Monthly Archives: April 2018

The cruelty of the new right: Why the Empire Windrush generation matter

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Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May prepares to speak to the media outside 10 Downing Street, in central London

I don’t ever remember politicians working so hard to force a story out of the headlines. The Windrush generation will be given citizenship (as David Lammy points out, how can you give people something they’ve always had?). They will be given compensation (a minimum figure should be that £54,000 the state was proposing to charge Albert Thompson for cancer treatment on the NHS). Everyone caught in the scandal will have their right to remain confirmed within two weeks. The promises keep on coming, so fast that you almost end up having to ask yourself: what is it about Theresa May’s government, what are they trying to hide?

What the Empire Windrush generation exposes is not just a single Home Office policy, but a set of relationships which are at the core of British politics, have been for the last two years and will remain there until the next election.

The first point to grasp is this, that even prior to Brexit but with ever greater urgency since then, the contract between the British state and the British people has reduced to a single promise: if “we” can get “them” to leave, then there will be more for “you”.

Compared to Britain at every stage in its history, compared to any liberal state this side of military or fascist rule, our country tolerates an extraordinary degree of authoritarianism. It is only in the last twenty years that we have put migrant children in prisons. It is only since 2010 that “migrants” (meaning everyone that the Home Office considers a migrants, a much larger category than those who actually lack the right to remain) have been required to prove their immigration status when trying to marry, when renting a flat. It is only under this period of Conservative government that vans have been driving round London carrying a message to migrants that they must leave.

We think of the 1970s as the worst moment for racism in modern British history but Britain in 1976 was not a deportation state: just 291 people were removed from the UK that year. In 2015-2016, by contrast, there were 13,248 deportations. Since Brexit that number has grown – with new groups of people being targeted including EU national and those who had been living in Britain legally for decades.

Brexit has seen the office of Prime Minister go to the former Home Secretary, and all politics narrow to the two issue which May comprehends: reducing net migration to 100,000 people per year, and forcing through a deal with the EU.

Of course, this isn’t just a British phenomenon, it is the politics of Trump, of Le Pen, of Geert Wilders when his party told voters in Holland, “It’s one or the other, either a welfare state or an immigration country.”

The lie that the British people were told during the Brexit campaign was the one summed up by Aaron Banks, “less immigration [will] also mean less competition for jobs and higher wages.” Relatively few voters accepted this argument: most workers, after all, voted to Remain. But arguments for racial exclusion were key to swinging a group of older working class voters, and then delivering the Conservatives the gains in the 2017 election which now keep them in power, seats such as Derbyshire North East, Mansfield, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland.

In order to keep going, even cruel people have to tell themselves that they are kind. One reason why Theresa May remains in government is that most of the time an argument for the racialisation of welfare benefits and their restriction to UK nationals seems like an argument for generosity. If we just raise out borders, keep “them” out then of course there will be more for everyone.

What the Windrush generation expose is that the violence being inflicted by higher borders is not felt only outside the UK but impinges here as well.

The person who grasped this best was Enoch Powell, in his Rivers of Blood speech. What he saw was that immigration controls must be a question of numbers. For Powell, it was not a task of limiting net migration to 100,000 a year. What mattered to him was whether the black population of Britain was 1 per cent or 10 per cent. But even if the figures were slightly different, the politics were the same.

As soon as you start counting the inevitable next step is not simply to raise the borders but to remove those who are already here. In Powell’s words, which May’s government has carried into action: immigration control means “virtually stopping further inflow and … promoting the maximum outflow.”

Strip out the euphemisms and Britain in 2018 shows what that politics means: UK citizens who have given fifty years of their life to low-paid but necessary jobs caring for everyone here have been torn from their homes and families.

This isn’t an error in our systems, it’s the new politics of the right in their purest form.
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For – and beyond – Corbyn

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Recently, I was at an anti-fascist conference in London. The comrades there were young, excited, with a range of views from Labour loyalists to anarchists. I heard a discussion begin which I’ve not heard anywhere else. If Labour comes in, I suggested, expect the far-right to organise; Corbyn is their hate figure. Yes, a comrade from Greece accepted, they hate him. But if the left is in government, we can’t stand down our forces.

She’s right. After 2 and a half years of Corbynism, we can start to predict with some certainty what a Labour government will be like:

+ To a greater extent than any previous Labour government will be open to policies suggested by the social movements. From blacklisting to autism, Labour figures have pledged to take on board our campaigns.

But being “open to”, is not the same as actually using the state. It can mean a range of things, from in the best cases introducing legislation, to in a middling case providing public, spoken support (in the style of those Labour cabinet ministers of the 1970s who would stood on innumerable picket lines, but declined every opportunity to actually legislate for beleaguered workers), to signalling goodwill but not doing anything more than signalling.

Politics will not stop at the moment Labour is elected. In office, Labour will have a limited amount of parliamentary time, a limited amount of good-will and it will have to choose – while also being subject to lobbying against action from the unions, the Labour right, the press and increasingly (as the government goes on) from capital.

+ Repeatedly, a Corbyn Labour government will give opportunities for people to put pressure on it. Corbyn will welcome that dynamic. But, it also likely, that he will require the pressure to come through the Labour Party. (The recent campaign against the HDV in Haringey may turn out to be a good example; it was a mass movement, but the “mass” aspect was mediated through the Labour Party. The old Labour councillors lost control when hundreds of people streamed along to Labour selection meetings and voted against them.) Expect under Labour repeated polls of the membership, and conference votes which put demands on the leadership. Corbyn and McDonnell, to their credit, want to be subject to demands and know that reforms will only be introduced under pressure.

