to know that someone took advantage of such an awful tragedy to express such thoughts.    Once upon a time I might have written off such comments as a occasional freak intervention from some semi-literate racist nurturing their Nazi memorabilia in some dank basement somewhere.   But such interventions are not occasional and they are not from the fringes.

They are all over the place.  You can find them, in below-the-line comments sections on any online forum that has anything to do with immigration – or not.  When a Frenchwoman living in Kent announced last week that she was leaving the UK because of racism and xenophobia, her comments section was sprinkled with racist and xenophobic comments and jeering invitations to go back home if she didn’t like it.

There is a lot more where that came from, and a lot worse too.  Twitter is seething with hatred of this kind, whether directed at foreigners. immigrants, Muslims or people of colour.   Diane Abbott gets hundreds if not thousands of such messages everyday. Gina Miller has been threatened with gang rape, lynching and acid attacks simply because she tried to ensure that Parliament had a say in the Brexit negotiations.

What’s happening on social media is also happening on the streets.  In July this year the Independent reported that incidents of race and faith-based attacks rose by  23 percent in the eleven months since the referendum –  from 40,741 to 49,921.    These incidents included acts of physical violence, acid attacks and verbal insults.  There are undoubtedly many more, since many victims of verbal attacks don’t go to the police.

What is striking about so many of the incidents that are recorded is that – like the comments and tweets on social media – many of their perpetrators clearly feel emboldened, empowered and legitimized by the referendum result.   They  feel their time has come, and some of them are clearly dreaming of some kind of ethno-nationalist reckoning in which all the people they don’t like ‘go home’ – even if this country is their home.

Once upon a time some of these people might have felt ashamed to say what they’re thinking; now they don’t.  And why should they?  When Gina Miller said she might have to leave the country, Arron Banks’s Leave.EU – a mainstream lobbying group – merely laughed and tweeted that it hoped other ‘liberals’ would go with her.  Why would people feel any reservation about expressing hostility to immigrants when politicians boast of their ability to turn the UK into a hostile environment?  When ‘commentators’ can tweet about ‘final solutions’ and call refugees ‘cockroaches’ and still get a slot on the Jeremy Vine Show?  Isn’t it all just free speech?

Every week and sometimes everyday, the Home Office – an institution which currently embodies everything that is most malignant about the British state and society – displays how hostile it is by deporting or threatening to deport another immigrant or group of immigrants.

Meanwhile politicians um and ah, or shake their heads about the public’s ‘concerns’.   Some, like the iniquitous and loathsome fraud Boris Johnson, mutter darkly about ‘dual allegiances’.  When they’re caught out deporting tens of thousands of students using false language tests, they don’t bat an eyelid.   When it’s found that their own estimates of students who ‘overstayed’ their visas are wildly over the mark, they just change the conversation and boast of their ability to keep more people out.

Left-of-centre politicians aren’t always much better.   Some talk of the need to exclude immigrants in order to win votes in their constituencies or prevent exploitation or the undercutting of British workers by migrant workers.  Others, like the dreadful Frank Field, celebrate the draconian proposals in the Home Office’s outline document for a post-Brexit immigration policy.

Few pause to wonder where all this is leading us.  It’s a truism to observe that you only stand a chance of curing yourself of an illness if your illness is actually diagnosed and recognised, and right now we are becoming  a sick society – sick with xenophobia, anti-migrant paranoia and unacknowledged racism hidden behind discussions about ‘culture’ and ‘numbers’ and ‘social cohesion.’  We slowly but inexorably poisoning our society with our own fears, prejudices and hatreds.   We are becoming mean, vindictive, callous, bitter and aggressive, constantly whining about what immigrants have supposedly done to us without thinking through what we are doing to them – or to ourselves.

Not only are our politicians ignoring and even pandering to these sentiments, but the government is actually instrumentalising the Home Office to act on them and turn them into policy.   We didn’t get to this situation overnight, and the referendum is by no means uniquely responsible for it.    But there is no doubt that in the last eighteen months, the UK has become a deeply unpleasant and threatening place for many foreigners and immigrants – and for many who simply look or sound foreign – and it may get a lot worse unless we can stop it.

So we need to recognize how serious this is, and we need to act.  The tendencies that have been unleashed these last eighteen months do not express the majority sentiments of the population, but too many of those who don’t share them have not condemned them – or have not argued forcefully against the arguments that foreigners and immigrants are responsible for the social problems of 21st century Britain.  Such arguments aren’t even restricted to the right – I’m constantly coming across them from sections of the left – albeit wrapped up in a veneer of progressive politics and concern for the working class.

We need really major mobilisations to counter these developments.   We need to make the positive case for immigration and diversity and we need to make it loudly.   We can’t pretend that we are too British and too intrinsically decent to descend into a racist and xenophobic swamp.  We can, because any society can.

We need the famous silent majority to stand up for the kind of society we have begun to build –  a society that is comfortable with diversity and open to the world, where foreigners are welcomed, not considered the enemy.  We need to push the xenophobes and racists back to the fringes and restore the shame that once forced them to keep their bitterness and rage to themselves.

