"No borders in not just a slogan"
Q: In your chapter on Brexit, you say the Brexit referendum, far from being an exercise in mass participation was one of mass exclusion and
marginalisation. Could you explain what you mean?
A: Researching Brexit and who voted, how and where, and what ‘ordinary people’ felt and wanted, I realised that there was very, very little qualitative information out there. There is data. There is an absolute glut of opinion pieces by those in power and those having high levels of social and political privilege, but very little in terms of the complexity of desire, experience, instinct and ideas of those who voted – either way.
Then there were the millions of young people, those un-registered or in precarious housing, so therefore missing the vote through already being subject to dispossession by the rental market system, and those without citizenship who live and work here but were forbidden from having a say about their future.
Very quickly the narrative of who and what Leave and Remain were was co-opted and styled by our powerful media and ruling class, but also, the binary nature of the vote itself also acted as a means to shut people down into categories which actually don't represent their motivation, context and experience.
As such, it was a ruling class game with ruling class rules, and we are still shut out of genuine decision-making power.
However, in saying all of this, it was also a rupture and a moment of mass participation in a question which was not an election of a party but a vote for a deal and an identity for some, which opened up, at a street level, conversations which could not happen under any other circumstances. It sparked the conditions for a genuinely big conversation, and it's at the street, pub, church, mosque, temple, shop, club, home level that it's important to note and witness, but, as I argue in my piece, forums and spaces for processing the conflicts within this vote and the context for it, are really necessary.
Q: Your chapter focuses on the issue of immigration policy and the
workplace. You make the point that, rather than constricting the supply of labour through tighter immigration controls, the solution to the attacks on pay and conditions in jobs where migrant labour is a significant feature would be a massive investment by unions in workplace organisation. Could you elaborate on this, drawing on your experience as a former organiser in the hospitality industry?
A: All classifications of people into hierarchies of access, allowance, entitlement, inclusion, exclusion, serve ruling classes and the project of social and economic and political control, by dividing and categorising and affording rights to some of us and none to others. These classification and access systems are the rudimentary building blocks of class as we know it and they become, and historically were, colonial tools, which used the construction of race, whiteness specifically, as a category, in order to rule populations and subjugate them to the profit and accumulation system. These dynamics are alive and kicking and still with us today, in much more of a complex matrix and one which has been normalised and which allows for people to drown in the Mediterranean for example, or be shot at the Turkish border, to be incarcerated on islands belonging to Greece or Australia, and have the right to work or not, a roof over your head or not, access to healthcare and education or not, etc, etc.
“No borders” isn't just a slogan, it is about a world-view and frame for seeing and organising with one another which does not reproduce the mechanisms and value systems of the system we are trying to dismantle, and which runs on essentialist, binary and structural controls, borders, to and against our bodies, movement, identities and capacities.
Q: Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey has suggested allowing migrant labour to work only in industries which have union agreements. What's wrong with this?
A: Here we see an idealisation of the workplace with a union agreement equating to a workplace which is organised and in which the company management abide by the conditions of the agreement. There are union agreements where there is no union or unity and abuses happen. Even if you did have an agreement around the same pay and conditions for the same work, no two- or multiple-tiered workforces, then tying migrant workers to these workplaces only would require the union to become a de facto border guard, or the employer, in checking the status and right to work of all who come into it. This could narrow down the number of places that migrant workers could work in. In some ways there is merit in being in a position as a union or group to say, you cannot exploit migrant workers, if they come to work here in this workplace then these conditions must be met.
The problem is that that isn't how organising works and much less, it's not how industry works. Government could decree it, and in the hospitality industry which you cannot off-shore, you'd need to enforce it across thousands of small workplaces, restaurants, hotels, etc. It could have the effect of employers actually shedding all migrant workers instead of agreeing to enhanced terms and conditions for all. Basically, it's not a trade union or social solution. Organising, investing in mass, grassroots, migrant worker organiser-led, de-centralised, empowered, self-representative, off-the-leash, organising, akin to the community and workplace organising model and approach taken by United Voices of the World for example, could make a massive difference. Big unions need to invest in that, structurally change to devolve more power and representation, and this is, I appreciate, a very difficult culture and structural change to embark on, but, the times, union renewal and worker democracy, demand it.
Q: You suggest that Labour's policy on Brexit needs to be developed in a participatory way, in a way that tackles the marginalisation of people that Brexit has caused. Could you explain how this could work?
A: Labour, or more specifically, Momentum, and the energetic, tech-savvy and door-knocking happy reams of Labour members old and new, but let's face it, it's mostly the new, the hundreds of thousands who joined because of Jeremy and John, has a base now. There is a social base in many towns and cities up and down the country. People with ideas, energy, the will and through organising, the time, skills and tenacity, to reach people and bring people together who are being marginalised on a daily basis. It's important to understand that there are not just 'marginalised people' but people are actively being marginalised.
The nature of marginalisation is that we are all complicit in it. If people are being marginalised, they are being marginalised by other people. Who are they? It is us and it's also not us. We need to realise how we are part of the process, the powers we have in order to give them up, make space and support for people who don't have those powers, learn where others have power we don't and learn from it, support it, support change which is trying to emerge through the conflicts around us and within us too. Engaging people with questions of what they want to see and what Brexit means, and being prepared to hear the answers, take part, not in panels and platforms, but forums and meetings where people are heard and can process conflict - this is important.
This can build social power and community and deep democracy, not the 'democracy' of the ballot box but of the beat box! Beyond boxes. And finding each other, meeting, realising the differences in power and privilege, silence and voice, the power dynamics of marginalisation which are so entrenched but can be transformed, this is going to be unspectacular, local, messy and difficult but also where I think the power shifts can occur and they start with asking and listening.
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