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The Conservatives think that Venezuela will hurt Jeremy Corbyn. They're wrong

Fear of Labour wasn't enough last time and won't be enough next time either. 

John Le Carré’s fictional spymaster George Smiley once said that each of us only has “a quantum of compassion”, which we must use sparingly or lose entirely. Most MPs have more than that, but they do tend to have only a quantum of interest: one or two areas of public policy on which they have strongly held and well-informed opinions, usually but not exclusively related to their careers before they arrived at Westminster.

The parliamentary Labour Party is well-served for experts on various spheres of domestic policy but eyes glaze over when conversation drifts to foreign affairs. Jeremy Corbyn is a rare exception; his area of expertise and his most strongly held convictions relate to the rest of the world. (Despite being an instinctive Eurosceptic, the Labour leader, as with most of his colleagues, doesn’t really regard the European Union as “properly abroad”.) In domestic matters, he tends to defer to his close allies, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott.

That makes foreign policy a lucrative topic on which to attack Corbyn, at least in theory. Much to the frustration of some of his aides, this is one arena in which the Labour leader cannot be persuaded to duck a fight.

The crisis in Venezuela is a case in point.  The Conservatives want to weaponise the economic and political chaos to paint a lurid picture about what life under a Corbyn government would look like. Although most MPs from the party’s Corbynite wing have praised Nicolás Maduro’s government in the past, their attachment to the nation is weak. For the most part, they would happily throw out a strongly worded statement in order to bring the row to a close. But Corbyn doesn’t want to and refuses to abandon his principles.

Conservatives have a point, in that Corbyn’s support for the Venezuelan government goes beyond his usual support for the underdog. The oil-rich state was, for a little while, held up in some sections of the left as proof-of-concept that another way of running the economy was possible. That emotional attachment led to an equivocal statement in which the Labour leader condemned “violence on both sides”, which amounted to a de facto endorsement of the government. That makes it easier for the Tories to press the point that today’s Venezuela is what Corbyn’s Britain would one day look like.

Downing Street does badly need to find  something to say about why a Corbyn government would be worse than restoring the Tory parliamentary majority at the next election, whenever that may be. Our economy is making worrying sounds – consumer spending fell for the third successive month in July, usually the prelude to a downturn at best and a full-blown recession at worst. That would threaten the Conservative lead on economic competence, which acted as a shock absorber even as Theresa May’s popularity collapsed and Labour surged at the last election. If the next vote happened against a backdrop of economic turmoil, the Conservatives believe they could at least argue that Corbyn’s socialist vision, like Venezuela, is doomed to fail. Things have never been worse, don’t let Labour ruin it.

The same line worked for David Cameron, after a fashion. There is an irony that a Conservative leadership that, for a time, gleefully defined itself by ripping up the Cameroon playbook now runs to it in a desperate attempt to revive the party’s fortunes. Theresa May has even taken a leaf out of Cameron’s approach to hiring spin doctors, luring Robbie Gibb from his post as director of political programming at the BBC to oversee communications at No 10, just as Cameron poached Craig Oliver, his press chief at the time of his 2015 victory, from the BBC.

Gibb’s hiring also served as a statement of intent. If May can still hire from the top shelf as far as experienced professionals go, it sends a message that, at least as far as she is concerned, there is still some life left in her administration. Whether through coincidence or brilliance, the Tory attack machine has sparked into something resembling life since Gibb arrived at Downing Street. (The hiring of Carrie Symonds, a former special adviser to Sajid Javid and John Whittingdale, in the same role at Conservative Campaign Headquarters is also credited for the revival in some circles.)

For the first time since May took up residence in Downing Street, the Conservative Party is driving the headlines and dominating the agenda, as far as chatter at Westminster (and on sunbeds around the world) goes. Tory MPs have lines to take and messages to retweet. Labour veterans note that, once again, attacks on their party are finding their way to Guido Fawkes, a right-wing website that specialises in political gossip (with a particular focus on left-bashing). Their suspicion is that the old Cameron-era arrangement, where the fruits of CCHQ’s research made their way to friendly journalists, is back and working again.

All of this has been enough for a growing mood of optimism to flourish in the Conservative ranks. Whatever might happen with the British economy or the Brexit talks, many now think that the party can stay in power after the next election with an essentially unchanged approach, provided that they find the right replacement for Theresa May.

The good news for Labour is that most of the public doesn’t have a flicker, let alone a quantum, of interest in foreign affairs. They have considerably more than a quantum of interest in whether or not they are still in work, if they can keep a roof over their heads and in what state Brexit leaves the United Kingdom. 

It is on these issues that the Conservative Party still has precious little to say. The Conservatives might be able to win an argument about Venezuela but it doesn’t get them any closer to winning an election. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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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.