Because if we can’t do this, then we will be complicit, and we will also be trapped perhaps for decades, by the dangerous forces that have been unleashed, and which will leave few people unscathed if things proceed along their present course.

 

One Day Without Us 2018

It’s just under a year since I was part of  a Facebook discussion about the alarmingly xenophobic drift of post-referendum UK society.   We were people from many different nationalities, backgrounds and political persuasions.   Some of us were migrants, others the descendants of migrants or British nationals who know migrants as our friends, colleagues, partners, carers, workmates and classmates.

All of us were appalled by the dangerous convergence of  street-level violence towards migrants with the anti-immigrant rhetoric used by too many politicians.   We were disgusted with the cynical references to  3 million EU citizens as bargaining chips, and the persistent denigration and stigmatisation of migrants in sections of the British press.   We did not see migrants as intruders, outsiders or interlopers, but as valuable and valued members of British society and our local communities.

So on 20th February we invited migrants and their supporters to take part in a national day of action celebrating the presence of migrants and the contributions they have made to British society.   For 24 hours, we asked the British public to imagine what a ‘day without immigrants’ might be like.

We were bowled over by the response. Tens of thousands of people held protests, rallies and other events up and down the country.   There were One Day Without Us events in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; fetes in tiny villages, rallies in city centres, stalls in town markets. Members of the public, businesses, trade unions, NGOs, charities, and universities all supported what was in effect the first-ever national day of solidarity with migrants in British history.

It was a fantastic experience for everyone involved.   In providing a platform for migrants and their supporters to make their voices heard,  One Day Without Us presented the UK with a very different vision of migrants and migration to the one that has been presented to the public for too long by politicians and the media alike.     Eleven months later the need for this vision remains as urgent as it was then.   And so next year, on 17th February, we’re planning another national day of action.     For twenty-four hours we’re inviting migrants and their supporters to take part, and organise events in their local communities, under the slogan ‘Proud to be a migrant/Proud to stand with migrants.’   We”ve chosen that date to coincide with the week of UN World Day of Social Justice, but this time we’ve chosen to stage it on a weekend, so that everyone can get involved.

Our message is simple: we refuse to accept the divisive ‘us versus them’ political rhetoric that presents migrants as interlopers and outsiders and immigration as a burden.   We believe that migration had been broadly positive both for migrants and for UK society, and we want to celebrate that.     We think it is shameful and disturbing that the word migrant has become a dirty word in British politics; that EU citizens living in Britain are still living in limbo or leaving the country because of the hostility directed towards them; that families with non-EU migrant spouses remain permanently separated because they can”t meet arbitrary income thresholds; that migrant workers are described as if they were nothing but economic commodities.

We want to change that.      We do not believe that migrants are intrinsically better or worse than anyone else, but no one should ever have to feel ashamed, vulnerable or under threat because of who they are or where they came from.     It should not even need saying that migrants have the same hopes, dreams, aspirations as  British citizens, but the debased debate about migration too easily ignores this simple truth and prefers to scapegoat migrants and blame them for problems that they did not cause.   Too often migrants are described as if they were nothing but takers and migration is depicted as something unnatural and even sordid.

We want to restore the courage, heroism and dignity, the adventure and discovery that is part of the experience of migration.   As migrants and non-migrants, we want to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions that migrants have made to our country in the past and continue to make today.

We are proud that the UK is a country that people want to come to in order to live, work, study, or seek safety and protection.   We do not want a “hostile environment” that turns doctors and nurses into immigration police and presents deportations of tens of thousands of foreign students on the basis of flawed or inadequate evidence as a badge of honour.  We want a UK that is welcoming, open, and inclusive in its attitude towards migration.

In celebrating migrants and migration we do not only refer to EU nationals.     Though we recognize that migrants who have come to the UK fall under many different legal categories, we do not recognize hierarchical distinctions between worthy and unworthy migrants, between EU citizens and non-EU nationals, between refugees and asylum seekers, between migrants past and presents.

The hostility directed towards migrants in post-referendum UK does not confine itself to any single target. It  can equally be directed against Polish schoolgirls, Muslims of Pakistani heritage, Bulgarians, Romanians, refugees or ‘failed asylum seekers’ .   It might be aimed at EU citizens or it might be directed against people who were born here who simply look or sound like foreigners.

Once confined to the extremist fringe, such hostility has begun to permeate the mainstream to the point when it threatens the very foundations and the character of our society, and drives government policy in ways that are harmful to migrants and to our common future.   One of the reasons why this has happened is because millions of people with a very different view of what UK society could be like have not made their voices heard.

On 17th February this is your opportunity.   We invite migrants and their supporters to join us in a positive affirmation of migrants and migration.   We invite you, whoever you are and whatever your race, religion or nationality, to take part in a day of unity, celebration and protest.   We invite you to join with us and say it loudly ‘ Proud to be a migrant.   Proud to stand with migrants’.

For further information about events and volunteering possibilities, see our website at:  http://1daywithoutus.org/

And @1daywithoutus