Britain - The politics of prejudice

Spring 2014

British politics have been in electioneering mode ever since the 2010 General Elections, when the Tories' failure to win an overall majority in the middle of a major economic crisis left them with no option but to form a coalition with the Liberal-Democrats in order to avoid having to rule as a minority government.

By now, with the 2015 General Election in just over a year and the Labour Party well ahead of the Tories in the polls, the electoral contest is hotting up. And the fear of being pushed into third place by the rise of Ukip in the only national contest before 2015 - this May's European Election - is making the Tories' electoral drive even more frantic, if not outright hysterical at times. Their problem, however, is that they have nothing to show for their policies.

Even the Tories' own better-off constituency is not really convinced by Osborne's on-going celebration of Britain's economic recovery, let alone that it has gained something out of it.

As to working class voters, Tory chairman Grant Shapps' attempts at rebranding his party as a "workers' party", is not likely to cut much ice with them - not even his claim, in the columns of the Daily Mail, that his party is "fighting for... a Britain where it doesn't matter who your parents are, where you can go as far as your talents and hard work will take you, and where work - rather than benefits - is what pays". And how would it be otherwise, given that this Old Etonian-led party has so conspicuously been defending the interests of the City at the expense of workers' jobs and conditions?

In any case, the electorate's disaffection towards the Tories was clearly highlighted by its verdict in the six by-elections since 2010 which saw the Tories relegated into third place by Ukip.

In their desperate attempts to regain the electoral ground they were losing - and short of having anything tangible to "sell" to the electorate - the Tories have done little else than try to deflect voters' discontent by blaming one scapegoat after another - whether it be the jobless, the disabled and long-term sick, benefit claimants in general, "illegal" immigrants, the European Union and EU workers in particular, etc..

However, beyond their electoral purpose and whatever their targets, these demagogic campaigns, which were systematically backed up by hysterical headlines in the tabloids, all had another, more sinister aim - to serve as a cover and a justification for the capitalists' attacks against the working class.

Anti-working class demagogy...

Ever since the coalition came into office, the poorest layers of the working class have been the prime target of its demagogy.

The unemployed were blamed for failing to find a job, benefit claimants for being poor, the disabled and long-term sick were branded "cheaters and skivers", council tenants were accused of having too many rooms, etc.. And Iain Duncan-Smith went on and on in his crusade against those he dared to accuse of having turned benefits into a "way of life" - as if barely surviving hand to mouth could be a "way of life" that anyone would choose! - and what he called the "something for nothing culture".

Never mind that the majority of benefit claimants were either pensioners who could not possibly survive on their miserly income, despite having paid pension contributions all their lives, or working poor, whose bosses were getting away with paying them abysmally low wages! If anything, it is the working class which is the victim of the bosses' "something for nothing culture" - of squeezing as much as they can out of workers' labour and giving them as little as possible in return!

Of course, while workers living on the poverty line were being portrayed as "parasites" there was never any question of blaming the parasitism of the capitalist class, neither for causing the crisis in the first place, nor for plundering the state's coffers through the banks' bailout. Instead the capitalists' "welfare system" which, before the crisis, had already been feeding a significant part of their profits at the expense of public funds, became even more bloated: companies and shareholders were awarded yet more comfortable tax breaks and more opportunities to parasitise the state through sub-contracting and privatisation.

This demagogy was primarily designed to rally petty-bourgeois "tax-paying voters" behind the government's banner, by whipping up their crass social prejudices against the poor who were accused of "sponging off the taxpayer" , thereby making it impossible for the government to introduce the tax cuts that it had more or less promised to deliver.

But it was also partly addressed to working class voters, in an attempt to split their ranks, by trying to woo those Osborne called "hard-working people" - as if anyone in the working class, whether in work or out of work, had an "easy life" these days! But then, what would upper-class ministers who never had to "work" for a living, know about that?

