Blue Labour, Relationships and Free Movement

The Brandenburger Tor, Berlin with makeshift Mediterranean refugee memorial
The Brandenburger Tor, Berlin with makeshift Mediterranean refugee memorial

I attended a fascinating meeting last weekend arranged by the East Midlands ‘Blue Labour’* group on the theme of ‘How Do We Champion the Cause of the Working Class?’ There was a panel of academics, journalists and local Labour politicians. I am interested in Blue Labour’s approach because they are the only group within Labour that seems to have a coherent view of how to remodel the economy away from the dominance of financialised capitalism without returning to widespread nationalisation. The essence of this view is that goods and service provision should be based less on anonymous (usually monetary) transactions and more on the basis of relationships. This implies an expansion of co-operative, mutual and stakeholder businesses, and more regional and community input into local, social and health services. I have myself written about why this is important.

Social-Cultural Liberalism and the Working Class

I am less sure about the other aspect of Blue Labour, which consciously sets itself in opposition to ‘a social-cultural liberalism linked to the left’. The majority of the panellists at the meeting agreed that this was the main cause of Labour’s loss of  support among the working class. This socio-cultural liberalism was particularly exemplified by support for membership of the European Union and its commitment to the free movement of labour. This free movement with its consequent influx of workers particularly from Eastern Europe has resulted in the ‘atomisation’ of the working class, ‘fragmentation of communities’ and, according to one speaker, a ‘violated sense of order’.

One of the difficulties for ‘championing the working class’ is in identifying them. Is this to be done by relative income, by the kind of work done or by culture and attitudes? The discussion at the meeting rather exemplified this uncertainty. A philosopher espoused the view that the working class are something that ‘happens’ rather than a thing; they were heroes in the 1930s and 40s; interested in property and consumption in the 1980s, and currently they are a manifestation of concerns about identity. Yet at other points we were talking about people who had creative skills rather than academic ones, about those for whom low incomes are a barrier to higher education, and how some people’s deep attachment to the places in which they were born and brought up leads to their distress when these places change in terms of their economic and social make-up. Alternatively, perhaps the working class are just those ‘ordinary people’ who are not part of the elite (which then of course needs, itself, to be defined). There is a risk here that we assume that there is a homogenous group, however defined, that is somehow different and consists of members who have no desires that differ from the majority of that group or that might lead to them no longer being part of that group. A discussion of some of these difficulties from someone of working-class origin themselves can be found here.

Free Movement and the Commodification of Labour

One such assumption of homogeneity is that the working class are that group who have a particular problem with the free movement of people that followed from our membership of the European Union – both because many of them have had their livelihoods damaged by it and because many have seen their communities dramatically changed by the influx of people with different lifestyles, languages and appearance.† Thus the finding that those with lower incomes and lesser levels of academic education voted in large majority for ‘Brexit’. Two speakers in particular argued that free movement of people within the EU is the ‘commodification of labour’ by big business seeking low wages and higher profits. The statistical evidence that the impact of immigration (in total, not just that from the EU) on employment and wages in all income brackets has been very small, and that in general immigrants contribute more to the UK than they take out was dismissed as the work of economists allied to business and the EU. The working class ‘know that free movement is bad’. Construction workers in Southampton have seen ‘their wages cut by half’.

If business is indeed ‘commodifying labour’, it’s not clear why it should only be guilty of this in regard to low wage workers from Eastern Europe but not in regard to low-wage British workers. If business is commodifying labour then presumably the NHS and council-run care-homes are doing the same when they employ non-British EU citizens in low wage posts. If we believe this then surely our approach should be to tackle the behaviour of these businesses and public sector employers, rather than bar poor people from voluntarily seeking to better themselves and their families. Unpleasant though this commodification of poor immigrants may be to contemplate it’s not clear that remedying it will alone make the British low-waged better off. It may be that the outcome will be to replace low-paid non-British workers with (hopefully higher-paid) British workers and the reduction of the employing firms’ profits. But it is equally possible that firms will pass on higher wages in higher prices, resulting in a higher cost of living which will of course hit the low-paid particularly hard or even lead to business closures which will neither do much for local employment prospects nor for shop prices. The consequence of caring and health services losing workers may be even more disastrous for those who depend on them and cannot afford alternatives.

