IN 1979 THE THATCHER GOVERNMENT came to power bringing significant layers of working class support for its new brand of right wing populism. For the next 18 years the left’s influence declined. This was a result of the defeat of key battles such as the miners’ strike, but also because the left seemed unable to develop a credible narrative that could engage with working class people. Most significantly, the new right was able to create a discourse which the left failed to address and as a result capitulated ground to the right.
Several key strands to this included the threat of crime, the bloated bureaucratic nature of the state sector against the supposed efficiency of the private sector and the hidden hand of the market, and the idea that the unions had become too powerful.
Labour ended up fighting the Tories on the Tories’ own terms. Rather than present an alternative view on crime, it tried to compete with the Tories on who would be toughest on law and order. Rather than challenge the view that the state sector was automatically inefficient compared to the private sector, Labour ditched Clause IV and accepted the argument that the free market would automatically provide solutions. And rather than defend the unions, Labour accepted the mythology that it was the unions that lost Labour the 1979 election.
Currently the right is making significant political capital around the issues of immigrants and immigration and the left is in real danger of repeating the mistakes of the ’80s and ’90s. This could define the political settlement for the next generation. Across the Party, figures from Keir Starmer to Len McCluskey have embraced the idea that immigration has caused the decline in living standards over the last decades and that the solution is to control this.
New Labour’s triangulation strategy focused key policies on bringing benefits to middle class voters in marginal constituencies. Labour’s core voters in what were deemed safe seats were consciously ignored in the belief that they will keep voting Labour and have nowhere else to go. The loss of almost every seat in Scotland, and the threat of UKIP in a number of northern constituencies show the extent to which this has backfired.
Much of the resentment of communities abandoned by decades of neoliberalism is now being focused on migrants, with the government only too keen to deflect attention away from their own responsibility. Shortages of housing, lack of jobs and poor social provision are precisely about the shrinking of the state - not about migration or Britain being full up, as many have been persuaded to believe.
The left urgently needs to develop its own language that addresses the lack of social cohesion, the lack of resources, and the state washing its hands of any responsibility for service provision - but at the same time decoupling this from the issue of immigration.
The working class in the inner cities looks very different from the working class in more rural or post-industrial areas outside of the urban centres. We need a language that speaks to all sections of working people. ‘Concerns about immigration’ can only divide the class and strengthen the hold of the right in areas outside of the inner cities that Labour desperately needs to win in a General Election. Adopting tighter controls on immigration will never satisfy these concerns - much of the concern about immigrants isn’t about EU immigrants but about people a bit more brown or a bit more Muslim having access to jobs and services. It isn’t just about immigration itself, and certainly not just about EU immigration.
Socialists need to defend the working class in its entirety, and we need to see our base of support as being the working class as a whole, not just the ‘white working class’ or that section of the working class that happen to have been born in this country. We need to unite the whole community in a struggle for better resources. While we must be tactful in trying to win over sections of the community that have been convinced that migrants are the cause of their problems, we shouldn’t be making concessions to such ideas, or accepting that control of migration is even part of the solution.
This is not a question about ideological purity. It is a fundamental strategic question about who we see as the class that we think can bring about change. Migrants are often among the most precarious sections of the class. If we are not championing their rights we are collaborating in recreating a hierarchical structure through which all workers fight each other for scraps from the table. In Blairite terms this was celebrated as being ‘aspirational’, but socialist aspirations should be for the whole community - not about individual aspirations to become better off than your neighbours. Ultimately we need to be building solidarity with workers across Europe and globally, not demanding that the ruling class exclude them from any relative gains that workers in Britain might have made.