Notes on Brexit from a trade union and working class perspective

February 16, 2017 at 8:02 pm (class, Europe, Johnny Lewis, labour party, left, nationalism, populism, Socialist Party, solidarity, stalinism, unions, Unite the union, workers)

Protesters block the main gate to the Wilton Chemical Complex on Teesside in support of a mass walkout by energy workers in Lincolnshire

Above: Reactionary Socialism in action

By Johnny Lewis

Labour and Brexit
For Labour the 2015 election may well prove as significant as the Liberals’ 1924 defeat which signified their eclipse by Labour. Certainly this fate was signalled by the psephologists post ’15 analysis of Labour’s 2020 prospects. They concluded Labour needed to win 100 seats and, more importantly meld together a number of very different political constituencies.  While this predates both Corbyn and the referendum all three spring from the same fountainhead of a profound change to class, one that has equally impacted on the unions as on Labour.

As I have argued in a previous post the unprecedented changes to class are profoundly changing the labour movement, and it is not a question of if, but when and how, this leads to some form of fundamental realignment. Whether, in the end this is piece-meal in character or takes the form of a sharp break, the prelude to such a change will be Labour’s electoral decline.

Since at least 2010 this should have determined the left‘s strategy; to form a  tendency within the Labour movement primarily working in the Party to roll back New Labour’s uncoupling of the unions from the Party and their abandonment of social democracy for social liberalism. A strategy which only made sense by turning the Party outwards to win back its working class base.

Such a view is one among many and the left cannot be measured by its failure to take up this particular approach but it can on its inability to adopt any strategy to reform Labour, a failing compounded by the hapless Corbyn and his entourage. Brexit has now amplified our shortcomings and seems set to bring to a head the crisis within the movement.

Unlike Trump or Le Penn’s programmes Brexit was not a programme for government yet the inescapable logic of the exit process makes it just that. Injected into the body politic as this virus spreads it is radically transforming the host and its weakest part is Labour. Labour is no longer facing a passive indifference from sections of its core electoral base, rather they are now mobilised around Brexit and the Party is in a life and death struggle with the forces Brexit unleashed. How Labour defines itself against the Brexit process will play no small part in determining its future.

To date the only impact of Brexit on Labour has been to function as an accelerant on the divisions between its membership (Remain voters) and its working class electoral base (Leave voters). The likely consequence of this is to speed Labour’s electoral decline and further push the Party back in the direction mapped out by New Labour: that of social liberalism, now cast as identity politics.

The casting of Labour as a party of social liberalism can only happen through a focus on pushing back against the rise of social conservatism. All to the good that the Party takes on conservatism, but when this is seen to be its primary role it cannot but become part of the process of moving the body politic to one where the primary cleavage is defined as one of social liberalism against conservatism. The consequence is to move the party further away from class and the ability to speak to those workers smitten with reactionary socialism.

Reactionary Socialism
Surely it is now clear that Brexit is the English version of a phenomenon sweeping the west, where large numbers of workers, including trade unionists are moving from passive political indifference to an active engagement with, what is commonly known as the populist right.

In all cases its core support comes from the least well educated, and those impoverished by industrial decline typified by Logan County West Virginia. The site of the battle of Blair Mountain, a struggle to unionise the mines and the biggest armed insurrection since the civil war – Democrat to its core – now belongs to Trump.

The stage of development and pace of this process is different between countries so in France the Front National has built up its working class base over decades, while Trump’s rapid accent was made possible by winning over sections of core democratic voters; some 48% of US trade unionist voted Trump. In the UK this tendency has been galvanised by Leave and is still being formed around the Brexit process.

Regardless of each country’s stage of development the tune is the same; a direct appeal to workers on the grounds of the betrayal by their traditional parties, nationalism and its corollary xenophobia, hostility to supra national institutions, conservative social policies and elements of economic social policies usually associated with the left, wrapped in an imagined past. This is a form of reactionary socialism.

This is not the first time workers have been mobilised behind a reactionary programme, the phenomenon was first noted by Marx when remnants of feudal society tapped into workers’ anti-capitalist sentiment attempting to mobilise them against the consolidation of bourgeois political power and regress development of the productive process.

Today’s reactionary socialism is not peddling a regressive form of capitalism such as autarky(although this might come) rather we are witnessing neo-liberalism’s attempt to restructure itself on national rather than super national institutions, uncoupling the state institutions from  social liberalism, and realigning them with a social conservativism. To push through the latter it attacks bourgeois democracy by shifting power away from the legislature to the executive exemplified by Trump and seen in the UK by the attempts to stop Parliament holding a Brexit vote. Linked to this are attacks on the independence of the judiciary, again the benchmark is Trump but the Mail’s retro Stalinist headline “Enemies of the People” points in the same direction.

