Strikers demonstrating in Marseille, January 2020. Photo: Facebook/Thierry Lerouge Strikers demonstrating in Marseille, January 2020. Photo: Facebook/Thierry Lerouge

Lindsey German on class and internationalism

The departure from the EU was marked by bells, whistles and flag waving but, as ever, little attempt at serious analysis about what will happen next. With Brexit still to be done – and a year of fraught negotiation ahead – there are still many potential conflicts for Johnson’s government to deal with and still the prospect that this will not be achieved by the end of the year.

I was struck that, despite the best efforts of the press, the event passed relatively quietly. Farage assembled a crowd in Parliament Square, Downing St was briefly lit up in red, white and blue, and Andrew Adonis announced his personal boycott of the 50p piece. But celebration was confined to relatively small numbers. That is because for the majority of people it is not the main issue affecting their lives. Minorities on both sides feel very strongly about it but there is also a strong feeling to move on and in the words of one woman interviewed, unite everyone again.

That may not be so easy. A poll last week showed that Leavers tend to be much more tolerant of those with opposing views on Brexit than those who voted Remain in 2016. I’m not entirely surprised, given the absolute certainty and contempt for the 2016 vote that the People’s Vote campaign tried to override it.

The left needs to move beyond this and try to make itself relevant to campaigning on the many issues where people will be let down by the Tories. It was interesting how many of those interviewed on Friday who supported Leave clearly felt that this would make possible something better in their lives. Even those who wanted fewer immigrants tended to couch this in terms of it allowing more housing or access to doctors than is presently the case.

In this, they are deeply mistaken. The lack of facilities, which is not caused by migrants but by the failure of government to allocate adequate resources to meet people’s needs, will continue under this Tory government, despite sops to ‘the north’ and ridiculous stunts like the cabinet holding a meeting in Sunderland.

Attacks on working people’s living standards and on public services, and the privatised lottery which is the housing system, are central to its policies and are not going to change any time soon. Those who believed that the EU would save us from this range of policies haven’t been paying attention to what is happening elsewhere in Europe, where there have been similar austerity policies, major attacks on workers’ bargaining rights, and a ‘race to the bottom’ over pension provision.

Those daunted by the Tory victory and the less than lustrous Labour leadership campaign should consider the vicious attacks on working people by Emmanuel Macron, the darling of centre politics who also won a major election victory two years ago. Beset by opposition firstly from the Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes) and then from huge sections of the working class in strikes and repeated protests over pension ‘reform’, he now faces major crises. His response has been vicious police repression but has also had to make significant concessions.

In Berlin, campaigners have forced major rent controls on landlords after years of increases. In central Italy, the far-right candidate in Emilia Romagna was defeated in last week’s elections, at least in part by the action of the Sardines movement of young people against the far right. Our main form of solidarity with our fellow European workers should be to build strikes and protests here.

The point here is that even when mainstream politics are unfavourable to the left, mass movements can and do erupt which challenge the right’s priorities and win important victories. Building such a movement is the key priority for the left in Britain following Corbyn’s defeat. And while that may look a distant prospect, there are signs of people wanting to organise in the face of Tory attacks. There are also signs that industrial struggle, while at a very low level, is having some effect. The victory of the outsourced cleaners at St Mary’s hospital in Paddington is one small but significant example of that, involving precisely the precarious workers who have become such a feature of modern industry. Precarity is also an issue in the university lecturers’ dispute, where another 14 reballoted institutions have voted to strike.

Class struggles like these are central to rebuilding the left’s confidence and ability to organise.

Why there isn’t a white working class

Moving forward depends on a serious approach to class and an understanding of its centrality to capitalist society. There has been a great deal of talk about culture wars, much of it misplaced. Any working class of around 40 million is going to have very different components and will display all manner of cultural differences. This has always been true. The manufacturing workers in west London where I grew up were engaged in very different industry developed between the wars (often called light industry) than the miners of Yorkshire or the Glasgow shipbuilders, and developed different cultural patterns.

Today there are major differences between different sectors and industries. What unites workers is the common experience of work and society which they face. This is one reason why I never talk about the white working class. There isn’t a white working class, but a working class which contains different races and nationalities, women and men, lesbians and gays, people with different levels of skills. (Incidentally, no one ever talks about the white middle class, let alone white ruling class, even though both have numbers of ethnic minorities within them.)

The caricature of the white working class as racist and culturally conservative is very wide of the mark. There is much evidence of greater integration of different races within the working class than within other classes. There is also a strong record of internationalism within the British working class – from its support for independence movements and against US slavery in the 19th century, to its aid for Spain in the 1930s, to the overwhelming solidarity from groups like postal workers and miners during the Grunwick strike of mainly Asian women in the 1970s.

This isn’t true of the whole working class. A section of it has always voted Tory, and this time the Brexit issue led to more Tory votes in northern and Midlands traditional Labour seats. But if we start from class as an objective reality – to do with your relationship to exploitation – then we also begin to see how working people can become conscious of themselves as a class and of their own power.

Karl Marx talked about a class ‘in itself’ and a class ‘for itself’ – the difference between that objective fact and the subjective discovery of that class power. When working people begin to move into action they discover that strength and solidarity cuts across race, gender and nationality. So it is this development that is key to change.

We really do need the left to move beyond a narrow identity politics, which all too often adopts a patronising approach to people they believe are stupid or ignorant, or prejudiced in some way. We need to stress that the key to change is the self-agency of working people themselves. Breaking down divisions within the working class will be achieved by precisely the struggles talked of above. This class politics is the opposite of adopting ‘blue Labour’ values of patriotism or acceptance of racism, which merely adapt to what they believe is the prevailing view among working people. Real class politics are a means of overcoming narrow or reactionary views, and in the process defeating our rulers, who depend so much on maintaining these divisions.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.