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Diane Abbott Is Channelling Thatcher - Only She Doesn't Realise It

12/12/2016 16:05
PA/PA Archive

"Access to the single market and freedom of movement are inextricably linked, and it would be wrong... to put the economy anything other than first,' Diane Abbott told The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday.

Leaving aside that there is, in fact, no inextricable link between access to the single market and free movement (she may be confusing access with membership), what is most striking is that Abbott's argument here - that everything must be subordinated to economic imperatives, that policies must ultimately be judged not by their impact on society or quality of life but according to whether they boost GDP or make someone somewhere a fast buck - is the very embodiment of market-obsessed Thatcherism.

Abbott isn't a Thatcherite, of course. Anything but. She is, on virtually all things, on the side of the angels in a head-to-head with Thatcher. Yet it is weird how, when it comes to the subject of immigration, she and so many others on the Left are willing to suddenly embrace the philosophy of a woman they have spent their lives opposing.

When did it become the norm for the Left to put the demands of the market above what was right for wider society? To allow the dictates of the balance sheet to trump all? To know the cost of everything but the value of nothing?

When Thatcher closed the mines and destroyed whole communities, didn't she do so because she wasn't prepared to 'put the economy anything other than first'?

We can argue until the cows come home about whether particular policies or strategies do indeed bring economic advantages. But, for the Left especially, that should never be the sole consideration - and certainly not when those policies or strategies give rise to profound consequences for society.

How depressing it has been to witness so many on the Left fall into the trap of defending free movement almost unconditionally, presenting it as some kind of advancement for working people. One wonders whether they have ever stopped to ask themselves why the multinationals are so enthusiastic about it. In this case, they are guilty of defending a system which, in the quest for greater profits, commodifies humanity, uproots families and fragments communities. When that happens, the bonds of solidarity, mutuality and community are weakened, and instead we get loneliness, alienation and atomisation. 'Migrants are not to blame,' the free movement defenders will often retort. Well, of course they aren't. But that was never the argument. It's as meaningless as saying 'The unemployed are not to blame' as a response to opposition to unemployment.

One might have hoped that, in the months since millions of working-class people used the mechanism of the EU referendum to register their disquiet at the impact of unlimited immigration, those on the Left who for years had buried their heads in the sand over the issue would finally have got the message. Some have. But the tin-eared and politically-intractable still doggedly refuse to recognise the simple truths that are all too apparent. The truth that, for most of us, financial advancement, while important, isn't all that counts: what matters also are old-fashioned concepts such as community cohesion, and a sense of place and belonging. The truth that rapid and unfettered movements of labour have the same capacity to cause social and economic disruption as those of capital. The truth that its embrace of free movement has contributed to the fact that, even during the austerity years, the Left has been in no position to win sufficient levels of support among working-class communities to effectively take on the slash-and-burn Tories.

It isn't actually difficult to ascertain what most people think about immigration. A short visit to a conventional English town and a few conversations in a pub or on the high street should suffice. There will be the small number who wish to slam the doors shut - the hardcore for whom one foreigner is too many. But the vast majority will support immigration - provided it is managed. They don't support free movement; they want controls. They don't think current numbers are sustainable; they think there should be a reduction. They don't believe there should be a pecking order of countries from which we accept migrants; they think the system should be non-discriminatory. Their innate sense of fairness drives them to oppose any form of prejudice against migrants who are here legitimately.

Some Labour figures previously uncritical of freedom of movement have at last begun to grasp that it is a policy ultimately designed to serve the interests of big business by forcing workers from highly-diverse economies to move across borders to improve their lot, with the inevitable consequent downward pressure on wages. Others need to catch up, not least Jeremy Corbyn and those around him.

Trade unions leaders, too, must face the hard reality that their enthusiasm for freedom of movement has negatively affected the very people they claim to represent. Too many in the trade union movement still see things entirely through the prism of the class war, meaning that nothing can be allowed to cut across the unity of all workers in the struggle against capitalism. The tragedy is that their approach has made the issue of immigration far more toxic than it would otherwise have been and resulted in less unity between workers of the world. A bit of humility from them, in place of the usual tired clichés, wouldn't go amiss.

What plays well in the constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington and other trendy parts of London, or at trade union executive committees, has been decisively rejected by millions of people in the post-industrial heartlands. Diane Abbott and other leading figures on the Left have spent six months trying to convince themselves, and the rest of us, that 23 June didn't really happen. It's a state of denial for which, if it persists, Labour will deserve to pay heavily.

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