Tuesday, 19 May 2015

What Next? - Part 8

For Labour(6)

Labour will need to carve out a specifically internationalist and social democratic line, in order to build an effective opposition. The focus of Labour in the period ahead should be to develop such an approach. The Tories will now push ahead with an EU referendum, and now it is to happen, Andy Burnham is correct to argue that it should be held as soon as is possible. Labour should avoid the severe mistake they made in the Scottish referendum, where they joined a cross party campaign with the Tories. Labour should have put forward a social democratic and internationalist argument for retaining the union, in the Scottish referendum, and they need to likewise put forward a specifically social democratic and internationalist argument for Britain remaining in the EU. Neither of those things are possible, if you are lining up with the Tories.

That Labour has gone along with the Tories proposals for limiting the right of free movement of labour, within the EU, by supporting the idea of restricting benefits, is not a good start. It is ridiculous to make a distinction between workers moving to take up work, in another EU country, and workers obtaining benefits, in those countries, when they have moved. Such restrictions essentially prevent the right of free movement, as well as creating a two tier labour market, in each country, with some workers being entitled to benefits and other workers denied them, even though they are paying taxes to cover them.

Workers do not control the conditions under which they either have employment or do not, so a worker may move from country A to country B to take up a job, but has absolutely no control over whether they will still have that job 3, 6 or 12 months from now. Single workers may possibly be able to move from one country to another whilst taking that risk, and without any guarantee of benefits should things turn out badly for them, but workers with families that they need to move with them certainly cannot, especially where any such move depends upon the other members of their family being able to obtain such benefits whilst they obtain work etc., or if they are sick, disabled and so on, and thereby dependent on some form of support.  Moreover, in a single market, which the EU is supposed to be, there should be no difference between workers, from say Stoke, moving to seek work in an area with high levels of employment, and wages, like Dortmund, than there is those workers moving to Birmingham.  To demand that workers have employment before they move, is to restrict free movement, and it is only possible to move on that basis, if there is some basic safety net that covers people while they find work.

The answer to the Tory and nationalist objections is not to pander to them, as Labour has done, but to put forward an internationalist solution. The answer, so long as workers benefits are to be provided by a capitalist welfare state, rather than by workers collectively themselves, is to create an EU Welfare State, rather than remaining limited within the constrictions of national welfare states. On that basis, a level playing field would be created, which, in any case, should be a minimal requirement for any single market, with common benefits, pensions etc., payable to all workers within the EU, and paid for out of a single EU Welfare budget.

That would not only remove the argument about workers moving in order to obtain the higher benefits in certain countries – which is a fallacy in any case, as regards Britain, because it has worse benefits than countries like France and Germany, and also because the proportion of migrants, who claim any kind of benefits, is much lower than the proportion of UK citizens who claim benefits – but would also remove the argument that any such benefits are being paid for by the workers of one country, and received by the workers of another.

In other words, Labour's way forward here is to be the standard bearer of internationalism and social democracy. The logical thrust of its policy should be, not only to put forward a strong message for staying in the EU, but for the EU to be strengthened, relative to the existing nation states, for greater measures to defend the rights of workers within the EU, and for the development of a United States of Europe. Far from entering into any cross-party alliances with the Tories, to fight such a referendum campaign, Labour should rather be joining up with the trade union and co-operative movement in Britain, and in every other country across the EU, and with parties like Syriza and Podemos, to put forward a pro-EU, anti-austerity agenda.

But, this also shows the real basis of opposing the nationalists. The cause of unemployment, lack of housing, poor healthcare, lack of schools and so on, in the UK, is not the EU, or immigration, any more than, in Scotland, the cause of those things is England or the English. Its ultimate cause is capitalism itself, which although generally it improves conditions, does so in a very chaotic and crisis ridden manner. But, the immediate cause of those things, in Britain, is the economic policies that successive governments have pursued. The Thatcher/Major governments pursued a deliberate policy of low wages and high private debt, and that led to a low skilled, low productivity workforce, alongside the blowing up of financial bubbles, that made it impossible to finance workers pension schemes, and a property bubble that made it impossible for workers to buy houses, or to move to better houses, and massively increased rents, and the need for housing benefit. None of that was the fault of the EU or migrants.

In the last five years, the cause of the growth of zero hours contracts, of a deterioration in schools, housing and so on has been the austerity measures that both the Tories and the SNP have pursued, when, as the US demonstrated, the more sensible solution would have been to spend more on those things, as a counter to the recession caused by the financial crisis, and thereby to put people back to work. It is in a reversal of those policies, and their equivalents pursued in Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and elsewhere that provides the solution, and workers in Britain have a direct interest in joining with workers in those countries to bring it about, not in allowing nationalists to split us apart.

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