Nevertheless, splitting workers' ranks was, for instance, the purpose of the venomous media campaign which preceded the introduction of the "bedroom tax". The government pointed a vengeful finger, accusing some tenants of enjoying a "luxurious life" on housing benefit because they lived in what Osborne described as "oversized" council flats. Who cared among these politicians about the fact that, as it turned out, a majority of these tenants were, on the one hand, disabled households whose special needs required an additional room, and, on the other, pensioners on very low income who would have been quite willing to move to a smaller flat, but could not because there was none available?

The point of this exercise was not even to achieve significant "savings", since they were officially expected to be under £500m a year - a figure which was significantly reduced later, after the scandal caused by this "tax" and several court rulings forced the government to narrow its scope. What really lay behind this "tax" was the cynical politicking of politicians who were fishing for votes by posturing as representatives of the interests of "hard-working" households on the receiving end of the housing crisis. By blaming "over-occupiers" on housing benefit for the shortage of family council flats, the Tories were pretending to be doing something against the housing crisis. By the same token they were hoping to divert the frustration of working class voters living in overcrowded accommodation and waiting in council housing queues, against other, even poorer victims of the same housing crisis. But, of course, despite the past decades of under-funding in public housing, there was never any question for Osborne of launching the massive public investment programme in social housing, which would be needed to even begin to address the chronic housing crisis!

... and real-world attacks on workers

Just as the demagogic campaign surrounding the "bedroom tax" was used to justify an attack against the most vulnerable, one of the most vicious aspects of the government's demagogy, from the point of view of the working class, has been the way in which it has been used to provide some sort of legitimacy for its savage attacks on the welfare system as a whole and, more generally, on workers' conditions. By the same token, it has also been used to help companies to maximise the benefits they could get out of these attacks, either directly - by undermining the ability of the working class to resist exploitation - or indirectly - by increasing the proportion of the state's resources that were made available to them.

Some of these attacks were only designed to make savings at the expense of the poor and most vulnerable, without any direct benefit for the bosses. For instance, many disabled and long-term sick were ruthlessly deprived of what little specific support they had been receiving from the state, after being assessed as "able to do some work" by mercenary sub-contractor Atos. This implied no direct benefit to private bosses who didn't want to hire them anyway, while the government was closing down most of its remaining Remploy factories for disabled workers. The aim of the exercise was merely to justify cutting the benefits bill for the disabled and long-term sick. Although, ironically, this didn't work out quite as the coalition expected, since a large proportion of Atos' decisions were thrown out on appeal - so much so that the government is now introducing dissuasive charges on all claimants for lodging appeal procedures!

However, other attacks were directly beneficial to the bosses - in particular, those against the jobless. Their stigmatisation by ministers, accusing them of "criminal laziness" at tax-payers' expense, served as a justification to step up their systematic harassment by "job advisers" whose primary objective was to discourage them from signing on - as was revealed by internal DWP memos leaked to the press, which showed that JobCentres had been assigned "reduction targets" for the numbers of "clients" they were handling.

This led to the infamous workfare schemes, whereby jobless workers were made to work for their benefits, providing the bosses with a totally free workforce. However, the scandal caused by these schemes and a series of legal challenges forced the government to change tack. Instead, under threat of losing their benefits, more and more jobless were forced to join a growing pool of infinitely pliable workers used and abused by bosses, sometimes just to fill short-term manpower gaps on the cheap - even for just a few hours - and sometimes to provide them with a permanent, "on-call", underpaid workforce, without having to bother with the existing equal rights legislation for agency workers or temporary workers.

There lies, in particular, the origin of the growing number of "zero-hours" contracts, whose existence were barely acknowledged by official statistics until the beginning of March, when the ONS finally admitted that such contracts made up over half-a-million of the so-called "jobs" created in 2013. But the reality may well be far worse, judging from available estimates of the total number of workers on "zero-hours", which range from one million according to the personnel management professional association CIPD (which is hardly likely to show any bias in favour of workers) and 5 million according to the TUC!

