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.

Briton of the Year

I generally try to disengage from the news from Christmas Eve onwards, and even when I don’t succeed festivities and family obligations tend to reduce the amount of time I have to write or even think about it.     One thing I don’t like to think about at all is Ukip.   Nevertheless Farage & His Jolly Army of Bigots and Racists were as difficult to avoid over the festive season as they were during most of the year.

Just before Christmas The Great Leader was telling the nation that it was ok to use the word ‘Chinky’, because according to him that is the word most people use when they order a Chinese meal, and complaining that he had been late for a meeting because of the numbers of immigrants on the motorways.

This was laughable, however contemptible.   But it was also reassuringly stupid, like the Ukip candidate who accused a gay donkey of trying to rape his horse. Because there have been welcome signs recently that Farage’s teflon veneer is wearing thin, and that the more people see of him, the more the public is becoming aware of how essentially repellent on virtually every level he and his party are.

Certainly young voters appear to be immune to his fake cheeky-chappie persona and the racism,xenophobia and homophobia that seems to course through so many of their embittered and disenchanted elders, and the latest poll amongst 17-25 year olds rates Farage less popular than Nick Clegg – no mean achievement.

All this is good, because for me the rise of Ukip was the single worst political development in British politics of 2014, and it was comforting to think that Ukip’s weird and dismal bubble might finally be about to burst.     So it therefore came as an unpleasant surprise when I looked at my tablet on Boxing Day to find that the Times newspaper had just designated Farage ‘Briton of the Year’.

According to the Times, Farage was deemed worthy of this award because he had changed the mold of two-party politics ‘ for good or ill’, and also because, well that’s about it really.

Farage’s meetings with Rupert Murdoch in the States clearly weren’t for nothing then, because it’s difficult to see why else the Times chose to honour a man who has done more to project racism into the political mainstream than any politician since Enoch Powell.

Ukip’s star Tory recruit Douglas Carswell recently called on Ukip to ‘stop blaming foreigners’ and reject ‘angry nativism’ in favour of a more inclusive ‘optimistic internationalist agenda.’   Carswell clearly doesn’t realize what party he’s actually joined.     Because Ukip’s appeal is inseparable from ‘angry nativism.’     It cannot be genuinely inclusive or develop an ‘optimistic internationalist agenda’ because its politics are rooted in the most bitter and resentful ‘we want our country back’ Little Englandism that has already done incalculable harm to the political and moral character of British society.

I would say – and some readers may disagree with this – that Ukip is more dangerous than the National Front or the BNP precisely because it has legitimized a racism-that-doesn’t-speak-its-name, but invariably manages to depict ‘immigrants’ as criminals, parasites, cultural aliens and intruder, and also because of the knock-on-effect it has had on the political class as a whole.

.As a result of the political cowardice – and political opportunism – of the three main political parties, his party has acted as a catalyst for policies that will inflict misery and suffering on thousands of people whose single ‘crime’ is to want to work in the UK, or marry a British citizen, or seek refugee status.

Most of these policies, whether aimed at ‘benefit tourism’ or ‘NHS tourism’ are based on fantasies, lies, prejudices and unsupported assumptions which Farage has peddled shamelessly during the four grim years of Coalition ‘austerity’, and which the government and the opposition has largely gone along with, because it was easier to do that than it was to challenge and combat them.

In helping to make this possible, Ukip has shrunk us as a nation, morally, spiritually, politically and intellectually, and normalised attitudes that ought to be a shameful embarrassment.

There are many titles that one could give to the politician who bears primary responsibility for this outcome, and ‘Briton of the Year’ really is not one of them.

Liars’ Ball

Even within the dizzying race to the bottom that British politics has become, last week’s ‘white van tweet’ marked a new low point in political dishonesty, stupidity and crass opportunism.   The central role in this farce was played by Ed Miliband, whose decision to sack MP Emily Thornberry constituted a political own goal that was similtaneously spectacular and extraordinarily inept, which had all the morbid fascination of watching a striker perform an acrobatic aerial bicycle kick in his own penalty area in order to put the ball firmly in his own net.

It’s difficult to know which was worse, the incredible cowardice which led Miliband to sack an MP because she took a photograph of a white van parked outside a house draped with England flags, or his blatantly fake attempt to demonstrate his connection to ‘ordinary people’ by declaring his love for white vans and those who drive them.

Asked a shockingly moronic question (‘ What goes through your mind when you see a white van outside a house?’) Miliband responded with an even dumber answer, whose epic silliness will echo from John O’Groats to Lands End, whenever ordinary folk gather to discuss politicians who are so desperate for votes that they are prepared to say things like ‘ What goes through my mind is respect – Respect is a basic rule in politics. And her tweet conveyed a sense of   disrespect.’

