Tuesday, February 03, 2009 

The Lindsey refinery protests and the political implications.

The general disarray over the Lindsey protests and the wildcat strikes in solidarity on the wider left is indicative of the general malaise which has fallen upon those who should, in a recession caused by allowing capitalism to run completely rampant, be reaping the benefits. Here is a cause which is clear - supporting workers who want to work, the same workers so often slandered as lazy and more content with sponging on benefits, but who are being denied jobs because of the absurd vagaries of outsourcing across continents, combined with corporations taking advantage of rulings at the European Court of Justice.

There was certainly initial cause for concern, it must be admitted. The appropriation of the xenophobic "British jobs for British workers" slogan, stolen by Gordon Brown from the far-right, itself illegal under European law, suggested that these protests might not have been to demand jobs but instead the first public rumblings of discontent over New Labour's open door immigration policy's effect on the ordinary British worker. There were indications that the protests, rather than being union organised, were the first signs that the British National Party was effectively starting to make headway amongst those more likely to be union members than members of the far-right. These, thankfully, seem to have been misplaced: the BNP were sent packing from Lindsey yesterday, despite their lies about being welcomed, and another site has quickly been exposed as a BNP front. Even more encouragingly, another site which seems to be directly linked to the protesters, bearfacts.co.uk, seems to be far more representative of the protesters' position: militant, and unrelentingly left-wing, with clear demands.

The socialist left, always divided, has been getting its ideological knickers in a twist. The Socialist Workers' Party, always wanting an idealised working class rather than the one we have in reality, quickly denounced the apparent nationalist sentiment and appealed for international working class solidarity. While there is something in this argument, considering the movement of construction workers across borders, this ignores the key facts in this dispute: that the workers in Lindsey were depending and expecting that these jobs would be available to them, when Total's outsourcing meant they didn't even get a look in. This was what sparked the protests, not that foreign workers were being employed in a fair process. The Socialist Party seems to be the only political grouping with representation on the unofficial strike committee, and unsurprisingly are fully behind the action, stressing that this is aimed at company bosses, not at foreign workers themselves.

At the other extreme, the response by the Labour party has been completely dreadful. Whether because Brown has been spooked by his ridiculous, ill-thought out slogan coming back to haunt him, or because organised labour is something which the Labour party had hoped it had cowed, his idiotic statement that the strikes were "not defensible", before going on to claim that he had meant something completely different from the words that had emanated from his mouth at the party conference in 2007 showed just how bankrupt his thinking on the recession has become. His pledges of retraining are too little too late and completely miss the point when there are jobs here that no one needs to retrain for but which they have no chance of filling. That Mandelson, the architect and espouser of completely relentless free trade with no regards whatsoever for the consequences for ordinary workers barely disguised his contempt while dismissing the protests on the grounds that there must "no return to protectionism", as if workers protesting for jobs were demanding isolation and self-sufficency, was no surprise.

Labour's woeful attitude can only be contrasted with the Conservatives' apparent rediscovery of moral or ethical capitalism. While this will always be a contradiction in terms, David Cameron's positioning of his party as being more likely to tame economic policy than Labour is welcome, however shallow the actual substance is behind it. We should be under no illusions that many Conservative policies, such as on welfare, inheritance tax and the "broken society" are inherently reactionary, but we really are starting to edge towards the time where it becomes impossible to be even slightly content with the status quo any longer. Their immediate response at the time of Brown's "British jobs for British workers" remark was to challenge it and show it up as both xenophobic, unworkable and unimplementable, and while they too denounce the strikes, they have been far more receptive than their supposed left-wing opponents have been.

Derek Simpson's proposals for resolving the protests and the solidarity strikes are a good start, but they are only that. While the unions cannot because of the anti-trade union legislation take formally part in the secondary action, they could be doing so much more to put pressure on Labour to challenge the European Court of Justice rulings at the very least. As Lenin points out, Labour's stance from the very beginning has been to provide opt-outs from European legislation which protects workers on the continent but which leaves those here as some of the most vulnerable and easy to be sacked, all to the delight of the CBI and the right-wing press. Whether it's the 48-hour working week or the chapter of fundamental rights, our politicians have long kept rights from British workers which others can take for granted. Polly Toynbee is also right to point out that unions, contrary to the myth and the way any strikes are now covered, are becoming ever weaker, with fewer strikes than ever before.

One of the main fears was that the recession would cause an already cruel country to become even harsher, more selfish and introverted, individuals left blaming each other or the entirely wrong people for their hardship. Instead, as the strikes have shown, despite initial misinterpretations, working class solidarity is still alive and well and capable of causing great political discomfort. The challenge now is to turn this solidarity into a campaign movement which fights for all workers, regardless of nationality, to be given a fair chance of employment and extended rights across the board. That will be much more difficult even than turning up at 5:30am outside a refinery in driving snow.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008 

Immigration and where to go from here.

To read the front page of the Daily Mail, and some of the coverage given to the Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs report on immigration, you'd imagine that some huge revelation and expose had been published. As always, the truth is rather greyer.

Its findings are in general not anything particularly new or especially revelatory. The main major criticism is that the government, surprise surprise, can't get its figures right, or the ones that it does present and claim show its case are simply a smokescreen: hence the oft-mentioned £6bn figure doesn't refer to the crucial capita per head, which the Lords report concludes has in fact been close to zero. That's the actual main conclusion of the report in general: that the current levels of immigration have despite all the arguments made on all sides, resulted in a roughly neutral overall effect for the majority. Those that have most prospered have been the immigrants themselves (duh) and the already wealthy; those that have suffered the most have been the already low-paid and manual workers, who have had their pay even further undercut, although like much of the evidence presented to the committee, it tends to be contradictory and weak on exactly to what extent this has taken place.

