I was sitting in the queue for the ferry from France a few days ago, boot full of cheap wine, stomach full of steak/frites, looking forward to a relaxing trip across the channel, home.
In the adjacent queue, lorries were called forward one or two at a time, as security guards searched under and inside each one. We know what for.
It brought home to me the incredible privilege I have, compared to most other people on the planet. By a total accident of birth, having done nothing to deserve it, I had an EU passport in my pocket.
Of course, this has nothing to do directly with EU free movement; but it does illustrate the obvious moral truth, that all borders are scars, at odds with any honest definition of universal human rights. It is in this context that we must examine the debate which has erupted today about Jeremy Corbyn’s comments on free movement in an interview with Andrew Marr yesterday.
First of all, it is essential to watch the actual interview. It is on the BBC iPlayer here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p059gb63 . Do not rely on Twitter quotes, or reports in the press, which have been universally misleading. Even the transcript, which some people have been circulating, doesn’t really give the whole story, because it is vital to watch or hear the interaction between Marr and Corbyn to be informed of the complete context. These days, TV interviews with politicians are not designed to elicit facts, still less increase the sum of human knowledge. They are attempted entrapment, where the interviewee is relieved to get to the end without a so-called gaffe.
I won’t get into the supposed bias of the media here, except to say that it is universally biased towards sensation and conflict, and is perfectly prepared to confect sensation and conflict if none exists. And in the service of this objective, it invariably presents even the most complex issue (and the issues of Brexit are very complex) as a series of isolated false binaries. So it was on Sunday morning.
Inevitably pressed on freedom of movement post-Brexit, Corbyn first of all stressed that Labour would guarantee full rights to EU citizens living in the UK. He specifically supported “family reunion”, putting himself on the side of Michel Barnier and the EU, rather than the watered down Tory proposal.
He then went on to talk about the problem of workers being “imported, wholesale” to replace existing workforces at lower wages, for the benefit of “no one but the companies”, particularly referring to the construction industry. This was surely a reference to the “Posted Workers” issue, though, in hindsight, he would have been better advised to make sure he used that phrase (as he often has in the past).
The Posted Workers Directive is actually part of the freedom of movement of services, not of labour. The idea is that a company can bring in a team of workers from anywhere in the EU to carry out a specific project, but that they remain employed in their country of origin, with no safeguards except a requirement to be paid at least the minimum wage of the destination country. Corbyn has always opposed this as an example of the “race to the bottom”, something which works against the interests of both local and migrant workers. Corbyn will often refer to this in interviews when the subject of free movement comes up.
However, this time, it has caused much consternation on the left, especially the “Continuity Remain” left. With admirable dexterity, Novara Media ensured that tonight’s episode of their excellent twice-weekly discussion program The Fix was given over to the issue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJHLZNlycQY. I have to say, it was very impressive how people with very different views discussed the issue in depth, calmly and with mutual respect, with able, light touch but truly engaged moderation by Michael Walker, who could teach Andrew Marr and the rest of them a thing or two. So much for the doctrinaire, intolerant left!
But, as important as the discussion on free movement, and its conflation with anti-immigrant xenophobia and outright racism, is, it was slightly unfair to base it around Corbyn’s interview yesterday, given that he didn’t really say anything he hasn’t said, to general agreement, in the past.
That aside, what do I make of it all? At least in the abstract, I found myself agreeing with almost everything that was said in the Novara discussion, even while the participants were disagreeing with each other.
But it is very important that we see free movement for what it is. First it is limited to “Fortress Europe” — refer back to my feelings at the ferry port, described at the top of this article. The price humanity pays for this includes barbed wire across the Balkans and desperate humanity drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. There is no truly socialist or even moral case to be made for free movement limited to the EU, except as seeing it as a very small step towards universal freedom and equality on our planet. As such, the issue cannot be separated from the fight for the economic and social emancipation of the whole of humanity.
