Category Archives: David Cameron

Britain’s Brexit: the left must fight for migrant rights


The result of the Brexit vote stunned the British political elite and sent shockwaves around the world; it was welcomed by separatist and rightwing populist movements in Europe and by Donald Trump as he visited his golf courses in Scotland. By just over a million votes in a high turnout referendum, the public voted to leave the European Union. The vote was uneven: Scotland voted by a large majority to remain, as did London.

It was a victory for the far right of the Tory party, which campaigned incessantly on restricting immigration. But there are other deep-seated reasons for the Brexit vote. Foremost among them is the resentment of the white working class, especially in the North, over deindustrialization, degradation of benefits like housing, health and education, which is blamed on immigrants as the most visible sign of what is in fact a neoliberal reconstruction of society.

Gary Younge argues: “Britain is no more sovereign today than it was yesterday. We have left the EU but we remain within the neoliberal system. … The chutzpah with which the Tory right – the very people who had pioneered austerity, damaging jobs, services and communities – blamed immigrants for the lack of resources was breathtaking.”

Owen Jones commented: “It may not have been the working-class revolt against the political establishment that many of us favoured, but it is undeniable that this result was achieved off the back of furious, alienated working-class votes. … Many of the communities that voted most decisively for leave were the same communities that have suffered the greatest battering under successive governments.”

What started as a maneuver by prime minister David Cameron to control the rightwing of his party resonated with the country in an unprecedented way. Younger voters and those living in metropolitan centres like London, Manchester and Liverpool voted for Remain, while in the deindustrialized north and midlands there were large majorities for Leave. The country is now intensively polarized and resentful of the other side.

The New York Times reported on the generational divide: “Leslie Driscoll, 55, sells hot cross buns in an English bakery in London. Having different cultures and communities is ‘fantastic,’ she said, ‘but what I don’t like is the fact that, through having that, we’ve now left ourselves open. I feel like a second-class citizen in my own country’.” Her daughter Louise grew up in the same area “but in a more prosperous, multicultural Britain than earlier generations had. In school, she was one of only two white students. Her friends are Eritrean, Nigerian and South African. Louise said she understood the pressures that immigration placed on schools and hospitals. But leaving the European Union worried her, she said, because it risked wrecking the economy and making it hard for young people to secure employment. It took her eight months to find work as a barista, she said.”

John Harris commented in the Guardian: “for millions of people, the word ‘immigration’ is reducible to yet another seismic change no one thought to ask them about, or even explain. What people seem to want is much the same as ever: security, stability, some sense of a viable future, and a reasonable degree of esteem. To be more specific, public housing is not a relic of the 20th century, but something that should surely sit at the core of our politics.”

Not that the vote will change that; if anything it will make things worse. Brexit voters were making a plea for a return to a self-contained economy with defined borders that would allow for a national compromise on jobs and benefits – in other words, Britain as it was before Thatcher, or rather an idealized country of the past.

Fintan O’Toole comments in The Irish Times: “The sense of grievance is undeniably powerful. It’s also highly contrary: it is rooted in the shrinking of British social democracy, but the outcome of Brexit will be an even firmer embrace of the unfettered neoliberalism that is causing that shrinkage. … The great cultural appeal of nationalism – we need independence or our culture will die – doesn’t wash. And besides, take immigrants out of English culture and what do you have left?”

Some on the left consider the result a progressive move that could lead to the weakening of neoliberalism. Joseph Choonara of the British Socialist Workers Party told Democracy Now that he hoped the vote “begins to precipitate the breakup of this huge bosses’ club. So that’s the basis on which we campaigned for exit of the U.K. from the EU. It was on the basis of an internationalist, anti-racist and progressive vote against neoliberalism. … The point is that there is going to be popular opposition to these kind of institutions. Does it receive a right focus or a left focus?” Alex Scrivener of Global Justice Now disagreed: “We’ve woken up today to a Britain in which it is a much, much scarier place to be a migrant. … Austria came within a whisker of electing a far-right president. We are living in very terrifying times. The National Front may be—is leading the polls at the moment for the French presidential election. You know, I think we’re on a level of political crisis here we haven’t seen since the 1930s. And I think that the sort of glee on some parts of the left about the EU breaking up, I think people are going to regret that, if that leads to a retreat into nationalism, which is already happening.”

