Just a few days ago I argued on this blog that the British ruling class is deeply conflicted. The UK Conservative Party, currently in "disarray" over immigration and the European Union, is at the time of writing proving that argument right in glorious fashion.
This conflict can be summarised as follows. On the one hand, the wider ruling class holds a sceptical faith in the power of free markets to help develop society as a whole; on the other, it maintains an ideal commitment to the "national economy" (both territorially and commercially homogeneous) as the relevant entity on which to focus developmental efforts. The tension between these two poles is now exploding around the two political flashpoints of immigration and the European Union.
Last night the Conservative Defence Minister Michael Fallon told Newsnight that parts of Britain were at risk of being "swamped", their residents "under siege" by waves of migrants. Fallon is not alone in his fears, despite the obviously enforced speed of his retraction. The UK Conservative Party has recently been committed by David Cameron to a renegotiation of the "principle of the free movement of people" within the Union as part of Britain's future continued involvement. Reports immediately seized on this as further evidence of the Tories moving further to the right under Ukip pressure.
One should be wary, however, of blaming the fiasco of the Tories' EU policies, and of their attitude to immigrants, on Ukip. The latter does not represent any clear shift to the right of the UK electorate. The Tories are not bowing to "popular pressure" as represented by the Ukip insurgency on their right flank. This tirelessly rehearsed explanation assumes that without a popular anti-EU backlash or Little Englander racism, the government would be formulating perfectly consistent and coherent policies on either. The reality of the problem runs deeper for Tories (as it does for all of Britain's historic rulers, bearing to some degree also on capitalists themselves and even the leadership of the Labour Party). The Tory Party is a composite of ideas extracted from a broad array of class roots (from a faded aristocracy to privileged layers of the working class), which rely for their coherence on a careful balancing act by Party officials. On the one hand, the interests of capital as a class must be assured. On the other, the interests of the nation as a whole. Practically, in the building of Conservative culture and in the formulation of Party policy, this is felt in the aforementioned division between developing the "national economy" and preserving the "free market."( The reality of a capitalist society is, of course, that the two are mutually interdependent and conflicting, the nature of their relationship requiring constant renegotiation ).
In short, then, the Tory Party is in a position of grave weakness over both its attitude to the EU and to immigration. On the one hand, many Tory politicians, party members, and voters recognise immigration's vital function in securing returns to capital, with fewer (though a significant minority) acknowledging the positive role played by the EU in securing regional markets (both of commodities and labour). On the other, there is widespread fear of the threat to the "national economy" posed by EU regulation and external competition from low-skilled workers. This is not a purely economic matter, however. Conservatives are by nature deeply committed to the Union of the British Isles. Through precisely its regulated free trade regime, the EU threatens UK sovereignty. The "free market" - which the EU undoubtedly supports in practice - stands less for any unchanging theory of virtue inherent in deregulation, than for what the British ruling class believes will in practice best serve British capital at a given time. The EU impinges on sacred Tory notions of sovereignty and the inner collective coherence of the UK; immigration undermines the social and territorial homogeneity of the British state. Though both the EU and immigration are, in a sense, symptomatic phenomena of free markets, the Tory Party discovers in practice that they threaten their other intellectual commitment to the national economy.
The Conservatives will struggle in the short term to reorganise their political culture so as to incorporate both immigration and the European free-market bloc (in the historical long term, they stand perhaps to gain from both anti-democratic EU tendencies and the loosening of nationally regulated labour markets). This gives the British Left a rare opening: an opportunity, for once, to fight a battle it can actually win. How? While the Tory Party struggles to reconcile itself to a world of permanently diminished stature of the British state, the Left can start organising its own counter-hegemonic bloc. The social forces it can win to its side in forthcoming battles range from the progressive, democratic wing of the middle class to migrant workers themselves. For it to do so, however, will require a reformulation of the terms of the argument in which anti-immigrant sentiment presently dominates (as previously explored, the British working class also suffers from a culture of conservatism when it comes to immigration). This reformulation of terms - made possible by current Conservative weakness - must then be used to formulate concrete proposals. In short, the Left must argue:
- the "free movement of people" doesn't threaten democratic sovereignty; the "free exploitation of labour" does
The Left could demand greater protection of workers' and democratic rights as a condition of Britain's continued EU membership. The €2.1 billion bill dumped on David Cameron by the EU this week could also be used progressively. The Left could challenge European elites to explain the use of these contributions to the electorate, as opposed to addressing themselves exclusively, and clandestinely, to the government ("Play by the rules," was the collective instruction of Barroso, Hollande and Merkel to Cameron this week). This would also form a starting point for addressing British concerns about accountability and democracy within the Union. This would take the form:
- fundamental democratic reforms, including deepening the power of the European Parliament, not withdrawal from the EU
This could be the centrepiece of a progressive Labour platform in a future EU-membership referendum.
Concretely, the Left in Britain could organise around the issue of a strictly enforced, universal living wage to protect migrants from super-exploitation and to strengthen the wider British working class. To those who argue that such a policy would cause unemployment, the Left can argue simply that it is growing consumption (fuelled by wage increases) not profit rates or returns to capital that drives productivity and economic growth in capitalist economies. Higher wages for both British and immigrant workers would help the economy as a whole.
This is a popular-democratic strategy, not a strictly "socialist" one, which draws on a long tradition of Keynesian demand management and social labour-market protection - a shared British and European heritage of the postwar era - whilst deliberately driving at a new, progressive social gain: a universal living wage. I see no reason that the current Labour Party leadership could not be pushed to make such an argument, especially if the Tories and the wider ruling bloc remain divided. The eventual goal would be a European living wage (adjusted for GDP or some other index of national wealth) to energise the renewal of a specifically European working class, to help strengthen its institutions and to create the space for its political culture.
If intellectual and working-class forces to the left of the Labour leadership fail to nudge it in the right direction on immigration by, at the earliest, the May elections or, at the latest, by the time of the proposed membership referendum, the Tories will almost certainly regain the upper-hand. I am inclined to think this outcome even more likely if the Tories are in office when Europe begins a significant economic recovery. Crucially, this could be well under way during the referendum campaign, resulting in renewed membership of an unreformed EU, a growing economy still fuelled by very cheap labour, and the further disenfranchisement of the British and European working class. The benign Tory attitude to the free market, and to European authorities as the regional guarantors of capital circulation and labour movement, will have resurfaced in more assertive form. The Left cannot afford to miss this opportunity.