The report is not against immigration per se, rather its key concern is the high overall population increase, which is immigrants minus emigrants, currently predicted to remain at around 190,000 a year. It needs to be pointed out that these figures, despite the corrected predictions and doom-mongering reports which they influenced last year, are unlikely to stay static. The immigration rates of the last few years, largely down to the accession of the A8 eastern European nations, or down to immigration which we either can't directly control or haven't got the inclination to directly control, are likely to be exceptional, with the indications being that the immigration wave from Poland etc has already peaked, and that there might even now be more returning than are now coming. The question is whether the emigration rate, which is also at an incredibly high level, with 380,000 leaving in 2005, is also going to peak and decline. If it doesn't, then in a few years we might well be having the exact opposite of the current debate, especially if the birthrate doesn't also subsequently rise, concerned about our falling population and all that entails.

Reading this blog, some, and even I rereading some of my posts, might have got the impression that I'm overwhelmingly in favour of the current level of immigration. To clarify slightly, what I do object to is scaremongering, lousy journalism and fiddling of the figures which goes on in the tabloids about immigration, and this report does nothing whatsoever to change that. The mid-market tabloid opposition to immigration is not out of concern for those that it disenfranchises and hurts, but rather part of the Little Englander mentality, with the Daily Mail/Express demographic being those most likely to have benefited from immigration, and most of their readers won't be complaining about immigration possibly resulting in house prices going up by 10%, as the report suggests. As the report itself makes clear, the middle and upper classes have gained the most: consumers have benefited through lower prices, and taxpayers have benefited through lower costs of public services, not to mention the increase in services with the infamous Polish plumber and his brethren. When the Federation of Poles recently complained about the coverage the Mail had given to them, they countered with a series of articles it had published extolling the virtues of the Polish working man and woman, while, predictably, assailing the lazy work-shy British who wouldn't do the jobs they were filling.

Reading some of the comments on the articles and posts that have followed the Lords report, this is where the extreme sides of the argument seem to fluctuate between: attacking the "chavs" and the underclass for sponging off the state for not having the work ethic of the immigrants, and going after Labour for imposing the current situation on us. It is undoubtedly Labour that has instituted the current position, but it's one which the Conservatives are certainly not about to change, their rhetoric on putting a limit on immigration and putting the case for a cap or not, which would be a sticking plaster only affecting 25% of the actual current total. All the main parties in fact are not for changing the orthodoxy behind immigration, which is neoliberalism itself. Let's be clear here: if it had been politically expedient for Labour to have limited immigration, it would have done so. Not because it would be popular, as it certainly would be, but rather because immigration, and with it the free-for-all of the most extreme elements of globalisation are the current drivers behind the only people that increasingly matter to this government: the City of London and the CBI, both of which depend upon immigration and defend it to the death. This could not be more borne out by two of the major points of Lord Wakeham and the report itself, that the mass immigration we have seen would not be necessary if wages were higher and if the minimum wage was higher or a living wage. Hence it makes perfect sense to pay a skilled eastern European a wage below what many here would deem acceptable or liveable on, but not to pay an unskilled British worker a wage that he could live on to do the same job. This is why the government has been fighting tooth and nail to oppose the backbench proposal to give agency workers the same rights immediately as full-time workers, which would help to level the playing field. Brown's alternative is another laughable commission. The Conservatives are hardly going to deviate from the exact same policy should they get back in power.

It ought to be remembered that the government itself was taken by surprise by the numbers coming from the A8 countries, as their predictions were influenced by the belief that the other European nations would too open their doors without any quotas on the numbers that could come. In the event, only Sweden, Ireland and ourselves did that, something we then changed by imposing a cap on the numbers when Romania and Bulgaria joined last year, a measure that was effective in keeping the numbers down. They could have changed the policy, but the impression that it kept costs down and kept the economy turning over, helped along by the support of the CBI etc meant that it hasn't been, and there are no indications that the Conservatives either would shut the door on eastern Europe, something they could do despite some of the reporting that it's not possible because of EU rules.

The obvious point of all this is that for far too long we've left the working class of all colours, not just the white section which the BBC recently focused on, to stew in its own juices without enough help or care for them and their own struggles. The metropolitan classes took a rare glimpse into some of the sink estates recently with the Shannon Matthews case, and they sure as hell didn't like what they saw, and said so volubly. As others identified however, that community came together at the moment when it most needed to; maybe because of the disappearance of a child, maybe because it was like that anyway. Any government of the day needs to work with that spirit and turn it into higher-waged employment, but it's been far easier to depend on the migrant than on the necessary training and funding needed to turn around the defeatism that sometimes prevails. Labour does seem finally to have got the message, with the introduction in schools of the diploma that will hopefully encourage increasingly vocational qualifications that mean something. What will not solve the problem is the posturing of Caroline Flint over evicting those who don't work, nor will the wholesale privatisation of the jobcentre and the contracting out to the private sector of the task of finding work.

The right balance therefore needs to be struck between the above while decreasing the dependence on migration without shutting the door entirely or imposing an arbitrary cap. The government's chief mistake in all this has not been its current policy, but to have never properly articulated exactly what that policy is, or even to know what the policy is meant to be. Like with so much else that New Labour has done, it's been ad hoc and written on the back of a fag packet. The only real surprise is that it's taken this long for it to be seriously challenged by a source which doesn't seem to have any vested interests in either the current position or an alternative one, and that's perhaps an indictment of how little evidence-based policy continues to play in the daily life of Westminster. The Lords report has therefore hardly proved the case of MigrationWatch, while also showing that the see no evil approach hasn't worked fantastically either. The chance of any real change though as a result remains depressingly slight, and the cry that you're all the same from the doorsteps will continue to ring as true as before.

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