Playing the race card: Smith and working class identity politics

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Women workers’ banner at the black country museum workers institute

It wasn’t too many decades ago that it was the tories who attacked the Labour party with the race card – if you want X for a neighbour vote Labour and all of that. A lot of those battles were fought on black country soil: Smethwick, Wolverhampton, rivers of blood.

In the 21st century where UKIP have transformed themselves from the besuited posh mahogany people who hate Brussels to a nationalist party for the “respectable working class”, hoovering up votes where the less savvy more brutish form of the BNP were crumbling, it is much less clear where anyone stands in anything. UKIP may lack any reason to officially exist now that we have taken our country back, but the genie is most definitely out of the bottle.

In the last election Blue Labour pulled the strings on how the party addressed immigration. Too many years of Purple Blairite neo-liberalism has left working class people feeling patronized and ignored on immigration, the Blue Labour lot argued, and we ignore them at their peril. Following on from the resounding success of this, which saw yet another election lost bringing on yet more austerity followed by a referendum fought on poisonous turf leaving hate crime soaring (including a fire-bombed butchers in Walsall and a toddler and grandmother assaulted in nearby Worcester), Owen Smith yesterday decided the time was ripe to go for the us and them in class politics, stating:

“There are too many immigrants in parts of Britain.”

His stance on the need to connect with and listen to working class people on immigration will certainly please my neighbouring MP, Dudley North’s Ian Austin. There is a long argument in the Labour party that the left stick their fingers in their ears when it comes to immigration and write off huge numbers of working class voters when they do.

There is lots of data to show migration has a positive contribution to the economy – but if you are not benefiting from those contributions then arguably that data could look dismissive and like part of an establishment con to deny your lived experiences of falling wages. It is also pretty problematic to get heavily involved in arguments which suggest migration is good because migrants contribute to the economy because it equates human value with wealth production. Women (and yes some men too) put in hours of unpaid domestic labour which adds to the social value of communities but are wealth receivers in that they receive child benefits, carers allowances etc. And then we come to disabled and elderly people. And women migrants who are carers, disabled migrants, elderly migrants. Working class people include but are very much not limited to white men, something which is so often missed.

There is no solution to the problems of impoverished and divided communities to be had in a blue Labour approach of listening to and repeating the view that we must get migration under control. It is not the job of the labour movement or any party which is meant to represent the interests of workers to do the bosses work for them by scapegoating other sections of the working class for decreasing wages, poorer living conditions, poorer working conditions… All of these things are imposed on the working class by those who profit from them, and the only thing which has ever beaten them back on it is solidarity: collective action.

So what is the solution then? Solidarity doesn’t come out of nowhere and if we had an organised working class with a strong spirit of collective identity which could not be broken down into workers and claimants, native and foreign, then we wouldn’t have austerity. Instead we have a society which has been battered by the dismantling of the manufacturing industry, defeats in key trades union battles, right-to-buy, the Thatcher wipe-out of traditional class divisions of party politics, post 9/11 terror narratives: ripe ground for UKIP and the soft libertarian nationalism they offer, in which the establishment is opposed as an authoritarian entity which imposes rules, but “British values” as opposed to establishment orders are perceived as collectively owned/negotiated and threatened by outsiders who brazenly maintain their own values through in particular religious activity or in a more atomized way a perceived failure to contribute to the collective good. It is perhaps the Labour party and not the working class which has lost its sense of identity after all.

The black country was the home of the Cradley chainmakers, as well as returning Enoch Powell. It delivered a big out vote and I think it would be a huge mistake to reduce that to ignorance and racism or to something which can be resolved by controlling immigration. I think the following are key to building Labour:

 

  1. ACCESS TO RESOURCES: Listening to working class people needs more than a repetition process on immigration if it is going to build the communities on the knife edge of austerity. Social housing in particular but access to services more generally need to be key to a winning back of the white working class. People are frustrated most when they feel others are queue jumping, which is inevitable when there is a shortage of housing and other resources.
  2. ACCESS TO SOCIAL PARTICIPATION: Strategic community enrichment is also key, and I think at the heart of this we need funding to not just replenish but build on Further Education to put colleges at the heart of every community with free access to courses for all – not just to meet business need as in the current ethos but to emancipate and democratize.
  3. ACCESS TO DEMOCRACY: The hardest but biggest fight to win is for increasing democracy in people’s lives. For many people elections are seen as meaningless: just about changing the colour tie of who represents them. With the academisation program shutting parents out of school decision making and the TU bill shutting down democracy in workplaces it looks set to get worse, and it seems unlikely that May’s proposal of what looks like staff association stooges on company boards will do much to halt the shut down. We need to look out how to bring democracy to communities that need it most. Trades unions certainly need to work on building community connections, and beyond that we need a program that empowers. The race card may be ethically dubious, but even beyond that in an era when “purer” versions of the same values are trotted out by two other parties, electorally it hasn’t and won’t cut it. We need radical politics which put social building, social participation, solidarity and democracy at the heart of Labour party identity.

 

 

 

 

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