Last week I was delighted to spend the first half of the week in Strasbourg visiting and learning about the European Parliament. Anyone who – like me – had found their instinctive Europeanism wavering under the onslaught of austerity driven by Germany through European mechanisms could do a great deal worse than to do the same. The European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP) welcomed me with open arms and when speaking to them one-on-one you get a real sense of the ways they are working within the Parliament to improve lives in the UK and over the whole of Europe.
It’s not an easy time at the moment. Europe is largely led by centre-right governments, and with the best will in the world, it will always feel like a remote institution. But the culture of the place that I visited was one of openness and positivity. There were children everywhere as MEPs and staff members brought them to the building with them. Voting was done electronically and was quick and decisive – it was also immediately displayed on screens in the Parliament so everyone could follow the results. Even the process of whipping is more open with the whips making roman emperor style thumb gestures to indicate to their grouping how they have agreed to vote (or Ed Balls style “flat-lining” motions to indicate abstention!). In my time there we talked about trade, green energy, housing, women’s rights, the Tobin tax and a variety of other issues. There was an openness and approachability about the MEPs that you simply don’t get in Parliament. By the end of my visit I was more than ready to declare “Je suis une Européene!”
As I travelled back across France, I started thinking about why more people, particularly those of the left don’t feel this way. I got to thinking about the other side of the European project and the impact that the particular model of capitalism which is prevalent in Europe both in individual countries and in the mechanics of the EU.
Labour have always had an internationalist tradition. We have never believed that our common humanity stops at our borders, not do we believe that our borders are there to repel those in genuine need of our help. We have a proud tradition both of welcoming immigrants (the Windrush generation and law changes by the Attlee government in 1948) and pursuing internationalist aims (supporting the fight against the fascists in Spain in the 30s for example). This is why arguments about the drugs trade, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are made so much more complex, because the impacts differ beyond our borders, and as such, decisions can’t be made by those with an internationalist bent, simply on the basis of their impact in Britain.
But in the last 30 years or so, and certainly during the time of the last Labour government, the newer phenomenon of globalisation took hold. If internationalism was about a sense of solidarity with the many around the world, globalisation has seemed a much more top down affair. Internationalism is something we do together, globalisation is something that is done to to us.
I raised this at the National Policy Forum in our session on Social Europe, and I think it’s essential to an understanding of Ed’s speech today on immigration. I also think it holds the key to how we deal with attitudes to and about our relationship with Europe.
The protection of all workers within the EU that come from the Parliament are those values writ large. These are the values most frequently threatened by the forces of globalisation, and the notion that a company can and will uproot all production and business unless wages are depressed and protections are weakened.
But the narrative of globalisation is being used to attack those very institutions that are most protecting us from these forces.
The idea that the globalisation of power is removing rights is a constant refrain from the doggedly anti-EU press, who are also doggedly right-wing and in favour of the kind of capitalism that favours the globalised, top-down approach.
Labour needs to rescue the narrative of internationalism and reapply it to our relationship with the EU. The EU has it’s faults. As the governments of the moment are largely in favour of austerity, the EU is the body through which a great deal of that is being enforced. The EU, and its institutions are being used as a tool of top-down globalisation but it is not necessarily the cause of top-down globalisation.
If we can fight for a more internationalist approach, through the Parliament and the Council, them the EU has more potential to protect its citizens from the forces of malign globalisation than almost any other. That can be and should remain Labour’s vision for Europe, and it is one we can and should be inspiring people with.
It is – in part – the conflation of globalisation and internationalist narratives that makes it so difficult for Labour to talk about immigration.
Some Labour people don’t like to talk about immigration because they fear that simply to raise the subject is to appease those whose anti-immigration stance is a thin veil for their racism. To read Twitter today was to see that argument repeated ad-infinitum. But the racists are not the only ones talking about immigration. We know this and we’ve known it for a long time. Ed’s speech may have been badly trailed as a classic “tough on immigration” stance, but reading it, it simply was not.
It was, however, tough on the effects that we have allowed immigration to have on our labour market, in ways that are simply bad for the most vulnerable workers, whether they be from Britain or abroad. There was nothing that should challenge the narrative of internationalism that speaks of the rights of workers to be the same the world over. But there was a sense that reinforcing those rights and addressing the economic impact of immigration on jobs and wages in Britain is an approach coming not from a stance of mindlessly limiting immigration but from the stance of mitigating those effects.
These effects are very real, and felt by Labour and other voters on a daily basis. Being working class and worrying about job and wage security, worrying about housing pressure and the changes to your community does not make you a racist. It makes you a greater victim of the culture of globalisation than those who have benefited from influxes of cheaper labour.
Labour said in 1998 when we introduced the Minimum Wage Act that labour has a minimum value. Ed said at the National Policy Forum last week that nobody should be in work and in poverty. If we believe this, we believe this of all workers no matter where they were born. If you’re under our jurisdiction, you should be paid at least the minimum amount that we value labour at and we should enforce that. If that enforcement makes employers less likely to cut corners by employing workers who would be willing to work for illegally low wages that is a good thing. Not because it brings less immigration to our country, but because it brings less exploitation.