Labour's weakness on class and immigration only helps the employers writes Richard Allday
We are being governed by a gang of grave-robbers, yet the polls suggest that Cameron and Osborne are more trusted than Miliband. How can this be? The only explanation that seems to make sense is that the Labour front bench lacks class. Not in the sense that Andy Burnham and Alistair Campbell mean it – that they lack ‘gravitas’, they are ‘lightweights’ (coming from Bro Burnham, that is a bit rich!).
No, I mean class in the old-fashioned sense. They do not see Britain as divided along the lines of class, but rather as a mushy mess of differing social groups with a commonality of “citizenship” that only requires the hand of decency to be laid upon them to agree to be united in the “national interest”. It is this dead-headed view of politics that allowed Chris Bryant to make such an almighty cock-up of what should have been an eminently simple opportunity to score against Osborne and his bloated band of brothers, and instead he performed a Beckham-style stumble and skyed the ball into row Z.
The difference is that 99 times out of a 100, Beckham could put the ball exactly where he wanted it, whereas the Labour front bench are not even sure they want to kick the ball too hard.
They are so terrified of class (and so ignorant of working class people) that they are convinced that we must share all the unspoken prejudices that they take for granted. For example, Bryant wants to address the ‘problem’ of immigration, but he doesn’t want to appear bigoted (because that’s not nice) but he doesn’t want to appear ‘soft’ either. So he dresses up the hoary old canard that ‘immigrants are driving down wages’ in the progressive language of blaming ‘rogue’ employers. But then has to perform an embarrassing U-turn when the rogue employers object.
Bryant claimed (rightly) that Tesco are closing down their Harlow distribution centre - where the workforce are union-organised and enjoy (relatively) decent pay and conditions - and opening a new one some 20 miles away. They are offering all their staff relocation – but not on the same terms and conditions, oh no! Travel further to work, and get paid less, that’s the Tesco way. But Bryant went on to suggest that Tesco were intending to staff their new RDC (Regional Distribution Centre) with a largely Eastern European workforce. “How dare you!” thundered an outraged Tesco. “We’d have you know we are employing local labour,” they intoned piously. “We thought you would be in favour of that”. Cue a grovelingly abashed Chris Bryant, who is so trapped in the mindset of nationalism that it never occurred to him that migrant labour must live somewhere, that you can be both an immigrant and local.
What Bryant should have said is that the whole history of immigration to this country is one of employers seeking the cheapest source of labour, then seeking to foster division and hostility wherever they can, to prevent the one thing they fear – a united collective rejection of their nasty, small-minded, back-ripping money-grubbing chase for profit at any price. It was the experience of the Irish immigrants who built the canals, and the railways – and went on to become the backbone of the unionisation drive in construction; the experience of the Windrush generation, without whom the NHS and London transport would have collapsed; of those who came from the Indian sub-continent to perform the hardest, most menial jobs in the cotton industry in the North West, or the foundries and metal industries of the W Midlands. All of these groups were pilloried by exactly those people who lured them here, and exploited them; all had the same filthy lies told about them, and each of them found (all too often, the hard way) that almost the only friendly response they got was from organised labour and socialists.
This is not to suggest that there is no audience among working people for the lies of the little Englanders. If you are dispossessed and disorganised, feel weak and powerless, it’s always comforting to know there is somebody weaker than you, further down the heap, that you can kick; that you can vent your anger on. But it doesn’t solve anything. It just allows the magistrate to feel superior when he condemns you, before going off to his golf club to share his nasty sexist, racist jokes with other superior-minded jerks.
As far as Tesco goes, they are guilty of what Bryant started to accuse them of. But because he shies away from the stark fact that we live in a class-divided society, he is always looking for the superficial rather than the essential. When Tesco sacked their drivers at their Doncaster RDC, replacing them with an outside contractor (Eddie Stobart, which by the way, is effectively owned by Tesco) on vastly reduced terms and conditions, they didn’t care about the nationality, they just wanted rid of a group of organised labour, to replace them with an unorganised (read ”cheaper”) workforce.
When the bleeding hearts of the Labour front bench shed their crocodile tears about the drop in living standards since the Tories took office, they never suggest that they will support any group of workers that fight to improve their wages. God forbid that they should adopt such an old-fashioned view of class war. No, they don’t approve of the politics of class envy. Nor do I – it’s not class envy, it’s class hatred I approve of!
Of the 50 members that have joined the 7055 road haulage branch in the last few months, the majority have been Eastern European. They have joined (and been welcomed) because they, and “British” drivers have seen the truth of that old saw ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ and that the real division at work is not between English and Poles, it is not on grounds of nationality or race or gender or religion, it is between the boss and the bossed. And we would not have won them to the union if we had swallowed the crap about ‘them’ lowering ‘our’ wages! They don’t decide our (or their) wages. The employer does. We can choose to bicker among ourselves, or stand together. We have chosen to stand together, and fight together.
But that is not a view shared by Labour’s front bench and their policy wonks. They would rather have a cultured debate across the despatch boxes - with a government front bench whose leaders have been forced to hand back the money they thieved from the coffin of an old lady.
Now that’s class for you!
Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage. A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.
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