Brexit: Do we Need a New Consensus?

DAVE BERRY discusses his experiences of the referendum campaign and calls for left-wing reform of the European Union.

The referendum has been a painful experience for me and, like many others, I feel disconnected from the mechanics of politics rather than the ideology of my own personal beliefs.

Brexit door imageAs an ex-shop steward and councillor I really miss being the representative of people rather than just an individual voice in politics, and I have tried to have conversations with working people without being judgmental or comparing them to my own experiences and personal prism. My own situation is not one of lavish excess but my own economic and social position has made me unafraid of the world around me – some would say I am fat, lazy and indulgent.

While many have commented on the sullenness and unwillingness of many working people to engage on the doorstep, I have used the campaign to try and contact with people from my past and others in the community to talk privately. I have asked them about their feelings and tried to listen rather than speak, a very hard task for me. Where I have engaged in debate, the worst insult thrown at me is that I am irrelevant and, even worse, liberal.

More than anything, I have also been shocked by the fear and poverty I have seen in our communities, and how often that is expressed as anger without purpose or direction.

It has made me understand how much I love these people and the honesty they bring to real life. They are unafraid to debate issues that affect their lives but feel disconnected and hurt by the labels that are stuck on them, as though they are some sort of anthropological exhibit. A lack of real contact with them, both in the workplace and in the community, has caused this sullenness and left a vacuum for extremists to fill.

I feel so angry about the behaviour of our elected representatives and bereft about the situation working people find themselves in. Many people also feel anger at being forced to make a complex decision that our politicians have been afraid to make themselves, despite having all the benefits of office.

I also feel outraged at some post-referendum comments from some members of the Labour Party and the left, which suggest that working class people are racist and too stupid to be allowed to vote.

TS Eliot wrote:

‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’

The real subject of the referendum, and Boris Johnson may dispute this, has been immigration. The facts and studies showing the net benefits of immigration to the country have not been recognised by many Labour supporters, who contrast them with their experiences of the labour market and the effects on their communities, and they question the unequal distribution of that benefit.

Eliot’s lines perfectly sum up the referendum campaign where there was a need for facts and information but all people got was personal opinion presented as knowledge. In working people I have come across real wisdom based on their own experiences of a free market capitalist economy in times of austerity.

Framing the debate

The favoured tactic in political debate today is not to allow the debate in the first place by screaming with outrage and labeling your opponents as extremist. Discussions about Palestine turn into shouting matches about ‘anti-semitism’, those on gender issues lead to screams of ‘misogyny’ and, most importantly, discussions about immigration lead to accusations of ‘racism’.

This means that many who are less skilled in political debate retreat into their shells or stay silent, leaving space for the dog whistlers such as Nigel Farage and Johnson. In polite circles we talk in code about ‘changes in our community’; in political circles we attack the person rather than the topic, hence some MPs claim that Jeremy Corbyn cannot connect with our core working class vote – code for ‘I don’t like his views on immigration’.

As a reluctant ‘inner’ in the debate, I have tried to separate the overall political and economic arguments from the defence of an institution that is deeply flawed but have been amazed at the emotional attachment many people have expressed for the European Union without understanding its current political and economic direction of travel. I have also watched the political cartwheels supposed opponents have turned to support what they claim is the same thing, and I have become more and more doubtful about ‘free movement of labour’ in its current form and its place in our labour market.

As a socialist, or even as a Keynesian economist, I have doubts about free movement of capital and see the so-called free movement of labour as merely an extension of that. It is part of the race to the bottom currently being experienced in most developed economies where those jobs which cannot be off-shored are done by migrant labour dragged in from other countries at cheap rates that undercuts local workers.

Employers seek to avoid overheads, such as training and education costs, and ‘externalities’, such as pensions, sick pay, travel and clothing, and look for the ultimate flexible labour force at the expense of job security. Recent prosecutions for slavery, the experience of Sports Direct workers, stories about zero hours contracts and the growth of employment agencies, are manifestations of free movement which are frightening to those trapped in it and those competing with it. Since its early manifestations in the agricultural sector, migrant labour has spread to all areas of the economy including manufacturing, transport and distribution, care and public services. It is now making inroads into professional occupations with the same consequences.

The abuses people suffer are appalling – think of the poor woman forced to have a child on the floor of a toilet at the Sports Direct warehouse. That made me realise that neither her labour nor her movement were free. To the employer, free movement of labour is not only geographical but temporal. Your time is their time.

Literature and history

As with most things, I look to literary and historical texts to help with my analysis of current political situations. On the literary front, three books have helped with my thinking.

First is News from Nowhere by William Morris, especially his description of a dream of a socialist utopia in England where work is voluntary, and people have freedom to roam, and food and lodgings are freely available by a simple knock on the door.