In a similar debate on The Real News Network, John Hilary of War on Want said that the referendum gave a voice to voters’ desire for change: “so many millions of people voted saying, we do not trust our government and political elites anymore; we want a different type of politics which does not just serve the interests of the few … this is genuinely a return to a situation where we have direct democracy again, not a situation of the European Commission being able to hide all the time behind the democratic deficit that exists at the heart of the E.U.” Economics professor John Weeks responded: “Immigration was the issue people that voted on: we’ve got too many foreigners over here in Britain. That’s what the Out won on, and that is what they are going to pursue. And if I were the person that takes over after David Cameron, I would immediately call an election with the confidence that I could win it. And the reason that the Tories could win it is because the Labour Party is split. Most of Jeremy Corbyn’s MPs would love to see him defeated and will not work for a Labour Party to win. And when that happens, we could be in a very difficult situation indeed.”

The left needs to face up to the reality of the Brexit vote – the toxic nature of the Leave campaign created a nationalist backlash against immigrants who will need to be defended. The left has a huge responsibility and opportunity now, as Alex Scrivener of Global Justice said, “to fight for migrant rights, fight for those people who are going to lose hardest from this historic and tragic moment in our history.”

The idea that breaking up the EU means that opposition to neoliberalism will gain an advantage by only confronting a nationally delimited capitalist class is a fantasy. The UK was only ever an independent nation because it was sustained by a huge empire, and Thatcher carried out the last act of an independent nation-state when she opened up the country to international capital after the defeat of the miners’ year-long strike. Since then it’s been under the thrall of one neoliberal government after another.

Colonel Despard will be publishing a three-part reappraisal of the 1984-85 miners’ strike and its international implications, the lessons of which have still not been absorbed by the left. Watch for the first instalment next week.

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Filed under Brexit, Britain, British elections, Cameron, David Cameron, deindustrialization, immigration, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, Thatcher, Uncategorized

Heckuva Job, David! Is Flooding in Northern England Cameron’s Katrina?


British Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to cover the government’s tracks as disastrous flooding in the north of England makes a mockery of his claims to be taking responsibility for citizens’ safety. The press and parliament have so far not made an effective challenge to his public relations spin, but victims of the floods have shown their contempt. In a rare sighting of the prime minister by a member of the public, a woman shouted: “No more cuts to public services.”

During a photo-opportunity visit to emergency workers in York on Monday (so avoiding working-class Leeds), Cameron called the disaster unprecedented, rhetorically disconnecting it from his government’s defunding of state agencies. In reality it is a disaster of refusing to act on documented warnings by state officials and a willingness to take risks with people’s lives and property for the sake of advancing a destructive agenda of austerity.

After the flooding of three major British cities – York, Leeds, and Manchester – Cameron claimed that a lot of money was already being spent on flood defences and thousands of homes had been protected, pledging that the government would “help people in their hour of need and respond to unprecedented levels of rainfall.” As the Independent pointed out, “the implication here is that the freakish weather is so outlandishly unreal, so Old Testament, that no amount of government preparation, no flood defences, no civil contingency planning could possibly have mitigated its effects.”

However, the Guardian reported, as late as October this year the government decided not to develop a strategy to address the risk of increased flooding even after being warned by its official climate change advisers that it urgently needed to take action. And the cautions were specific: “Yorkshire’s regional flood and coastal committee (RFCC) warned about the potential impact of the region’s revenue funding gap just weeks before floods overran towns and cities in the region.” The actual state of the defences was brought into sharp relief after pumping equipment in York was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of water.