Apart from the policy specifics what makes this international movement different from previous incarnations is the manner in which it threatens the fabric of these countries Labour movements

The electoral success of the populists is unthinkable without mobilising large sections of the workers. Nowhere is this more apparent than the workers role in securing a Brexit victory.

Brexit and the working class
The most remarkable aspect of the Leave campaign was how its working class base drove it making border controls its beating heart and effectively turning it into a single issue campaign. The fact it makes little to no economic sense, or for the more enlightened among the Leave leadership it was anathema, to win they needed the working class vote which stood behind the demand.

Brexit is however more than border controls. As with other populist demands it is a modern day Janus; on the one hand it looks to the past with its socially reactionary programme but also to a future of repositioning British capital to its post EU incarnation. It envisages a future where the state becomes an enabler for multi-nationals through a low tax low welfare economy or as UKIP’s Douglas Carswell put it `Singapore on Steroids’.

The lynchpin holding these elements together is workers support for immigration controls. The shadow it casts over the Brexit process obscures all else, at least at this stage of the process.  However workers mobilised behind this banner are signing up to become the foot soldiers in the repositioning of Neo-Liberalism. They are the battering ram to eviscerate democratic institutions, and what remains of social legislation. The irony is their future in this Brexit Arcadia is prefigured in the present by the flexibility of the deregulated ‘gig’ economy; the as and when work ethic of the migrant labourer.

This is the terrain socialist and trade unionists have to fight on if they wish to engage with workers, mapping an alternative which counterposes workers’ rights to Singapore on Steroids. Such an approach will in the short term be swept away by the Brexit tide, an inevitable consequence of the time lag between the expectations raised by Brexit and its consequences.

However those wishing to engage with the Brexit worker are doing so largely from within a social liberal / conservative discourse and will surely miss their mark.  At least they, unlike Lexit supporters have something to say about Brexit other than viewing it as a victory.

The Lexit Delusion
As part of Marx struggle against feudal socialism he polemicized against those socialist whose watch word can be summarised as “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”:  this included elements among the Chartists who supported aristocratic Tories who, like them, were against the factory owners.  As an organised tendency these supporters of reactionary anti-capitalism were known as `True Socialists’. Today our world is replete with their offspring from Putin lovers, Jew-haters through to the Lexiteers: often, but not always, one and the same.

The starting point for Lexit was the True Socialist dictum of a defeat for Remain being a defeat for the ruling class – my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Once ingested it enabled a view of the world which ignored the reactionary premise of Leave, ignored the reactionary character of the campaign’s leadership, ignored that its core working class support was concerned with stopping immigration, and ignored the consequences of Brexit for the Labour Party. Perhaps most delusional was their belief they had a voice in the campaign. It is then hardly surprising that they are unable to grasp that Brexit was the catalyst for the rise of reactionary socialism.

A central pillar of this denial is to view the Leave voters as sticking two fingers up to our rulers, in reality this is a collective act of wish fulfilment of transposing and imposing their formula my enemy’s enemy onto the workers. Of course this does have a point but the point is banal. If you sees class conflict as central to how society functions you also accepts that workers often take reactionary positions. The fact Brexit has mass working class support does not make it less reactionary. Trump and La Pen peddle the same programme as Brexit and rest on a similar working class base, but apart from our hard core Putin lovers, on what possible basis could one support such people?  In the end the only purpose of `class struggle by stealth’ is as a piece of self-deception.

This cul de sac finds our `true socialist’ tied to the coattails of a hard Brexit and however surreptitiously need to distance themselves from Corbyn’s attempts to cling to the single market, until the consequence of Brexit has beaten them over the head enough times to knock some sense into them they have nothing to say to workers.

Of course the majority will march against Trump seeing no contradiction with Lexit, as they too become corralled within the social liberal / conservative discourse.

Socialist \ social liberal defence of free movement
It would seem most supporters of free movement start from the basis of upholding the socialist principle of internationalism. Yet this seemingly most of radical position rests largely on social liberalism, a mix of a moral imperative, rights and equality for migrant workers overlaid by a socialist gloss of workers’ solidarity and internationalism. See for example Allinson (Unite GS candidate) or the recent defence of free movement by Ira Berkovic posted on Shiraz Socialist.

Such appeals sit within the liberal – conservative discourse and invite rejection by the workers leaving the socialists with nothing more to say, and the way open for the populists to further consolidate their hold over such workers.

This defence betrays a division between a socialist and trade union approach, in big picture terms it separates out a socialist principal from workers immediate interest whether perceived or real.

Although such socialists like to view support of free movement going back to earliest times our movement’s history is far more chequered, and the liberal / Socialist approach (as with the broader social liberalism) has its origin in the struggles for equality in the early post-war period ’45-’79. Obscured in those struggles was the issue of competition between workers

Workers’ competition and free movement
Competition between workers can take many forms; between individuals, groups, or categories of worker  struggling to maintain or obtain an occupational position at the expense of others or a willingness to undercut the wage rates to obtain or maintain work at the expense of others. This competition is the worker’s natural state under capitalism as are the divisions it engenders between workers.