These contracts represent a win-win "solution" both for the bosses and the government. In addition to allowing the bosses to ignore a raft of employment regulations, they provide companies with a captive workforce which they can always rely on, without having to pay them a full-time, permanent wage. As for the government, it is able to boast that, thanks to its policies, unemployment is falling, "employment" is reaching unprecedented levels and even that a record number of "permanent jobs" are being created - since one can be hired permanently on a "zero-hours" contract. Meanwhile, in the real world, more workers are being pushed into poverty by this chronic, institutionalised form of under-employment.

Unfurling the "Union Jack" against the EU

But bashing the poor to shore up their support among the better-off voters was still not enough for the ruling coalition and, especially not for the Tories. Britain's "national interest" and its "Union Jack", this bloody rag so often used to cover the atrocities and looting carried out by British imperialism, were called upon. The same government which was hailing so enthusiastically the opportunities offered by the "global economy" - that is, the huge profits made by British companies from looting the planet and the flow of foreign investment coming into Britain in search of a tax haven - started to promote a siege mentality.

After a long period in which the coalition systematically blamed the dire state of the British economy on the turmoil which was affecting the weaker economies of the Eurozone, Cameron was eventually forced to change his target and concentrate his fire on the European Union as a whole. The rationale was the same -  justifying the failure of the government's economic policies - but this time, by accusing the EU, its bureaucracy and its regulations of stifling British business.

As to the reasons for Cameron's shift, they were two-fold: on the one hand, Britain's two main rivals in the Eurozone - Germany and France - were faring rather better than Britain in terms of economic "growth", and since "growth" had been trumpeted by Osborne as the main objective of his policy, targeting the euro was losing credibility; and, on the other, unrest was growing among Tory backbenchers, to the point of threatening Cameron with a leadership challenge, and it was taking the form, as it so often does in the Tory party, of a eurosceptic rebellion. Of course, all this rhetoric was also designed to whip up nationalist prejudices among the public and, more specifically, invoke the deeply-entrenched anti-European prejudices inherited from decades in which one government after another, whatever their political creed, have been nursing them for political expediency.

Hence Cameron's bold speeches, last year, about "renegotiating Britain's position" in the EU. Of course, he was always careful to remain extremely vague as to what exactly he wanted to "renegotiate", how, and with whom. After all, any "renegotiation" would require the agreement of Britain's two main partners in the EU, Germany and France. The French government was clearly against and, despite all his efforts, Cameron was unable to convince German Chancellor Angela Merkel to make the slightest gesture which he could have presented as the beginning of an alliance.

Besides, political rhetoric was one thing, but what British capital was prepared to allow Cameron to actually do, was quite another. The City had obviously no objection to Osborne's rebellion against EU regulations, as long as he confined himself to discreetly defending British bankers' bonuses and the special status of the City, regarding financial speculation. But, in general, the large British companies were taking a dim view of Cameron's anti-EU politicking - even knowing that it was more than likely to come to nothing - because of its potential destabilising effect on commercial relations with the rest of Europe. And a long list of CEOs made no secret of their disapproval over the past year, mainly in columns published by the Financial Times. John Cridland, the director general of the bosses' organisation CBI , even joined the fray, by launching a campaign in favour of Britain remaining firmly in the EU, with a report stating that EU membership brings a net benefit of £3,000 per British household (a benefit which is pocketed by shareholders, of course, not by most households!).

Of course, all of this made Cameron's position rather uncomfortable and blunted the edge of his rhetoric. Eventually, however, he produced a magic wand which was designed to satisfy his critics among his own party and in the City, restore some credibility to his anti-European rhetoric and, at the same time, keep all his options open. This was the so-called "in-out" referendum, safely promised for 2017, two years after the next General Election, thereby ensuring - or, at least, this is what Cameron hopes - that the Tory party will not be split right down the middle in the run-up to the General Election, as it was under John Major, in the run-up to the 1997 General Election. Whether this calculation proves correct is quite another question, however.