Second, even in so far as it goes, freedom of movement (remember, for labour, not people) was not a gift given to us by a munificent ruling class, all the better for us to “live, work, learn and love” throughout our continent (in the fine, but ultimately sentimental words of Caroline Lucas). No, like everything, it was introduced to make the doing of business easier for the capitalist class. Ironically, it was seen as an essential partner of freedom of movement of capital by the richer European countries, such as the UK: if the workers were not allowed to travel to the work, capital would flow to the areas of cheap labour, out of the west, towards the east and south.
Of course, it is more complicated that this, it has been advantageous for large numbers of people who are obviously not capitalists: for those who have taken the opportunity to widen their horizons for work or retirement, or those like myself, who never felt comfortable as a citizen of a single country in the first place.
Anything that serves to break down national divisions has progressive potential. But unfortunately (perhaps a better word is inevitably), like many of the initiatives of a European Union wedded overwhelmingly to the interests of capital, it has turned into its opposite, and has become an engine of xenophobia and division. Yanis Varoufakis characterises Europe as a continent divided by a common currency; it could also be said it is a continent divided by a common travel area. (Incidentally, I was very much in support of the “Remain and Rebel” strategy of Varoufakis, but that option has gone.)
In short, the neoliberal obsessions of the EU, its basic character as club for capitalists, where workers rights and human rights are only a sideshow, have ensured that in this time of crisis, all the old nationalist crap has returned. Just look at the refugee camps on the Italian/French border at Ventimiglia, the previously-mentioned barbed wire disfiguring the Balkans, the EU debtors’ prison which is Greece, the list goes on. The Brexit vote and all its consequences is simply the British manifestation of these centrifugal forces which are driving Europe apart, and the blame lies squarely with the EU/UK ruling class.
So where does this leave Labour, and Jeremy Corbyn? Firstly, we have to be very careful in our language: not only will the neoliberal Labour right take advantage of the smallest error of tone in their factional battle to regain control of the Party, we also need to ensure that nothing we say gives the slightest succour to xenophobes and nationalists whose sole purpose is to divide us on national or racial lines. By these criteria, Corbyn’s Marr interview was not a success.
Of course, it’s not fair. Corbyn is an internationalist socialist and a lifelong anti-racist who would rather die than divide the working class. But we have to anticipate these attacks, and have strategies to avoid them. The game has changed in the last two months, since the General Election which discredited everything the political class thought they knew. Everyone, especially our foes, know now that Corbyn could be Prime Minister very soon.
The consequence of this is that every day we will be attacked and slurred in ways that we can hardly imagine. The entire establishment, including many in leading positions in the Labour Party, are desperate to prevent us from taking power: it is their worst nightmare — a Tory Party which has blown it at the precise moment that socialists have consolidated control of the Labour leadership. The lack of a reliable (for capitalism) Labour Party at this time is an existential crisis for the rich and powerful.
This is a turning point in history, it is full of opportunity, and full of danger. It could still go either way. I don’t think it is overstating the situation too much to recall Rosa Luxembourg’s dichotomy: “socialism or barbarism”. Certainly, the globalist, neoliberal centre seems finished.
Therefore the Labour left, as well as the independent left, who are our comrades and will be essential allies in the coming battles, have great responsibilities: recognise the constraints within which Corbyn is operating, understand the inevitable compromises required in a binary political system which offers either a Tory or Labour government, and nothing else. Find ways to articulate your criticisms or correct the errors of the Labour leadership which do not play into the hands of the right.
I would also encourage anyone who agrees with Labour’s basic premise, that society should be organised for the many, not the few, to join the Labour Party. You don’t have to agree with me, you don’t have to agree with Corbyn: come and argue your case.
Perfection and absolute political purity is never possible in the real world, but in Britain, uniquely in Europe, a traditional social democratic party has been won for the left, with an incorruptible leader. As a consequence, socialism is on the verge of power in the UK, far closer than anywhere in Europe. I’ve been waiting my whole adult life for this, since I joined Labour in 1983. It is the opportunity of a generation, of several generations in fact, and we must all do all we can to bring it about.
Eight days ago, at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, Corbyn told us that progressive change has always come from below: that electing a Labour government would only be the start: that it would be essential that the movement continued on the streets, in the workplaces, in our communities. When did a candidate for Prime Minister ever say this?
This is why the capitalist class is terrified of him, and it is why I trust him.