The conservative Yorkshire Post said Cameron “was left on the back foot after Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds Council, claimed the disaster was ‘preventable’ and would not have been allowed to occur in the South. … [he] is facing a tide of public anger after it emerged that the Government dug deep last December to finance a £300m scheme to protect the Thames Valley after previously rejecting a £180m scheme to safeguard 4,500 homes in Leeds city centre, one of the areas worst affected by the Christmas deluge.”

The same paper commented in an editorial: “The prime minister repeatedly used the word ‘unprecedented’ to describe this winter’s storms. Yet every fortnight brings ‘unprecedented’ levels of new flooding and the same pious platitudes from politicians, such as the environment secretary, Liz Truss, whose rhetoric is increasingly economical with the truth.” While claiming her department is spending more on flood prevention, “she chooses to overlook the fact that many schemes are subject to partnership funding from councils and other agencies whose budgets have been decimated by spending cuts.”

Earlier, in 2012, “the government’s own research showed increased flooding is the greatest threat posed by climate change in England. But when heavy flooding hit in the summer of 2012, the Guardian revealed that almost 300 proposed flood defences had not gone ahead as planned following the cuts. A £58m scheme in Leeds – one of the cities hit in the latest round of flooding – was one affected project, which would have saved many times its cost in avoided damages.”

In Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, residents attacked the government’s inaction. The town was devastated by floods in 2012, but the latest flooding was worse, they said. “The government has done nothing to help us,” said local shop owner Janet Chew-Tetlaw. “They come round and say what they are going to do and make big promises, but nothing ever comes out of it. … All this is because culverts do not get cleared by the Environment Agency, the water is running off the moors because the trees are being cut down – destroying natural flood defences – and planning permission has been given for big housing developments on the hillsides, so there is no earth to soak up the water.”

What the situation demands is a bold political intervention to change land usage and to rebuild flood defences for future storms, like the Dutch, who have spent the past decade “deepening and widening rivers, creating new side canals that provide extra capacity, and setting aside land as dedicated flood plains. … All this so that when the water does come, the swollen rivers can expand without flooding homes and causing misery.” However, the British government’s role is one of cutting infrastructure spending and succumbing to business interests like farming and real estate that put short-term profit over longer-term safety.

Cameron’s social base is the financiers of the City of London who want negligible taxation on their wealth to avoid contributing to the common good. While in the last election he was successful in convincing enough of the property-owning middle class that austerity would secure their fortunes, it is now clear that defunding the state destroys essential conditions for normal life.

The only politician who has consistently spoken out for higher spending on public assets is Jeremy Corbyn. His social base is people who have already been affected by government cuts, for example in social services and public housing. Instead of repeatedly trying to undermine Corbyn, Labour MPs like the right-wing Simon Danczuk should forget about sending a few jets to Syria and get more helicopters to northern Britain. The biggest danger facing the British is not the threat of terrorism, but the Cameron government’s readiness to risk the lives of its own citizens in order to hang on to its support in the City of London.

Vying with UKIP leader Nigel Farage to be Britain’s answer to Donald Trump, Danczuk now calls for diverting the whole of foreign aid into shoring up the country’s aging infrastructure. This demagogic posturing accepts there is no alternative to austerity budgets by assuming no more money can be forthcoming for essential public projects from taxing the rich.

Will Cameron’s dishonest platitudes generate enough pushback from the electorate for this to be his Katrina moment? It certainly should. Heckuva job, David!

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Corbyn’s Energized Supporters Counter Blairite Rhetoric


The British Labour party is today divided into two camps. There is the newly-enlarged membership that overwhelmingly elected Jeremy Corbyn as party leader; then there is the parliamentary Labour party that is mortified by having Corbyn as leader.

They are oriented to different demographics. Corbyn’s campaign energized party members who had been excluded from decision-making, together with young people who had no previous party affiliation but who are closely connected with the real life problems of housing, jobs and benefits, as Corbyn was able to articulate in his questions to Cameron in parliament.