However, the present situation more resembles Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the story of a Ukranian migrant’s hopeful journey to the US, which ends with him broken by merciless toil in the abbatoirs of the Chicago stockyards. The book’s exposure of the practices in the abbatoirs caused such outrage in the US that the government was forced to bring in stricter laws. Unfortunately, the laws were on animal welfare rather than employment, and employment practices continue to turn men and women into beasts rather than humans.

The third book I turn to is In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck, another American story of labour relations in the agricultural sector during the depression, when both sides of the political divide exploited working class poverty and struggles for their own political ends.

At a historical level, the collective memory of the working class sees migrant labourers as the enemies of the ‘going rate’, as an armies of ‘scabs’, with ‘labour substitution’ the primary weapon of employers who give jobs to ‘strangers’, not just those from the EU but from communities 10 miles up the road. This view of migrant labour is not cerebral but visceral, and the resentment spills out into communities from the workplace.

In the 1980s, striking miners and steelworkers from Yorkshire were not welcomed by local workers in the fields of Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire where farmers and gangmasters used them to undermine local rates. Union histories are littered with tales of fights between workers and scab armies, and it was the formation of the Free Labour Association that helped the employers break the rise of New Unionism in the 1880s and ’90s.

On the other hand, Joseph Arch’s early Agricultural Workers’ Union was forced to pay for the migration of 200,000 members to the industrial north, and to Canada, Australia and New Zealand in the 1880s, in order to reduce the labour supply and break the farmers’ resistance to better terms and conditions. Many in the 1880s faced the prospect of never seeing their loved ones again. In more recent times, we can all remember the resentment caused by Norman Tebbitt’s ‘on your bike’ calls.

Back to the present

Some may point to the generational improvements that occurred to early migrant lives after earlier waves of immigration, but those came as a result of social legislation and regulated labour markets, not the unregulated neo-liberal world now being forced through current trade deals.

There are calls for the employers’ excesses to be curbed by local or national regulation, but the failure of the Gangmasters’ Act and the nimble movement of exploitative employers, makes this difficult if  not coupled with macro-economic action. During the inter-war period of free trade, even Churchill was moved to call for stronger regulation to prevent ‘bad’ employers undercutting ‘good’ ones.

In modern times, many migrants experience social burdens such as separation, poor housing and exploitation. There is also a democratic deficit as two and a half million migrant workers are denied a vote in general elections for a parliament that has the ability to control excesses and enforce labour regulation.

For UK nationals, the deregulated workplace is also a place of democratic deficit where the law of contract takes precedence over regulation. An employment law of contract was once described by Lord Wedderburn as “a command described as an agreement”.

In 1914 the US recognised the problem with simply treating labour the same way as goods and services when they passed the Clayton Act, stating that “the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce” because of the humanity of the individual. This concept of human relations was central to the work of Karl Marx.

What interest will workers, particularly young workers, have in democracy if they see it surrendered to employers for eight hours a day or longer? It was this drive for economic survival that motivated workers and Chartists to call for the vote.

Attitudes towards migrant labour also sours attitudes towards people fleeing in fear of their lives. We must not confuse the rights of refugees with neo-liberal exploitation of the labour market, but nor must we allow a new ‘iron curtain’ to spread across Europe blocking the free movement of EU citizens.

The left-wing case for reform

As with all politics, the challenge is not to diagnose the disease but to offer a cure. Can we make a positive left-wing case for revising the provisions in the Treaty of Rome?

Like George Monbiot in the Guardian recently, I see this as an opportunity to reframe the continent and to control the excesses of corporate power; it’s an opportunity to put the citizen, the worker and humanity at the centre of the EU agenda.

In the Treaty of Rome, the free movement of capital and goods are the first two categories, with free movement of people added almost as an afterthought. I do not know the origin of this phrasing but I can almost imagine it as a sop to the supporters of a more social Europe, the notion of offering the same opportunity to labour as well as capital.

But like many tools it can become a weapon against the people it was meant to help. There is plenty of room for more national regulation of the labour market and certainly room for more spending to improve social conditions in health and housing.

Better regulation, the end of zero hours contracts, the end of employment tribunal costs and legislation to free up trade unions would all help, but the real goal should be reform of the macro-agreements of the EU to turn it into a collection of nations cooperating instead of competing with one another. If capital is to be contained then labour must be empowered to resist its exploitation.

The Treaty of Rome already offers us an opportunity to revise the way free movement operates in that it can be restricted as part of public policy. If the EU were to commit to full employment, the movement of labour could be restricted if unemployment reached certain levels or productivity fell below certain levels.

Current unemployment levels are hidden by underemployment, bogus self-employment, sanctions, workfare and self removal. Added to this, thousands of young people are in apprenticeships with no job guarantees – they are trapped in the same circumstances as engineering apprentices in the 1930s and sacked as soon as they qualify or reach full wage levels. Apprenticeships and control of training have always been a battleground.