+ When Labour starts to choose which parts of its programme to introduce, the key force in the Labour Party will be the trade unions, or more precisely UNITE, which already has the casting votes on the NEC, controls Corbyn’s office, and will soon control the key position of General Secretary in the Labour Party. UNITE’s politics are Milibandish: the union swung to supporting Corbyn late in 2015. In practice, therefore, there is already a veto of Labour policy on + nuclear weapons + nuclear power and + immigration. Indeed, this is part of a general problem under which Corbyn, in order to build up a team has been compelled to draw on the existing Left and has acquired our weaknesses (e.g. over Syria). He takes up our best and our worst and he is shaped by them both. UNITE is by far the most important part of this. If you think Corbyn’s government will be unilateralist, you aren’t listening closely enough to him. Before he was leader of the Labour party, Corbyn was the closest figure we had in parliament to a supporter of free movement. As leader, he has given multiple speeches insisting that free movement will end and blaming (in line with the policy of the UNITE leadership) migrants for lowering wages. A Corbyn government will reluctantly, agonisingly and with as much kindness as the leadership can supply go along with the positions he has argued for ever since he became Labour – i.e. a slow reduction in migration to the UK. His position in the Labour Party, and his dependence on UNITE, will prevent Corbyn as PM from doing anything better.

+ We all have an idea of how Labour governs from the left: i.e. the party adopts policies, *persuades* voters of their need, and then relies on popular approval to act as a counterweight to the pressure from the right. This will not happen under Labour – policies will not be communicated in advance. The public will not be prepared for left-wing government. In the last two years there have only been two periods where the leadership articulated coherent policies – during the initial phase of his 2015 leadership campaign – and again, after the negotiation of the manifesto, during the election campaign. What is Labour’s policy on student loans? What is Labour’s policy on the EU? Is it still Labour policy, as Corbyn argued in 2015, that there should be right to buy for private tenants? It’s impossible to know because on each of these policies, Labour figures have made a flurry of proposals. The priority has been positioning, not policy. Ideas have been raised, dropped, exchanged for others. I am not being critical – Labour has been under enormous pressure, Corbyn has been vastly better than any under Labour leader would be. All I am saying is that no-one will know in advance of a Labour government what Labour’s priorities really are; Labour will not have a programme for the first 100 days. Now, positioning is not trivial – it may enable Labour to introduce radical policies quickly in response to emergency situations – but in the absence of prepared policies the likelihood is that for most of its period in office Labour will feel significantly more like “politics as usual” than most of my friends expect.

+ Finally, Labour will face a new and unfamiliar form of political pressure – hostility not merely from the press, the Labour right, within Parliament, but also (and for the first time) from the international markets. I expect that Labour will enjoy a longer honeymoon than any government since 1945 (being seen to have been sensible on Brexit will buy Labour an opportunity space; and many kinds of capital would do very well under a McDonnellite expansion of our national infrastructure). But at some time, and with increasing force as Labour gets in – expect opposition to potential policies such as confiscation of unused land to build council houses. The longer Labour is in and the more Corbyn tried to do, the harder government will be.

None of these are arguments against Corbynism, they are ways of saying rather that even if Corbyn doesn’t feel much like the Syriza government of which the comrade warned us: it will still be a project of reform, i.e. negotiated change, and there will be more defeats than victories.

If there are victories, they will come about because the movements have needs which last longer than any Labour government. And because people (whether in Labour or outside) see beyond the leadership and continue to press and put demands on it. Even the best of Labour leaderships will need people outside, putting demands on them.

Why I can’t stand philo-semites.

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Because they don’t understand the first things about Jewish history. This isn’t about Cable Street. This is about the subtle legacy of Judaism, and the tradition it leaves even as a group of people are secularised. They don’t understand that long before the Jews had a relationship with the left. Jews *were* the left: the anarchists in the East End with their visions of the end times that had already come, the socialists at meetings of the SDF, talking after the speaker ended and sighing about Hyndman, and saying, We are going to have do something about him, aren’t we? And not wanting to have to act but knowing that they should.

Because they don’t understand that this history isn’t finished, you can see it in the synagogues where even now people collect for refugees. You can see it in the left, in the people, In the groups.

Because they don’t feel doubt.

Because they don’t understand Israel. They don’t grasp that even among many centre-right Jews, there is a disquiet about Israel’s crimes: the corruption, the narrowing of the country’s politics, the killings of Palestinians. When even the Union of Jewish Students is running a petition, right now, about the country’s racist treatment of Africans, you know that the discontent among British Jews is far, far higher than it is among the philo-semites for whom every atrocity has to be put in quotation marks.

Because they think that by caring really hard about anti-semitism they are entitled to feel its pain, when they don’t understand for a second how the trauma stuck around, how many even in the second generation it broke.

Because they never, ever, tell jokes.

Because at the end of their politics are silences. The Jews in France right now, who are going on demonstrations, attacking the left and applauding Marine Le Pen: they are made to vanish. Trump’s anti-Semitism, the attacks on Jewish cemeteries which he blamed on Jews: none of this happened.

Because they guard the flank to their left and they keep the flank to their right unguarded.

And because the monsters we are going to have to face will not wear the uniforms of the past. But they are coming closer.

(first published on facebook).