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Leader: The new divides

It's time for the UK to address long-standing defects: our poor productivity, our regional imbalances, our lack of affordable housing and our weak vocational sector.

From the French Revolution onwards, politics has been defined by the distinction between left and right. In the UK and elsewhere, conservatives and socialists did battle along socio-economic lines. Class was the best predictor of voting behaviour. However, the division inaugurated by 1789 appears increasingly obsolete. The politics of left v right is being superseded by the politics of open v closed. In the UK, the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU split both the Conservatives and Labour into Remainers and Leavers. For the rest of this decade and beyond, British politics will be defined by Brexit, and attitudes towards immigration will be more important than those towards capitalism.

In the US, Donald Trump’s election similarly reshaped historical loyalties. His political programme of closed borders, higher government spending, trade tariffs and tax cuts borrowed from left and right. Like the Brexiteers, he managed to mobilise formerly inactive sections of the electorate.

Across Europe, nationalists are thriving by the same means. In France, the leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, has attracted former Socialists and Communists by vowing to end “multiculturalism” and by promising a referendum on EU membership. In Germany, the xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland rejects Angela Merkel’s policy on refugees. In the Netherlands, the nationalist Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) continues to lead in opinion polls as this year’s general election draws near. Poland and Hungary are already governed by parties of the far right. Faced with this revolt, social democrats are struggling to maintain relevancy.

Though open v closed is the most salient new schism, it is not the only one. In this issue, we detail five others reshaping politics: graduates v non-graduates, old v young, owners v renters, white Britain v ethnic minorities and metropolitan v provincial. For the Conservatives and Labour alike, the challenge is to bridge these divides. Theresa May rightly recognised that the Brexit vote was not merely a rejection of the EU but a symptom of much deeper unrest. For many in the north of England and the Midlands, the referendum was a chance to protest against decades of neglect. Others voted Leave to reduce immigration – even knowing that economic growth could be harmed.

The lesson here is that the UK must address long-standing defects: our poor productivity, our regional imbalances, our lack of affordable housing and our weak vocational sector. Mrs May has already made progress in some of these areas. In housing, the government has abandoned its predecessor’s obsession with subsidising demand in favour of expanding supply. An additional £1.4bn has been announced for affordable homes, including those for rent. After making no mention of private tenants in their 2015 manifesto, the Conservatives have banned letting agent fees.

The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has rightly abandoned the goal of a budget surplus by 2020 in order to increase infrastructure investment and to soften planned welfare cuts. He has signalled that the triple lock (which ensures that the state pension rises by inflation, average earnings or 2.5 per cent, whichever is highest) could be abolished after the next general election. All of these measures will help to address the increasing gulf between the young (who endured the largest post-crash fall in standards of living) and the old (whose real incomes rose).

Yet even more than this, the government must unite Remainers and Leavers in a shared project of national renewal. In the postwar era, the National Health Service, the welfare state, the Open University and a Keynesian economic strategy helped ameliorate the class divide. The crises in living standards, social care and housing demand no less ambition today. Mrs May’s challenge is not merely to deliver Brexit. It is to make divided Britain united once more. 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.