A Keynesian approach to employment in the public sector, alongside a reversal of the privatisation agenda, could expand employment and training protection to national economies, soaking up and managing demand. The demonisation of workers who are unable to find work should also be stopped – unemployment must be recognised as a symptom of the failure of the economic system rather than of personal failure.

Is this a pipe dream or can it be made a political reality? The UK is not alone. The hard stance taken by Angela Merkel and the EU is supposed to prevent Brexit spreading like a contagion, but with Spain’s recent election coming to no conclusion, with Greece’s position and French elections due next year, other left-leaning parties are now facing the same prospect of the rise of right wing and openly fascist parties.

Now is the opportunity to reframe Europe and put humanity and the worker at its heart. For me, as a Labour Party member, it is a real opportunity to reconnect with working class voters and offer a new consensus, rather than the inevitable conflict that is in the offing.

Racism and climate change

Environmental regulation is also a necessity if we are to prevent the catastrophe that is climate change. The rich will eventually find out they can neither eat money nor escape to a new planet having destroyed this one. This will mean products will be produced locally where possible, rather than shipped across the world, while the ‘green economy’ allows us to expand job opportunities.

There has also been much talk of the white working class and their attitudes to immigration, but the same fears are shared by black and white workers who are all encouraged to see their neighbours as competitors, a perspective that breeds extremism and exploitation on all sides.

A progressive EU would split many of our people from the hardcore of racists and xenophobes. Travel and freedom of movement can be a blessing and any new consensus would open opportunities for cultural and social exchange, as friends rather than competitors, for us and our children.

On a global stage, the EU could become a model of progress in opposition to the neo-liberal orthodoxy of US dominance and avoid the inevitable conflicts that free trade has historically brought.

I see the current situation as an extension of a much older battle between misnamed free trade and market regulation which has been going on over the last two centuries. At times the working class have benefited from free trade, as with the repeal of the Corn Laws, but more usually they and their social and economic organisations have been decimated by under-cutting and exploitation.

Peace and stability have only ever come about through market regulation, such as during the years of the post-war consensus. And at the heart of market regulation should be redistribution, equality and humanity. The key is who controls the freedom and regulation – the people or the corporations?

Dave Berry was a union shop steward and convener in the nationalised and privatised gas industry for almost 30 years, and he served as a Labour councillor for 16 years. He is a member of Sheffield Central CLP and Sheffield Momentum, and works with the Independent Workng Class Education Network.

He will be giving a talk entitled ‘Post Referendum: Is a new consensus needed?’ to the Dronfield Labour Party discussion meeting on Sunday 17 July.

1 Comment

  1. Harry Barnes
    25 July 2016

    Dave Berry recently addressed the Dronfield Labour Party Discussion Group on his above topic. It was a fine contribution which stimulated a serious and important debate.

    The Brexit campaign against immigration was supported by many people from traditional working class communities and especially those whose exoeriences were shaped by the early post-war years. Many of these were raised in solid working class communities in areas dominated by coal mining, steel and the cotton and manufacturing industries. The coal mining environment which I was raised in in County Durham was a mixed community based on families who had moved in earlier mainly from other parts of the UK and Ireland. These had intermingled and came to see themslves as locals. There was also some Post-war immigration from places such as Poland and Hungary; which was generally accepted in an era of full-employment, a developing NHS and a Welfare State.

    But when these industries fell into decline little was done by Governments to protect them, nor to provide alternative avenues of employment. Communities (where people had either worked in a common industry or were linked into it as suppliers and providers of local services working in avenues such as shops, house-building and medical services) were smashed. Little action was taken to provide alternative employment in such areas.

    Some of these communities have not seen droves of immigrants arriving, as they offer no-one any serious hope of employment. But these areas also include the generations who have experienced a decline from their earlier years of intermixing. And they draw from other experiences. They will often also move about in neighbouring towns and look into a multicultural media which goes outside of their past comfort zone. At times they come across people in non-traditional dress who talk a foreign language. Based on limited experiences, they become ill at ease and worry. And they pass on their fears to others in their communities.

    If such feelings are to be transformed, it is no use ignoring them nor failing to appreciate their background. Brexit is a consequence and so is the advance of UKIP. Whilst we hopefully stand upon a humanitarian base and see the need to open our doors (especially to those escaping to protect their very lives), we also have to engage with the concerns of those whoses lives and communities have been destroyed from what had once seemed to be a firm, secure and comforting past.

    When at its extreme such concerns lead to anti-mixing and even racist attitudes, this is something which we need to tackle. But we need to do this with a serious understanding of why basically decent and honest people often feel as they do and concede to anti-social views. It is a question of how we can show that we are with such people, yet aren’t Brexit extremists.

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