Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Reflections on the EU Election

DEFENDING JOBS AND SERVICES. Not everybody or every issue gets TV coverage

AFTER years of being either kept in ignorance about what goes on in Brussels or fed stories about straight bananas, it is hardly surprising that a large percentage of the British public is "Eurosceptic".  Some even cling nostalgically to notions of Britain's greatness as an imperial power, revived by Thatcher and her adoring press during the Falklands war, so much so they did not notice how many firms and jobs were going to the wall for the sake of the pound and the City of London, and stood by as the monstrous milk snatcher and her cops smashed the miners, before destroying their industry and communities. 

The papers told us Thatcher had restored Britain's pride, and the respect in which we were held in the world. In 1994, I had to change trains in Munich, and met up with some young German building workers who'd been out on the beer. One of them told me "We have nothing against English people. But tell me, why do you work for such low wages and put up with such bad conditions?"  Respect? Auf wiedersehn, pet.

To put my own cards on the table, I voted and campaigned against British entry to the Common Market back in the 'Seventies. I was not convinced that a group of wealthy manufacturing countries huddling together behind tariff walls made sense for fair and free trade, let alone internationalism. What about Britain's obligation to Commonwealth countries (oddly France seems to have treated its former colonies better)? And wasn't Britain's policy of food subsidies better than the Common Agricultural Policy, with its butter mountains and wine lakes?

Time moves on. We have had British governments, of whichever party, boasting how they have upheld our rights against EU directives, so we could work longer hours to try and earn a living wage and keep a roof over our heads, and carry on working longer before we reached our pensions. I had to ask my union whether this was what was meant by the banner saying "Keep Britain Working With Labour" that hung for a time on our headquarters.

British governments have also led the way in privatisation, like the recent sell-off or sell-out of Royal Mail, going further than their continental counterparts could or would.That's why, though I've seen how European court rulings aim to hamstring unions and even local authorities maintaining wages and jobs, and dare say cheap labour was one of the objects of British support for the EU's expansion eastward, I could not go along with the pretence that our problems come from Brussels, and not from the City of London and Westminster.

That's why I could not vote for the alliance of Socialist Party and Communist Party patriots standing as 'No to EU! Yes to Workers' Rights'. Labour's leaflet on the other hand barely mentioned the EU, and their party election broadcast merely admitted they had made "mistakes", before going on to waffle about immigration and people needing to learn English (something for which incidentally the Labour government cut provision, and teachers were sacked). The Greens' leaflet did say something about their policies, both on the environment and on workers' rights, and asked us to return their MEP for the London area, Jean Lambert. Having more than once seen her at events for which  other MEPs don't seem to have time, I decided for the first time in my life to vote Green. A lot of my friends seem to to have done the same.

(I might have divided my vote between Green and Labour, but unlike Ireland, where you can pick and mix, Britain has a voting system for the EU where you can only vote for one party list).

So I was glad to see that Jean is back, while Labour has made the main gains here in London, both in councils and the EU seats, likewise in the Manchester area of my origin, and other cities. I even sent a message of congratulations to friends in the London Borough of Redbridge, who but a few months ago revived the Redbridge Trades Council, and now have the pleasure of seeing their largely suburban borough controlled by Labour for their very first time.

Before those who don't know me write to say how awful the Labour Party is and dispel my "reformist illusions", I should mention that this year marks half a century since I was expelled from the Labour Party, and since then, though I have sometimes worked with Labour people politically,  I have never been tempted to rejoin. But I am not one of those people who having discovered the truth about Labour just recently, is impatient with working class Labour voters who, despite their disappointments, still prioritise the fight against the Tories and are prepared to give Labour another chance.   

Who took your jobs ?  

What is more worrying of course, is the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led by by the unlikely figure of Nigel Farage. On the plus side, it comes accompanied by the downfall of the obnoxious Nick Griffin and the British National Party. Some of the UKIP's more crankish candidates have expressed views which even the BNP might find extreme, but somehow Farage seems to have shaken off the loon image while winning votes with the immigration card.

This is not that surprising, even if some of those areas supporting UKIP have not experienced that much immigration. They have been told for years that immigration is a problem, hardly a  week passing without papers like the Sun, Express, or Daiily Mail claiming immigrants were taking over, living in luxury on benefits, and grabbing homes and hospital beds that are in short supply. It is handy when you experience frustration, or your life and neighborhood are affected by remote but powerful forces, to have a visible target to blame.
But I am also not entirely surprised, because while a lot of people would not like to be considered or think of themselves as racialist,  the 'respectable' BBC, which contrary to supposition does not let just anybody or every issue be aired in front of its mikes,  has been finding airspace for Nigel Farage and giving him sympathetic coverage and the questions he likes. I don't often watch Question Time, but when I saw it recently Nigel Farage was being allowed to shout down a woman panel member who questioned UKIP's policies, and chair Richard Dimbleby then cut her short. No wonder the BBC reporting of the EU election results was so congratulatory to  UKIP, they might have been patting themselves on the back.