EU workers in the line of fire

Having done this, Cameron was no longer facing an immediate threat from within his party, at least. But he was now facing the rising electoral threat of Ukip and, therefore, the need to raise his nationalistic rhetoric by another notch in order to counter Ukip's overbidding.

There had already been campaigns against "illegal" migrant workers since the coalition came to power, which effectively singled out workers coming from the poor countries - whether "illegal" or not. They were designed to woo racist prejudices and create a sense of insecurity among voters. But they also significantly contributed to an increase in police harassment against black and Asian people, especially against the youth. Ironically, though, no-one mentioned the fact that, for instance, the NHS would have completely collapsed without these workers from the poor countries, who make up the overwhelming majority of its 11% foreign staff and 26% foreign doctors. The climax in this demagogy was reached last year, with the "go home" van adverts campaign organised by then immigration minister Mark Harper - which was eventually banned by the advertising watchdog for lying to the public on the number of "illegal" immigrants arrested. Since then, Harper himself has also been "banned" from government, after it was revealed that the cleaner who had been working for him for seven years, had no work permit - an apt retribution for Parker, although one can only worry about this woman's fate.

Meanwhile visas to Britain have become increasingly more difficult for citizens from poor countries to obtain - and increasingly expensive, as a deterrent for migrant workers or even poor students, which puts them even more at the mercy of traffickers and dodgy education institutions than before. By contrast, anyone who can invest £1m in Britain (this minimum may soon be doubled under current proposals) can benefit from a "fast-track, first class service" provided by the Borders Agency and Foreign Office, with no questions asked - proof that, like everything else in this society, Britain's "national interest" is just a question of money!

After the public relations failure of its "go home" campaign, the government shifted its focus to EU workers. For them, "illegality" could not be raised as an issue, so something else had to be invented. This was what Cameron called "benefit tourism".

If the NHS was crumbling, it had to be blamed on EU citizens who were able to travel freely to Britain for the sole purpose of getting treatment on the NHS - as if the NHS hospital queues could be so attractive to the rest of the EU! Anyway, there was one problem with this story - the NHS itself estimated the total annual cost of foreign patients to be a derisory £12m or 0.01% of the NHS' total budget, which made a fool of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who had endorsed Cameron's rhetoric. Four months later, in November last year, Hunt came back with a new estimate of £1.8bn a year. Except that 80% of this figure was accounted for by tax-paying foreigners who have a job in Britain and fee-paying foreign students, who all contribute towards the NHS, like anyone else in Britain!

At the same time, another campaign was building up, this time over the "abuse" of the benefit system by EU citizens, who were accused of coming to Britain in order to "enjoy" a "way of life" on benefits, as Duncan-Smith would say. As if anyone in his sane mind would waste the cost of an expensive journey and travel all the way to Britain - for the privilege of getting no benefit, since an EU citizen has to prove he is "habitually resident" in Britain to be entitled to the JobSeeker's Allowance!

It was at this point that a strident campaign was launched by Tory backbenchers, with the open support of Home Secretary Theresa May, announcing that Britain was soon to be flooded by a tide of Bulgarians and Romanians, as soon as they acquired full EU citizenship on January 1st this year. This campaign got the hysterical backing of the tabloids, with the Sun announcing that "a tidal wave of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants is threatening to swamp Britain", the Daily Express adding that "at least 385,000 Romanians and Bulgarians will flock to the UK" and the Daily Mail running a story entitled: "Sold out! Flights and buses full as Romanians head for the UK". After the hysteria, came the farce: on Wednesday January 1st, a huge welcoming team of politicians and journalists was waiting at Luton airport for the first plane arriving from Romania that morning, only to find 40 seats free in the plane and one single genuine Romanian coming to Britain for the first time - but with a job waiting for him - while the rest of the passengers were either British or foreigners who were already settled in Britain. By February, an official report underlined the lie behind the government's "benefit tourism", estimating that 1.45% of working age Romanians living in Britain claimed benefits, compared to 9.5% for the whole British population.