Oh please shoot me now.     Does Miliband really expect anyone to believe that he feels ‘respect’ at the sight of a parked white van?   Does he believe that ‘ordinary voters’ will respect him because he has said it?   Apparently so, because one of his colleagues was allowed to leak it to the press that Ed was ‘as angry as I’ve ever seen him’ when he heard about the offending tweet.

If that is true then it says a great deal about the priorities of Miliband and his party.   Just take a random look back at some of the things that have taken place in this country over the last four years – food banks, people dying after work eligibility tests, the bedroom tax, bankers rewarded with bailouts, rising inequality, the growth of zero hours contracts and poverty wages, a by-election in which a Tory defector raised the prospect of repatriating immigrants in a Ukip-governed Britain.

Only last week the brutish thug Ian Duncan Smith actually laughed out loud when Miliband raised a case in parliament regarding a woman who had installed a ‘panic room’ in her house after being raped by her ex-partner and was contesting the bedroom tax as a consequence.

Even the fact that the Minister for Work and Pensions laughed at a rape victim doesn’t seem to have bothered the brave Labour crusader nearly as much as a photograph of a white van parked outside a house, or so he and his advisors wish the public to believe, because the photograph showed ‘disrespect’ to someone who may or may not have been a Ukip voter.   If respect is a ‘basic rule in politics’ then it has been conspicuously absent amongst the British political class in their treatment of the men and women who have come to this country in search of work or political asylum.

Labour is no exception.     Had Miliband and his cohorts shown one iota of the anger that they have expressed towards Thornberry towards the bigotry and xenophobic anti-immigrant scaremongering that Ukip had engaged in remorselessly and cynically for the last four years, then maybe, just maybe, we might be having a very different debate about immigration than they one we are having.

Instead, for the last week leading Labourites have been making keynote speeches about immigration which essentially agree with the Ukip/tabloid representations of immigrants as parasites and benefit-scroungers, and prefer to attack ‘liberal commentators who don’t want to talk about immigration’ in a blatant and crass attempt to pander to the Ukip vote and recycle tabloid/rightwing narratives of a ‘chattering class’ that supposedly doesn’t listen to public ‘concerns’ about immigration.

This is why they reacted in such an unhinged manner to the Thornberry tweet.   And they weren’t the only ones.   Lord Snooty declared himself not just appalled but ‘completely appalled’ at Thornberry, for ‘sneering at people who work hard, are patriotic and love their country.’

Ukip also took umbrage at the fact that Thornberry ‘sneered, and looked down her nose at a white van in Strood with the cross of St George on it.’

It’s worth reminding ourselves that at this point neither Thornberry or any of her attackers had any idea who lived in the flag-covered house, and her intentions in posting the picture were entirely a matter of subjective semiotic interpretation, in the sense of meaning being created and added to its object, rather than meaning being an inherent quality, if you catch my drift.

It was subsequently revealed that the householder wasn’t a Ukip voter, but a 37-year-old car dealer and cage fighter named Dan Ware, who doesn’t vote, but has said   ‘I will continue to fly the flags I don”t care who it pisses off. I know there is a lot of ethnic minorities that don”t like it. They have been up since the World Cup.’

Since then Ware has allowed himself to be used as a pawn by the Sun – that well-known defender of the working man – which is determined to squeeze every last drop of nonsense from the ‘Islington snobbery’ sponge with the shameless amorality that has always characterized Murdoch’s finest.   Not only has Ware been shunted off by the Sun to fly a flag outside Thornberry’s house, but he has now published a reactionary manifesto which among other things calls for the cane to be brought back, the restoration of the death penalty, jail sentences for anyone who burns the poppy, and repatriation of immigrants who ‘weren’t invited.’

So now   a reactionary cage fighter who flies the England flag to annoy ‘ethnic minorities’ has become a universal icon of the working class, at least in the eyes of the Telegraph, the Mail et al, all of whom are desperate to show how much Labour has distanced itself from the ‘concerns.’ of good British yeomen like him.

And the wretched Mark Reckless, formerly of Marlborough College and Oxford, and one-time financial services strategy consultant at Booz, Allen & Hamilton says that Ukip has inherited the ‘radical tradition’ from Labour and has now become the party of the working class!

All of this would be good knockabout farce, were it not for the utter lack of anything resembling honesty, principle or intelligence from any of its players.   Because as nonsensical as it appears to be on the surface, ‘whitevanmangate’ is another depressing indication that even the Labour Party is now so mesmerised and terrified by Ukip, that it would rather sack its own MP for not showing the necessary ‘respect’ to potential Ukip voters, than confront or challenge the xenophobic assumptions and vacuous populism behind the Farage ‘insurrection’.