A grassroots network formed from Corbyn’s leadership campaign organization, Momentum, seeks to extend Labour’s support by launching a mass voter registration drive aimed at reaching people currently not politically active. The phasing out of household voter registration and redrawing of constituency boundaries bids to further gerrymander the archaic electoral system that disenfranchised many of the voters in the last election. Momentum organizer Emma Rees said Corbyn’s campaign promised “a politics that engaged with those shut out from the political system.”

His election victory has also energized a significant slice of the public outside the Labour party – membership of the anti-nuclear movement CND has soared, for example. Corbyn himself is a longstanding opponent of nuclear weapons, much to the discomfort of many Labour MPs, including the shadow defence secretary, Maria Eagle.

Most of the parliamentary party is oriented to the political “middle ground” beloved of New Labour and so did not anticipate Corbyn’s grassroots support. The political middle ground is code for an “aspirational” middle class that may express its concern about the problems of the poor or of refugees but is more concerned about its own lifestyle. It was comparatively easy therefore for David Cameron to appropriate Blairite rhetoric in his speech to the Tory party conference, since he was targeting the same demographic. Early in his address he spoke of how “social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world’s poorest” were now “at the centre of the Conservative Party’s mission.”

Despite the speech’s blatant contradiction with the government’s actions, and its Flashman-like bullying attack on Corbyn, the Blairite Martin Kettle was taken in by its rhetorical similarities. He commented: “both the 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and perhaps even the 2015 Tory government … have also been concerned about fairness and social justice, which Thatcherism always disdained. So it might be more useful to think of the Cameron governments … more as alternative successors to new Labour rather than to Thatcher.”

His ideological orientation to the theoretical political centre is shared by most Labour MPs and has led to a destabilizing tension within the parliamentary party. So far, 20 of them have rebelled by ignoring the party whip and refusing to vote against Tory austerity plans. In addition, 50 threatened to vote in favour of bombing Syria in defiance of popular sentiment, joining with Tory MPs in an all-parliamentary group devoted to pushing for military action.

While the British may still believe in “fair play”, the belief in symbols of imperial ascendancy lives on – at least in the minds of the political class. There is a self-deceptive shouldering of British responsibility to police the moral conduct of the rest of the world, which by sheer chance coincides with supporting US foreign policy, requiring military intervention abroad to make sure unrest there does not interfere with the business of making money at home. So, predictably, in their search for an “ethical” solution to the civil war in Syria that does not rule out bombing, Labour MP Jo Cox joined with Tory MP Andrew Mitchell to call for “a military component that protects civilians as a necessary prerequisite to any future UN or internationally provided safe havens.”

The ongoing civil war between Assad and increasingly radicalized fundamentalist fighters is rhetorically solved in this formulation by the creation of imaginary “safe havens” for refugees. Since no troops are going to make sure these areas of the map remain safe, they remain a political fiction for the purpose of justifying a symbolic bombing of Syrian targets, at the same time appeasing the conscience of the liberal elite and avoiding the need to abandon its occupation of the moral high ground.

Middle East expert Juan Cole, who in contrast to the politicians actually knows something about Syria, objects to Hillary Clinton’s use of the same empty rhetoric. He points out: “these ‘safe zones’ would attract rebels who would use them as bases from which to attack the regime, inviting regime attacks. They would only remain safe zones if some military force guarded their perimeters. But which military force would undertake that task?” He describes the pretence that there is a big group of “moderates” with which the West could ally as a “frankly dishonest discourse.”

If the experts on dishonest discourse in the British parliament take the issue to a vote (after signally failing in 2013), and enough Labour MPs vote against the popular mood, they will dig the party’s grave in England as they did in Scotland. With more members campaigning on the doorsteps and engaging with issues like housing and benefit cuts, MPs’ indifference would increase the momentum for the restoration of the right of constituency organizations to select their own candidates without interference from the party establishment.

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