Union leaders shouldn’t make excuses for racism

The Brexit referendum result showed that there is large scale racism in British society writes Andy Stowe. It affects both the Labour Party and the unions. There’s the infamous “controls on immigration – I’m voting Labour” mug and former leader Gordon Brown’s line about “British jobs for British workers”. Restrictions on free movement of European Union citizens into Britain have been a theme of sections of the mercifully small pro-Brexit left.

Len McCluskey, leader of Unite, a union with 1.2 million members, has pre-empted the Tories by arguing that Labour needs to appeal to racist voters. He didn’t quite put it that way. In an interview he said: “it’s wrong in my view to have any greater free movement of labour unless you get stricter labour market regulation.”

He then went on to offer an explanation of the reasons people voted for Brexit:

“The other reason was migrant labour coming to the UK from Europe. If you don’t understand those concerns you fail to grasp the divisions that exist.”

When McCluskey and left Brexiteers use phrases like “influx of cheap labour” to refer to EU citizens they should pause to reflect on the failure of the union movement to organise these workers rather than make them the problem.

And bang on cue the very next morning home secretary Priti Patel took up McCluskey’s theme saying that a Tory government will “reduce immigration overall” by placing strict limits on the number of low-skilled migrants allowed into Britain after Brexit.”

Not content with being happy to ride in the slipstream of Farage and Johnson, he asks Labour MPs to do the same:

“I am calling on some members of the shadow cabinet who are passionate remainers that they shouldn’t declare now which way they will campaign.”

He knows that the vast majority of Labour Party members, virtually all the MPs and most voters oppose Brexit. The demonstrations calling for a second referendum have been some of the largest displays of public opinion in decades. McCluskey wants to cede leadership of this movement to the yellow Tory Lib Dems. That is strategic folly.

McCluskey is essentially arguing that the 3 million EU citizens who live in Britain are interlopers and not really part of the British working class. For a general secretary who is perceived as being on the left of the union movement this is an appalling failure of leadership and a surrender to the worst racist traditions of the British working class. He should be demanding that they be allowed to vote in the upcoming election and a future referendum. He should be using his position to challenge the prejudices found amongst some of his members and the wider electorate.

Alena Ivanova speaking for Labour Campaign for Free Movement reminded McCluskey of the basic principle of class solidarity:

“A Romanian care worker and a British bus driver have more in common with each other than they do with their boss. That is the basis of the trade union movement. Len MCluskey’s job is to fight for their full rights, for decent pay and the right not to bedeported and harassed by the state because of their immigration status.”

The pro-Corbyn, internationalist left has to push back hard against McCluskey’s surrender to British nationalist prejudice. That’s a game only the far right ever wins.

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