Mary McGregor highlights the dangers to the working class movement of Brown’s speech to the TUC.
I remember hearing the report of Gordon Brown’s speech to the TUC in 2007 and the phrase
British jobs for British workers. As someone who has tried to fight the rise of nationalism, chauvinism and fascism all my adult life, I recall a lurching in my stomach and a fearful yet undefined premonition of things to come.
I should not, of course, have been surprised. On the brink of recession and the worst crisis of capitalism seen by my generation, the phenomenon of Labour Nationalism was an inevitable reaction by an unprincipled party out to opportunistically save as much face as possible. A party with clearly no economic or political solutions to crisis, which is as inevitable as the rise of capitalism itself. You would think all these once-upon-a-time firebrands would remember some basic Marxist analysis?
I also remember being astounded by the irresponsibility of using such a phrase – at that time I was unaware that it had been used by Mosley but it was near enough
BNP speak to make even the most wishy-washy, liberal, official, anti racist recoil in disgust. Brown was well aware that in the coming months, if he was to stay in power, he would have to keep the unions and organised workers on his side and he was prepared to appeal to latent chauvinism and racism in order to do so.
The fact that the phrase has come back to bite Brown on the bum is small consolation when we look at the wider ramifications of what has happened in the first weeks of 2009.
The background is now familiar to most people. Workers at the Lindsey refinery, when faced with a sub-contracted workforce, made up entirely of Italian labour threatening wages and conditions, was too much to thole. The walkout was followed by a series of militant wildcat strikes which spread across the country and which felt like the first real fight back to the so called credit crunch by organised workers. Normally the left would have been organising buses of supporters to join the picket lines and been urging the strikes and the focus of the strikes to spread beyond that of a dispute in a single industry on a single issue. But this was not ordinary because the uniting slogan –
British Jobs for British Workers – Brown’s wee mantra from the past – had a real, practical and potentially malevolent connotation.
The strikers deserved our support. It was a dispute about conditions and wages. No one believes the lies that it was possible to bring in the workforce and put them up in a virtual prison ship, so they did not mix with their British counterparts, and at the same time stick to established wage agreements. It was embarrassing seeing the bosses try to dissemble and use ham fisted sophistry to try to convince the public otherwise.
But when you believe in no borders, the freedom of movement for all workers, an end to immigration controls, and the acceptance of all people as brothers and sisters in struggle, then the gap between the rhetoric of the left, and the slogan used so often by the right, represented a chasm for many on the left to bridge.
Impact on consciousness
The dispute showed once more just how weak the left in Britain is; and how we need to deepen our theoretical understanding of not just the nature of capitalism but the nature of people too. We constantly expect people to react as if they too had been reading Marx for years and are inherently socialist at heart. We delude ourselves about ‘the nature of the working class’ as if it is a homogeneous and consistently progressive force. We constantly fail to understand that if people are continually living in a state constructed climate of fear then it will have a material effect on their consciousness, whether the fear is about so called
terror threats, or about the fact that their jobs, savings and pensions may go down the Swanney, at any moment. And although many strikers used the slogan ironically to get at Brown, we must realise that the impact on consciousness of campaigning under such a slogan is negative indeed.
The dispute was resolved, not on the basis of good wages and conditions for all workers, but on the basis of
Half of the British Jobs for British Workers! and we will put up with poorer wages and conditions for the Italian workforce. Not the positive outcome anyone wanted and not the starting point for the fight against flailing capitalism that we hoped it would be.
The ramifications of this dispute go even further. As well as showing the weakness of the Left, the impotence of trade union officials and the opportunism of New Labour, who all but labelled the workers racist and told them to get back to work, it has given the BNP something extra to bite on.
The BNP are on a bit of a roll at the moment. Election victory in Swanley, Kent, and a close call in Thringstone, Leicestershire has the official anti fascist establishment reeling. Much wringing of hands and calls for broad fronts to stop the BNP getting a predicted 2 seats in the European elections. I can hear the unprincipled calling for an unprincipled lash up under the banner
Anyone bar the BNP. Now I want to stop the BNP in its tracks but I know that this can only be done by offering political alternatives to chauvinism and racism, which divides the working class. It will not be done by the same people who coined the slogan “British Jobs For British Workers” now claiming when the going gets really tough they didn’t really mean it!
As Labour scrambles to revive capitalism by bailing out banks and financial institutions while workers face austerity and despair, why would anyone trust them when they say that the BNP is not the way?
It is much harder to defeat the BNP ideologically now than it was in the 70s and 80s, because the BNP is more sophisticated, populist and plausible. No more crude cartoons of black men who were allegedly out to rob and rape at any opportunity. No attacks on the Irish under the guise of being tough on terror and no more crude, up front demands to
repatriate anyone who is not white.
Labour was never averse to resorting to cheap racism in the past, as their attacks on Kenyan and Ugandan Asians in the 1960’s showed. However, today’s New Labour, involved in five imperialist wars, and constantly attacking asylum seekers and ‘illegal’ migrant workers, has created a climate in which ‘polite’ racism is becoming more acceptable, and vulgar racism can thrive once more. When London dockers marched behind the racist anti-immigrantTory, Enoch Powell, in 1967, it took several years work by committed socialists to turn this legacy round; so that the ‘Pentonville Five’ dockers, jailed for their defiance of the Industrial Relations Act, rightly took their place in the forefront of the struggle against Heath’s Tory government in 1972.
When trade union leaders, like UNITE’s Derek Simpson, also flirt with dangerous slogans like “British jobs for British workers”, socialists have a much greater job on their hands. Simpson ‘earns’ £126, 939 annually, as well as having a virtually free house at union expense in London. It is not only the BNP and New Labour, we need to oppose, but all those hypocrites in our movement. This means winning the battle for democracy in our unions, alongside the development of real internationalism.