The difficult experience of many workers in manual jobs is not at all incompatible with an overall benefit from immigration and little immigration-driven change in wages. Effects may be unevenly spread, and other changes taking place may also lower demand for labour in certain areas or sectors. Even the coincident observation in a change of the origin of workers in that area may not be causal; perhaps there are more Eastern Europeans in construction because the wages are now lower for some other reason, rather than the wages being lower because of more Eastern European workers in the industry. It is a matter of economic logic that the sterling revenue of businesses, whether paid out as wages or accrued as profits must be re-spent in the UK to pay for goods and services, most of which are produced in the UK with labour employed in the UK. As a consequence immigrant labour’s impact on the demand for resident British labour might be expected to be small, and so the statistical findings are not obvious nonsense but pretty much as we would expect. Even if this wasn’t the case we cannot just dismiss systematic empirical data because it doesn’t fit with our subjective experience, even if it comes from sources we suspect may be biased, unless we can identify a better source of data or identify an error in the data analysis.

The Nation as ‘Home’ or ‘Shop’

More persuasively perhaps, the distinction was made by speakers between the UK as a ‘home’ rather than a ‘shop’. A shop is doing well the more customers (read residents, temporary or otherwise) pass through it. A home, on the other hand, becomes unliveable if too many people come calling at all times of the day or night. We have the right to choose to whom we offer hospitality and whom to send away from our doorstep. This is a valuable analogy as far as it goes, but of course if we are to have a high national standard of living our country has to be both home and shop. Somehow we have to have a balance between the two, and it’s not immediately clear that everyone agrees where that balance should lie. Moreover, using the hospitality analogy leads us to the question of to whom we should be hospitable; what criteria should we use in admitting people to our country? Should we welcome those whom we assume will be much like us, with the risk of a racial bias in our immigration policy? Alternatively the hospitality approach might more altruistically suggest that we should be admitting those most in need, such as asylum seekers, refugees and the poor. It certainly does not, however, suggest the often proposed instrumental and economic approach of accepting immigrants on the basis of their wealth or in-demand skills.

Love, Relationships and Equality of Voice

It also seems somewhat contradictory that a movement whose founder emphasises the role of love and ‘the blessing Christianity has been to our country’ should argue for different treatment of those members of the working class within our borders and those beyond them. And I believe that by returning to the more fundamental roots of Blue Labour we can reduce the extent to which this might be necessary to deal with the issues identified. Economy and self-government based on relationships implies institutions organised around face to face dialogue between customers, workers, managers, service users and providers, and investors. What is more this dialogue must be conducted on the basis of ‘equality of voice’, a concept I have written about before. However decisions are made, all involved have an equal right to express their views and their interests. While of course voices can be ignored, frequently problems arise less because of this than because they had no platform, or because they were not heard. And ignoring the voices of others can be as damaging to those who ignore as to those who do the ignoring. Solidarity and reciprocity are not zero-sum concepts. Everybody can gain as social and community concerns are prioritised over profit.

Since human beings have so much more in common than they have differences, coming together in common cause to improve social and economic outcomes for everyone should help to break down essentially artificial barriers of lifestyle and culture. This can help motivate and enable mutual understanding and integration of people from diverse backgrounds, thereby helping to reduce the discomfort felt by those experiencing change in their communities. To me this seems a more positive and forward-looking approach than focussing purely on costly and discriminatory border controls.

*Blue Labour’s most prominent founder Lord Maurice Glasman explains the ‘Blue’ not as representing conservatism but as representing sadness that ‘things don’t only get better’.

Research by NatCen, however, identifies a population segment (25% of the total) of ‘Younger working class Labour voters’ who voted 61% to remain in the EU.

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