Discussion: Resisting the politics of the right – Len Arthur
UK politics are sliding into the gutter. The Eastleigh by-election result, with UKIP coming second, has made the slide even more slippery, with the three main parties falling over themselves to be tough on immigration. Even some socially-minded Tories are getting concerned – such as Ian Birrell, writing in the Guardian a few days ago. As socialists, we mobilise against the fascists and we have to mobilise against these divisive and inhuman right-wing politics, because fascism is where this particular slippery slope ends. We also should be clear that the UKIP demonising rhetoric that today feeds on the fear of immigration, is at the same time casting those in need of welfare support into the same divisive mould. At their recent conference, they seriously discussed a proposal to issue benefits through an electronic card which would not allow purchase of cigarettes, alcohol or Sky TV. Take a look at these Nazi posters from the 1930’s; other parts of the same website draw the parallels with today’s debates.
It is right that we should be concerned at the appeal of UKIP and we should remind ourselves of their and the BNP’s voting pattern in Wales. In the 2004 EU elections, UKIP received 96,677 votes and the BNP 27,135 – a combined total of 13% of the vote. In 2009 EU elections, UKIP received 87,585 votes and elected one MEP to represent Wales; combining this vote with that of the BNP’s 37,114 it represented 18% of the total. Given the collapse of the BNP, many of these votes could transfer to UKIP next year. UKIP will remain a threat and all of us on the left, including the Labour Party, should constantly challenge them as an organisation, but – more particularly – the ideas and politics they represent.
It is important that the Labour party stops accommodating to the right on immigration and welfare reform, as it lends legitimacy to UKIP’s politics. This is particularly the case when participating in the narrative of ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’ and translating the notion of ‘responsibility’ into sanctions, such as requiring young people to take a job at the minimum wage; continuing with a version of the ‘bedroom tax’; and abstaining on the jobseekers back-to-work bill. If the Labour party does not support the most vulnerable in our society it means we are bereft of a main party prepared to take up this struggle. We as socialists will have to campaign inside the party against this drift to the right and also take up the challenge ourselves in every possible way. As this poster shows, Labour was prepared to do it in the past and we must now do it again.
In the 1970s, the rise of the National Front was within the context of a Labour Government that was cutting public spending and curbing wages – with trade union compliance, through the ‘Social Contract’. The vacuum created provided space for the far right to pose as representatives of the working class. The 2004 and 2009 Welsh EU votes took place in a context of New Labour in power in the UK, and with the differences resulting from the Welsh Government having only limited impact. If Labour does not break with the right-wing narrative, it could suffer a similar fate in the coming EU elections, even though it is not the UK government.
Owen Jones, in his book Chavs, argues that the BNP managed to win support in areas where the Labour party had appeared to have abandoned tackling issues of deep local concern such housing and jobs, thus making it easy to blame the problems on immigration. Undoubtedly, this is part of the story, but does not fully explain the size of the right-wing vote in Wales or even in Eastleigh, where these issues are often not so pressing. Scapegoating and the demonization of migrants and the poor are re-enforced by the right-wing press, appealing to a xenophobic British or English national identity which thrives when problems are pressing but people feel powerless, both in terms of alternative ideas or the possibilities for successfully fighting back. The right-wing twist anecdotal experiences into a generalised myth – so, for example: the queue I experienced recently at my local A&E would be seen as caused by the feckless or those who appear ‘different’.
These stories stick if there is not an alternative narrative available about who people are and how the NHS, for example, can go forward. A more sophisticated version was in the Guardian at the end of March, where David Goodhart provides an persiflage caricature of human rights equality idealism and proceeds to knock it down by arguing ‘...that we do not have equal obligations (sic) to everyone on the planet’: a slippery slope to justifying division of people into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ categories. Well, yes, as a socialist I would argue that our obligations to the poor, the most vulnerable, and the exploited have to be prioritised over those of the rich and powerful, if we are to achieve any form of transformation. However, in the absence of any such qualification, he provides a cover for the right and, in the case of this article, for a tougher policy on immigration.
Tackling the right wing threat requires us as socialists and the Labour party activists to be brave and bold. To offer alternative answers to the problems the working class experience in terms of jobs, housing, health, education and welfare but also to tackle directly the right-wing arguments in terms of evidence; challenging directly their policies and politics and offering an alternative, respectful and humane narrative about how supporting the most vulnerable is the right thing to do and how it helps to make us into a civilised society. It also helps to recognised that there is a case for an alternative socialist humanist ethic which I tried to outline recently.