The result is that Miliband has been humiliated, out-manouevred and looks and sounds more like a hollow man than ever.

And that is entirely the fault of Miliband and his advisors.   Because sometimes political cowardice and opportunism can work in your favour, and sometimes they end up biting you in the face.


Immigration: Labour Wades into the Gutter

Within two days of the toxic Ukip eruptions in Manchester and Clacton, Ed Miliband has penned a piece in the Observer on how Labour will attempt to stop them spreading.     Miliband’s op ed was probably written before the election results, since it recycles older policies, ideas and narratives which Labour has already put forward on numerous occasions earlier this year.

The essential story that Miliband wants to tell is this; hardworking people are resentful, dispairing and discontented.   They feel the country has left them behind, and Ed understands them, because Ed has a friend called Gareth who is an ordinary hardworking person and Ed understands him, so he understands everybody.   Hardworking people also feel that Labour has let them down, but Ed understands that too, even though he knows that it hasn’t really let them down.

But most of all hardworking people are ‘anxious’ and ‘concerned’ about immigration.     And Ed understands their anxieties and concerns. In fact he understands them so much that in March he described Ukip voters as ‘hardworking people’ who ‘love our country.’     But the problem is that many hardworking patriots who once voted Labour blame Labour for letting in foreign migrants who aren’t hardworking and don’t love ‘our country’, as much as they do, and now they are thinking of voting Ukip.

Well naturally Ed is worried about that, and so now he and his party are going to show that they are not afraid to   ‘talk about immigration.’     So what does Miliband want to say about it?   Well in March, he promised that

‘Labour would have controls when people arrive and leave here, we will tackle the undercutting of wages, we will ensure people in public services speak English and people need to earn their entitlements.’

Now he has this to offer:

‘I will not cede the issue of immigration to those offering fear or falsehood. So I will continue to chart a new way forward, combining stronger border controls and laws to stop the exploitation that has undermined wages of local workers, with reforms to ensure those who come here speak English and earn the right to any benefit entitlements. Such measures are part of a compelling and credible plan for Britain”s future that will restore the values people believe in contribution, responsibility, fairness to the way our country is run.’

Nothing new to see here, move along.     Except that now Ukip are much stronger and creating a snowball that is beginning to pick up Labour as well as Tory votes, and so Miliband has stepped up with his usual glassy-eyed zeal to make proposals that are steeped in fear and falsehood, and deliberately designed to placate the manufactured assumptions about immigrants and foreigners that provide Ukip with its political plankton.

Miliband’s proposals contain an implicit subtext, to the effect that ‘those who come here’ have somehow violated British concepts of ‘contribution, responsibility, fairness’ and have claimed benefits they have not earned.     This is a notion straight out of the tabloid/Ukip playbook.   It is at best a xenophobic misapprehension, and at worst a flat-out barking lie.

Again and again, research demonstrates that the majority of immigrants in the UK come here to work, and that only a minority claim benefits.     A study by UCL last year found that immigrants in the UK contributed £8.8 billion more than they received from benefits between 1995 and 2011.   Not only do immigrants generally belong to the category of ‘hardworking people’ so dear to Miliband’s heart, but some sectors of the UK economy, including the NHS, would collapse without them.

Instead of bringing this up, Miliband prefers instead to present ‘stronger border controls’ as some kind of antidote to the ‘despair and cynicism on which Ukip thrives.’     Instead of discussing the political and economic factors that have inexorably driven wages down for native and non-native workers alike, he prefers to link wage stagnation and unemployment to immigration.

As for his English language requirements; it is entirely logical and sensible that migrants to any country should learn its language if they can, from a practical point of view and also to make the process of integration easier, and it’s also sensible for the country where they settle to offer provision to facilitate this process.

So there’s a whole discussion to be had here about resources in schools and also for adults,   but that isn’t the discussion that Labour is interested in having.   It wants to show how tough it is.     And so Miliband is proposing draconian restrictions that tie public sector jobs to an ability to learn English as a panacea for ‘social cohesion’.

These demands would be seen as Johnny Foreigner at his worst if they were imposed on the 2.2 million Britons working in Europe. In the UK on the other hand, learning English has become yet another stick for politicians and the tabloids to beat immigrants over the head with, while also pandering to the ‘we want our country back’ complaints that you can’t even get on the tube without hearing foreign languages spoken.

If Miliband and the Labour Party think that this kind of talk will stop Ukip, they are very much mistaken, because all these dreadfully opportunistic contributions are likely to do is pour a few more drops of poison into the toxic and rancid ‘debate’ about immigration that demeans and shames the country, and which will only lead voters thinking of voting for Ukip that they might as well have the real thing.