Monday, 2 March 2015

Labour's Immigration Policy Is A Mess - Part 10

Without the kind of growth in the economy that Blair enjoyed, in the early years of the century, Labour faces a problem. Without that growth, Labour could only present a noticeably different agenda to the Tories, if it were prepared to go all out, to demonstrate that the policy of austerity is a mistake under current conditions – as, for example, Syriza is doing in Greece, and as Hollande did, in part, prior to the Presidential election. But, just as the Tories attempted to carve out an electoral niche, prior to the 2010 General Election, by switching to the austerity message, which then disastrously tied them in to that agenda, so Labour, for fear of losing votes, by abandoning the austerity agenda, has tied its own hands, and thereby makes the task of distinguishing itself from the Tories nigh on impossible.

Arguments between the two are then pushed to the margin, into regions where the vast majority of voters have no interest in following them, and where the debate then increasingly becomes one of semantics, and an appearance of squabbling over nothing, which adds additional grist to the mill of the parties like UKIP, who can present a simple, easily understandable alternative - “blame the foreigner, pull up the draw bridge.”

Moreover, if the differences between Labour and Tories become marginal, in terms of what prospect they offer the average worker, in terms of their future living standards, the standards of their local schools, hospitals, care homes and so on, what is their left to argue over between the two? For the majority of voters, if there is no prospect of any foreseeable improvement in any of those things, the simple message of UKIP, and the Far Right, that we should keep what we have to ourselves, and not allow others in to share it, becomes a more powerful one. The issue of immigration and nationalism then becomes a significant one where previously it was not, only because the significance of the main issues has itself been diminished.

Labour is then left, with not as bad a situation as the Tories, because ultimately UKIP will draw far more votes away from the Tories than it draws from Labour, but still with a problem. The less it is differentiated from the Tories, on the main issues, the more it is forced to differentiate itself from them, on other issues, even if that differentiation is again only minor. Labour is thereby drawn itself on to the ground of immigration and nationalism, but on terms that its own nature and history make it inadequate to deal with.

The obvious solution, to the situation Labour, and other social-democratic parties across Europe face is to do what Curran proposed, to link hands across borders. That was the whole point of establishing the First International, and indeed the Second International, to which these parties still nominally belong. The Second International is the obvious vehicle for that, along with, at a parliamentary level, the Socialist Group within the European Parliament. But, for the reasons described earlier, neither of these organisations is equipped to provide the organisation, leadership and politics required. The Second International has degenerated from being a federation of national social-democratic parties, to merely a talking shop, whilst the Socialist Group of MEP's reflects that approach within a largely impotent parliamentary forum.

In the same way that the issue of immigration and EU membership was a non-issue during the early years of the century, when the economy was growing rapidly, so it would recede in importance, across Europe, if the EU economy was growing strongly. In fact, immigration into an EU economy of more than 500 million people becomes a much smaller issue than immigration into a UK economy of 64 million people. That is especially the case, if that EU economy acts as a single state, and uses its total resources to ensure that the required infrastructure and so on, is provided for those areas where the population rises most. But, that would require that those European Social Democratic parties stopped acting merely as national parties, and began acting as one single European Social-Democratic Party, based upon one single European Trade Union Movement, one single European Co-operative Federation and so on.

Under pressure from UKIP, the Tories have proposed increasing restrictions on even those elements that are fundamental to a social-democratic state, and required in the interests of a modern industrialised economy. That includes proposals for restrictions on the free movement of labour, which is fundamental to the interests of big industrial capital, and part of the reason for establishing a Common European Market in the beginning. The restrictions that have already been introduced impact not just immigrants into Britain, but, in order to comply with EU rules, have already impacted British citizens rights in relation to benefits, and the welfare state, as well. The further proposals will have the same effect.

The changes introduced on entitlement to benefits, so that benefits can only be claimed, or treatment on the NHS provided, if you have been living in the country for certain lengths of time, affect UK citizens too. A British nurse, who has been working abroad for more than three months, for example, would find themselves in the ridiculous position of not being entitled to free NHS treatment when they returned! 

The Tories have proposed introducing new rules so that any EU citizen would have to have been contributing to tax and national insurance in Britain for four years, before they were entitled to claim any benefits. Reflecting the point made earlier, that with no real division between Labour and Tories over austerity, Labour is forced to produce minor differences between them on every issue, they responded, by proposing a period of two years rather than four! But, this demonstrates the mess that Labour's policy has descended into.

Firstly, the proposal itself is ridiculous. Welfare benefits, as with NHS care, are received on the basis of being part of a social insurance scheme. It does not matter that this social insurance scheme is run by the capitalist state rather than say an insurance company, a co-operative, or a trade union. The principal remains the same – you join the insurance scheme, and you are entitled then to claim against it, if you meet the requirements. If I take out a car insurance policy, and pay by monthly instalments, it does not matter that I may only have only paid the first month's premium, prior to having an accident. I would still be entitled to claim the full amount required to repair the car.

If the proposal is introduced, as is being discussed by both Labour and Tories, consistent with this measure, to make welfare benefits available on a contributory basis, then that undermines the notion of a social insurance scheme. There is no point taking out car insurance, if you have to pay in for some minimum length of time, before being entitled to claim; there is no point paying into a health insurance scheme, if the same thing applies, and so on.

Both the Tories and Labour are presenting this proposal to limit availability to benefits to only those who have contributed for some minimum period, as a nationalistic measure designed to privilege British capital and workers, at the expense of foreign workers, but, in reality it is simply a measure that will undermine the position of all workers, be they British or foreign. If benefits are restricted on this basis, then it will mean that, for example, young British workers who have never had a job, and never paid tax or national insurance, will find themselves having no entitlement to benefits, and having to rely on support from parents etc.

That social democracy should adopt such a position is not surprising, because it has done so in the past. The state pension, for example, was introduced as such a social insurance scheme, but was done so on the clear understanding that the vast majority of workers who paid into it, would never live long enough to receive pensions from it. When, now workers are living long enough to draw such a pension, the social-democratic state, has moved the goal posts, so as to demand that workers have to work longer before they are entitled to claim benefits from the scheme they have paid into, even though those benefits are far worse than those paid to workers who are members of the Mondragon Co-operative pension scheme. In 1931, at the very point when workers most needed the benefits from such a social insurance scheme, to cover unemployment benefits, Ramsay McDonald's Labour Government cut them! Today, Labour MP Frank Field is proposing additional charges for workers to be able to use the NHS.

The only means by which workers can avoid this situation, is to take ownership and control of this social insurance out of the hands of the capitalist state, and to organise it for themselves, as the workers at Mondragon, for example, have done. But, in the meantime, the simple answer to the arguments of UKIP about EU migrants obtaining UK benefits is two-fold. Firstly, most in-work benefits should be scrapped. Work should pay enough for the average worker to live on comfortably without benefits. So, simultaneously, there should be a Minimum Wage established at such a level to make that possible, and it should be established on a common basis across the EU. Secondly, instead of benefits for the unemployed, sick and retired being paid out of the coffers of separate EU states, there should be a single European State, with uniform benefits across Europe, paid for out of the funds of that single European state.

The answer to the conservative nationalist policies of UKIP, is not to adapt to them, in the way that the Tories and Labour are doing, but to present a radical alternative to them, based upon internationalism, and the solidarity of workers across Europe.

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