But never mind, none of these ridiculous flops prevented Cameron and his ministers from announcing a number of new measures against EU workers: Theresa May proposed to introduce a 75,000 annual quota for EU migrants (although this would require a fundamental change in EU treaties, which the government has no means of obtaining); since March 1st, EU workers are only entitled to in-work benefits if they earn at least £150/week (equivalent to 24 hours on the minimum wage); from April 1st, they will not be entitled to JSA before having worked for at least 3 months, nor to housing benefit if they are out of work. And they could be asked to leave after 6 months out of a job, unless they can prove that they have "reasonable prospects to find one".

In fact, these measures do not actually change very much compared to the previous situation. But the deliberately spectacular way and nasty tone in which they where announced by Cameron's ministers were there for a purpose. The point was to blame EU workers for being a burden on the British economy and potential parasites on "benefit tourism", thereby providing yet another scapegoat forthe British electorate and, in particular, working class voters - and trying to give credit to the idea that these workers have some responsibility for the difficulties faced by working class households today. Divide and rule again!

Ukip - the hidden, nasty face of Toryism

To sum up, if peddling prejudice could kill, the land of Britain would be littered with the rotting corpses of the political demagogues and servile journalists who have been promoting all sorts of xenophobic, if not outright racist, scare-stories over the past months - stories which have so often made their authors look ridiculous. And among these corpses, next to Cameron and most Tory MPs would unquestionably be those of Ukip's motley crowd of aspiring politicians.

The problem, however, is that all these characters are alive and retain a high nuisance capacity. Ukip rose out of nowhere, partly thanks to the discontent caused by the crisis among Tory voters, but partly also because Cameron and his ministers made the systematic use of reactionary, populist demagogy, respectable. Ukip's politicians may appear in many ways as a bunch of loonies and many are. But beyond the association with the far-right that some of them have - or had in the past - and beyond the idiotic, reactionary bigotry displayed by some others, on the whole, they merely say aloud what most Tory backbenchers think, but do not dare to say for fear of falling foul of the discipline of their party and the respect of their peers.

It is no coincidence if, this February, a poll showed that almost half of Tory activists were in favour of some sort of pact between their party and Ukip in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. Of course, there is an element of political strategy in this - a growing number of Tory MPs fear that, by splitting the right-wing vote, Ukip will allow Labour to get in, especially in Tory marginals. But this poll also reflects the fact that, on the whole, many Tory MPs feel at home with Ukip - in fact they hold virtually identical views on issues like the EU, foreign workers, the welfare state, etc..

The 22nd May elections to the EU parliament will be a test run for Ukip. Its leader, Nigel Farage, said he was betting on winning between 25 or 30% of the seats. Whether he will or not is anybody's guess at this stage. But, if Ukip does achieve a good score, this will have inevitably have an impact on the British political scene as a whole. It will become a justification - as it is already the case in areas like immigration and the EU, in particular - for the Tories and Labour to take "tougher" stances on a whole range of issues - that is, to drift towards even more reactionary, populist forms of demagogy.

What is at stake in this drift, ultimately, are the conditions of the working class and its ability to fight back against exploitation - as was shown by the price it has already paid over the past four years for the demagogic campaigns waged against its poorest layers by Cameron and his clique in office. Whether politicians target these poor layers of the working class or whether they target immigrant workers, they are really taking aim at the working class as a whole, to weaken it, divide it and turn the screw even further.

The working class has certainly nothing to expect from any of the coming elections, in which there is no stake whatsoever for it. But it has its collective strength to build up - bringing together all workers, whatever their trade or nationality - in order to stop these politicians and their capitalist masters from going even more on the rampage against working class conditions and in order to start regaining the ground lost over the past years of crisis.

17 March 2014