Workers struggle to overcome such competition is the driving force in the formation of unions and with it the starting point in the formation of class and therefore class power. It is also the starting point for working class socialism. There is however always an alternative which poses a reactionary resolution to worker competition. In periods of economic prosperity and or a strong labour movement it lies largely dormant, today we see the consequences of living with a weak and fractured labour movement.

Older workers will have direct experience of such divisions played out along gender and race lines. I can recall a job where the better paid plumbing work was given to white workers, who defended the practice on the grounds their jobs were more complex and “`N’s  are just not up to it.” Of course there are parallel examples of how women were excluded from the workforce, often backed up by law.

This example is drawn from a period of powerful unions, full employment and state welfare which had largely removed the reserve army of labour as a factor in a workers life and gave a particular shape to the struggles against these forms of worker competition.

Pushed by an emerging constituency of women and black workers it was the unions– often against the wishes of members and local union officials who came to the fore to fight discrimination. From the early ‘70s they were joined by the state and the two can be viewed as working in tandem to `civilise the workplace’ for women and black workers. State sponsorship led to a growing judicial floor of rights which defined our understanding of such practices. The workers who perpetrated these practices were increasingly marginalised seen as backward, bigots, racists’ sexist etc (all usually true) as the ethos of equality and rights came to dominate the workplace.

Today worker competition takes on a very different complexion; the economic model Thatcher built and continued under Blair reshaped the workforce, deregulated the labour market, and has largely removed the state social security system and social infrastructure. In our civilised workplaces where employers stuff workers mouths  with rights and equality we find for most workers job security has gone, work has intensified, workers are fragmented, unions are weak and competition between them takes many forms such as; in multinationals the employer threatens to relocate, the struggle between core (often unionised) and periphery workers, workers who take wage cuts to save their job from being undercut by a cheaper competitor, all are underpinned by a reanimated Reserve Army of the underemployed.

It is this markertising economy which EU migrants have been sucked into, and have become one factor in the competition between workers. More importantly they have become one of, if not the central way difference between workers is understood, and consequently one of the key ways worker competition is comprehended.

Our present throws a different perspective on the early post war struggles for workplace equality; in retrospect we can see discriminatory practices were a form of competition between workers. The bigotry of whatever type, while all too real was a hook one group was able to hang their hat on to rationalise their advantage over another, illustrated today by the inadequacy of the concept of race to categorise hostility towards E Europeans

Such reactionary solutions not only exist when workers are in direct competition with each over jobs and has a real basis in fact it also functions as the background noise in the workplace where divisions are understood through different forms of prejudice. In the latter case the worker comes to understand difference through breathing in the prevalent common sense prejudices of the day creating an unholy feedback loop where the prejudice explains difference and the difference reinforces the common sense prejudices.

Those defending free movement have, to all intense and purposes transposed the understanding of workers’ call for the end of free movement solely as a form of prejudice (it is) which they challenge by raising equality and the rights of others failing to comprehend it is a major plank in the reactionary (and completely illusory) solution to the problem of competition between workers. A different approach to this question starts from a trade union perspective.

A trade union perspective
In reality ‘rights’ are a secondary issue in any worker employer relation, as prior to them is the economic relation. If capital did not need migrant labour and if migrants did not need the work then there would be no relation around which rights could be discussed. From a trade union perspective the starting point for viewing migrant labour is necessarily the economic and it should also be the starting point for socialists. From this perspective it is another element in the struggle to mitigate competition between workers.

Yet it is precisely this point the liberal / socialist approach wishes to obscure through a non-recognition of the impact of migrant labour on labour markets. Berkovic touches on this matter in relation to the Socialist Party (SP) idea of the state-imposed closed shop and McCluskey’s call for sectoral bargaining. He says;

“The demand relies on two assumptions: one, that migrant labour necessarily has a depressing effect on the pay, terms, and conditions of domestic workers. And two that employers deliberately and directly hire migrant workers in order to drive down their costs, because migrant workers will work for less.”

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the SP’s or McCluskey’s views, Berkovic’s position does not hold up: far better to say some migrant labour depress wage rates as they are willing to work for less, and where employers can use migrants to drive down wages they will.

If one looks at aggregates of migrants impact on wage rates the evidence shows a somewhat neutral picture but that does not help with the specifics where wages have been depressed or the local labour market has been radically reshaped by an influx of foreign Labour. This is not a universal experience but it is a wide spread one among lower paid workers the cohort who voted Leave, to deny this or believe it is press hysteria leaves you unable to speak to these workers. It also puts their concerns beyond the pale because either they are dupes of the press or racists or both. It is akin to denying that in some parts of the country the health service has not been overwhelmed by the influx of migrant Labour, in both cases you cannot pose a solution if you refuse to accept that any problem exists.