Another broadcaster which has had lots of time for Nigel Farage and his opinions is RT, Russia Today. The latest news broadcast I saw shamelessly lumped together the left-wing Greek party Syriza with right-wing Eurosceptic parties like UKIP, and explained the latter's success with the help of footage of trade union and anti-cuts marches here, as though those of fighting austerity policies would have voted for Farage. (Perhaps they decided to skip No2EU?) I'm sure any of the marchers depicted who was not horrified at the idea of supporting UKIP will certainly be so when they see what the party's policies are, on issues like unemployment or the NHS.

I was surprised to see Paul Mason, whose work I respect, and whose own background is in the labour movement and the Lancashire mining area, referring to the UKIP vote in places like Rotherham, say that workers had experienced a fall in wages, co-inciding with a rise in immigration.

I need not remind Paul or anyone else what happened to the main industry around Rotherham or similar places. British miners did not find their jobs taken away by immigrants, but their pits were closed, and coal from Colombia, South Africa or Poland took the place of the coal mined in Britain. Communities and their class tradition and culture have taken hammer blows, while generations thrown on the dole have been told it is their own fault.

Mining is not exceptional. Across the country jobs in industry -and with them union membership - have been lost, not to immigrants coming in, but by capital flowing out.  Entire industries and well-known brand names have gone abroad. I remember Paul Mason on TV talking about the effects of this in the Potteries. But while politicians and the media have all decided the problem is immigration, and even some on the "Left" insist there must be control over the movement of labour, it seems to be tabu to suggest interference with the free movement of capital.

The laws which Thatcher brought in to shackle unions, loyally maintained by Labour in office, have made it difficult for trade unionists to defend their previous gains, let alone cope with new challenges. Whether union leaders, let alone Labour, have resisted as well they could, perhaps history will judge. Remember how the TUC was going to invite Cameron to address it? Now he wants to strengthen anti-union legislation, as well as tearing up Health and Safety provisions. I'm glad we no longer hear our leaders bleating about "partnership"!

If trade unions contented themselves with organising in the public sector, which also provided a high percentage of employment in some areas of industrial decline, this has been hit by outsourcing, privatisation and cuts, hitting the most-vulnerable and lowest paid workers. Now both government and local authorities are taking away union and workplace rights, aiming to create a defeated and demoralised workforce.

I don't know to what extent British workers are desperately competing for jobs like fruit picker, carer or cleaner which we have tended to leave to immigrants. I have noticed more than once that when workers like cleaners start joining unions and becoming shop stewards, their employers, usually contractors, suddenly discover they are employing "illegals" and call in the UK Border Police to check everyone's papers. Funny coincidence, isn't it?

I do know that if you keep telling people the shortage of jobs, hospital beds and housing or anything else is natural and inevitable, and there's nothing you or they can do about it, it is no use expressing surprise, jeering or shouting abuse at them when they turn to fighting among themselves for a place in the queue, when they should be demanding enough for everybody. But nor is it honest or admirable for our politicians to pretend they are listening, and apologise - not for the shortage, but because they have allowed people into the queue who shouldn't be.

In the leafy and supposedly prosperous London Borough of Sutton an old lady was left to die without food or water because police had raided the firm responsible for her care, and arrested her immigrant carers, but nobody thought to check what was happening to their clients. I don't say that is typical (though certainly a lot of vulnerable people have died one way or another under this government). But it symbolises the way real problems and people can be forgotten while so much attention is given to blaming everything on immigrants.

And getting back to Rotherham, and the reasons many people might have decided to give a party of unknowns and unlovables a chance instead of Labour, dare we ask whether they felt freer to consider this knowing their former Labour MP was enjoying  Her Majesty's hospitality? Part of the change in Britain in recent years has been disillusion in the parliamentary establishment and system.  That was bound to have big dangers as well as opportunities. The Left needs to ask why it has not succeeded in becoming the alternative.

Ed Balls says Labour must speak "louder about immigration". Well, I saw the Labour broadcast for the Euro election and that seemed to be all it did talk about, even though it was not clear what it was saying about it or what it had to do with EU policy. I say if you want to win back people's respect you must respect people's intelligence, stop talking balls to suit the media, and start tackling the real problems, which are class issues.



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