Uniting to fight the Tories is uniting to fight the right
We shall not pay for the bankers’ crisis – remember that? Well, if we are not careful not only will we pay, as a result of force majeure, but we will even slip away from the idea that an alternative is possible. Effective resistance is sustained by linking action with the idea that an alternative is justified. Already, there are signs of accepting that we will have to pay for the crisis in the end. The Tories and Liberals we know about but with Labour trimming to the right on a range of issues; with the difficulties of linking local decisions at an all- Wales and local government level with an alternative politics, the dam is beginning to break over us in manifold ways: even left commentators are starting to suggest that welfare spending in a problem – such as John Harris in the Guardian – across to the acceptance that it is now OK to appoint a fascist to run a British football team: we are perhaps in a situation of ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ . Chris Hedges has recently posted a piece which describes how the process of intellectual incorporation in the face of power and its consequences worked in the case of the Iraq war.
The right tends not to bother with consistency of argument as they are consistent in acting for their class. Our problem is that to sustain the ‘optimism of the will’ the consistency of our arguments is important - and will be taken apart if they are not - but consistency of action in opposition is very difficult. Take migration, where the Tories’ lack of integrity is clear. Very quietly, whilst feeding ‘moral panic’ on migration within the EU, Theresa May announced a relaxation of immigration controls that benefit business. Cameron was also in India signing a free trade agreement to allow corporations to use cheap contract labour in the UK outside of their much heralded ‘cap’ on migration; while at same time the Tories were appealing to the dangers of EU cheap labour. Contrary to this theme of posing as the workers’ friend, the Tory government is carrying out a wide-ranging package of legal changes that weaken labour laws – which may now even include the minimum wage. Such contradiction never bothers the right – only winning in the interests of the rich. And in this case, winning is forcing down wages and conditions in order to drive up the rate of profit. The Tories talk about the need of care and professionalism in the NHS and education but their complete lack of care is shown by the cuts in welfare recently disgustingly exemplified by IDS’ claim that he could live on £53 per week!
It is important to expose these lies – but we also have to act. United action as a working class is the key, spelt out in a recent special edition of Red Pepper on migration. The working class in the UK and across the EU is being forced back on every conceivable front. In the UK it is not just welfare cuts but real wage cuts across the public sector, as inflation bites into capped wage increases. Youth unemployment hovers around 23%; real unemployment is around 6.3 million according to the TUC; even those who find another job, discover it is at worse pay and condition levels; public service standards are being threatened by cuts and profit-seeking privatisation; most young people under 35 are now renting as they have been excluded from the housing market; and so the list could go on.
So, it is critical to join up the resistance to these attacks. For example: arguing in the workplace to strengthen workers’ rights, to stop any undercutting of the living wage; for all workers to be employees from day one; to stop agency work; to improve enforcement; to re-establish recognition and the bargaining rights of trade unions. In the community, we must bring together those who are threatened, both in and out of work, to campaign against cuts in welfare and public services, as well as to support trade union action. The Labour party should be supporting, and indeed leading, this resistance, by their actions from Parliament down to community councils and local branches. This is why opposing Tory action in Parliament is critical; any inconsistency in action and argument undermines the local struggle. Similarly, the Welsh Government and local councillors need to provide a lead – building on our conference resolution – frustrating the Tory government’s attacks and challenging with alternative policies. So, for example, in Wales we could consider ways of allowing asylum seekers to work. Local councillors should support and help to organise community campaigns and use powers not to penalise and to challenge, such as defining bedrooms as studies and refusing to evict.
This is a bit of a list but the point is that we should be seeking every possible way to unite a working class fightback in terms of action and argument. We face a common assault from the Tories and other right-wing organisations in the interests of maximising the rate of profit as they try to ensure we pay for their system’s crisis.
Fighting the right – some resources
Red Pepper Mythbuster – immigration
TUC Touchstone blog – migration realities
Guardian – welfare fraud
Independent – putting the arguments together with humour
Compass – principles, vision and language
Politics of the right & UKIP
Independent – UKIP
New Statesman – UKIP
Socialist Worker (old) - Race, class and Marxism