A trade union approach recognises the issue but rejects the reactionary solution of border controls. Instead, we attempt to tackle the issue as with any other industrial matter – or  wage inequality which can only be undertaken in two ways: industrially where workers bid up wages and terms and conditions, for example in the recent strike at Fawley where Italian contract Labour took strike action to obtain parity and won; or through governmental action and developing policies for a future Labour government to enact. In this instance labour can increase the minimum wage (a point made by Berkovic) and change  labour legislation to alter the terms on which labour can be hired for example to regulate how agency labour can be used. Such demands are of course not specific to migrant labour they are general demands to improve the material well-being of workers. An effect of implementing such demands will, reduce or the flow of foreign labour. A conclusion which gives socialist radicals’ apoplexy as it is seen to be capitulating to the tide of reaction they need to consider where not supporting such demands places them in relation to the working class.

This change to labour legislation is my understanding of the origins of McCluskey’s proposal (even though he has now clearly overreached himself and taken this proposal to a ridiculous extreme), specifically out of a problem posed by the Posted Workers Directive. Originally wages, terms and conditions were derogated to individual member states; Blair chose the minimum wage rather than applying the going rate set by sectoral collective bargaining, which a number of other member states chose to do. This had two generalised consequences firstly in some workplaces peripheral workers have been replaced by Posted Workers on a lower rate; second the substitution of Posted workers for English workers sometimes at a lower rates. The demand was for government to shift the rate to the going rate which would also mean the employer of Posted Workers would also have to engage with unions around sector-wide collective bargaining.

It is clear that Labour’s present policies on workers rights are far from fully formed. However it can only be by proposing policies that curtail labour flexibility that we can build working class opposition to border controls and  begin to speak to workers about the issue – a hearing I am sure will get easier as Brexit unfolds and its consequences become apparent.

7 Comments

  1. Glasgow Working Class said,

    Terrible British workers wanting jobs in Britain. How selfish of them. Give the jobs to johnie foreigner and let his government off the hook. Not long to Brexit.

    • Mick said,

      British Jobs For British Workers was a left wing slogan not so many years ago. The trade unions used it as a proud rallying call.

      But look at the left now, showing unmasked contempt of those against an overexpanded labour pool. Indeed, the Labour Force Survey – published by the Office Of National Statistics – shows we already have more than enough immigrants to ‘save’ the economy, ‘save’ the NHS, etc.

      I come here and comment to keep myself in touch, ironically by seeing how deranged the Left have become in contempt of the people and values they have always needed to run us again.

  2. Mick said,

    Yeah, we get it. Western bigoted women and white van men have disappointed the Marxists. We’re refusing to pick up torches and pitchforks to burn down the nearest mansion. We’re, instead, all wacists. But it’s true that coolie labour depresses wages in line with market forces. It’s true that the EU leech and dictate bad rules to us and even still expect us to pay for their ‘loss of earnings’ after we depart! We just don’t want them.

    Labour will bounce back. Every once in a while when the popular right are the losers, the even more terrible left wing plunge the party into utter shambles. It’s something to get out of their system while Tories at least look like leaders who get things done. But Labour’s problem always is that the rightist MPs are the ones who achieve the power, abuse or let it fall through their fingers and then be electorally punished for it. They are the only game in town. The leftist MPs are mere ballast to make up the numbers outside the concerns of their own constituencies. That’s why the Co-Operatives never split from Labour after all because they wouldn’t get a sniff of power again. And that’s how Corbyn makes the shysters even more restive when the commies try to run the system.

    Labour as a whole will NEVER come together over Brexit. Most Labour MPs are Remoaners but even here, they fall out among themselves. Some are Brexit blockers, others go along with it with grave reservations and other still do nothing but whine about their consciences. They are just not in touch, even with their own remain constituents who at least respect the referendum result.

  3. Reactionary Socialism | secreteyes4 said,

    […] via Notes on Brexit from a trade union and working class perspective — Shiraz Socialist […]

  4. Political Tourist said,

    Roll Roll Up for 21st Century Tory Britain.
    Personally i blame it on the non trade union robots.
    Not a passport between the lot of them.

    • Mick said,

      It’s because the left are too crap. We’re told they’re of the people, by the people, for the people. But only a left alien from the people insult the people.

      Now it’s Tony Blair joining the chorus. One thing Labour people have in common is saying the real People were too deficient to vote the ‘correct’ way.

    • Glasgow Working Class said,

      Sadly thousands working in the public service are opting not to join unions. And they are the people who enjoy better working conditions that have been negoitated by unions over decades. Greed has won just look at Scotland where the Tartan Tories are doing the Tories work for them.

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