In the days, even weeks, leading up to Remembrance Sunday on 13 November, all public figures in the UK must wear a poppy. This is not actually obligatory; it is just the way things are done. Some 45 million poppies were attached to clothing this year, a total that far outweighs the number of celebrities. If you are not seen wearing one, then perhaps you forgot, perhaps it is on a different jacket, perhaps your mum or dad did not buy you one and your pocket money was insufficient, perhaps you are a household pet, or, heaven forbid, you might have some questions about this totem for honouring/remembering the war dead in their sacrifices for ‘Britain’, otherwise known as British imperialism. Just to make sure he was not numbered among the latter persona non grata, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn made sure that he was wearing a poppy when he appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show that day. To reinforce his patriotic credentials, Corbyn also made sure to note that he would be standing at the Cenotaph later on Remembrance Day with a 92-year old friend, a Labour party supporter and veteran of World War Two. Thus began his exposition of how Labour’s policies would meet the demands of the UK electorate.
The interview with Andrew Marr covered lots of questions. Corbyn came out clearly against racism, responding to recent political developments in the US and Europe. In the aftermath of the UK’s Brexit vote, he also stressed the importance of keeping its access to the EU single market and the provisions for workers’ rights existing in the EU. But my main focus here is on how Corbyn’s comments illustrated a common feature of leftwing views in many rich countries, national welfarism.
National welfarism is somewhat different from simple nationalism, which can be summed up as demanding that government policies should benefit the people of a particular country (usually meaning the corporations). Instead, national welfarism cloaks a nationalist policy in progressive phrases and proclaims the need to protect the common people from the depredations of the market. In all cases, national welfarism amounts to a call for the capitalist state to implement such policies, not for a struggle of people to protect themselves from such depredation. Furthermore, it avoids naming names. Rather than singling out capitalism as the problem, and the capitalist state as the enemy’s enforcer, it is a demand for different government policies. It is the stance taken by those who do not like capitalism’s impact on people’s lives, but who do not want to make a fuss about opposing capitalism. One might think this is just letting discretion be the better part of valour, but it is more than that. It is a facile belief that good bits of capitalism can be salvaged from the bad bits of capitalism.
Worse than this, national welfarism pays no attention to whether the state in question is one of the major powers in the world that spends its time oppressing others, either directly, or indirectly in making sure that the general system of oppression and privilege for the major powers remains in place. The reason is that this oppression by their own powerful state is something from which, implicitly at least, the national welfarists would like to benefit.
Answering the questions
Andrew Marr, a pillar of the BBC’s establishment opinion making elite, asked some pertinent questions. Corbyn answered clearly.
Why has there been a political shift to the right in many (rich) countries, and why has the left failed to channel popular anger? Corbyn thought that the previous New Labour agenda was mistaken and could not meet popular concerns, because it ignored the deindustrialisation of Britain and focused on globalisation. This was how he introduced his alternative Labour Party policy.
While Trump in the US and Marine Le Pen in France were in favour of trade protectionism, to stem the loss of domestic jobs, Corbyn countered with the view that there should be new investment in industry and ‘fair trade agreements’. He did not openly endorse tariffs and protectionism, but was very open to other forms of trade control – to make it ‘fair’, of course – which would go back to the Labour left and British Communist Party ‘alternative economic strategy’ programmes of the 1970s and 1980s. In this, he ends up posing foreign countries as the barrier to economic welfare for the Brits, not the market system, and still less capitalism. So the capitalist state should take measures against those who are not playing by the rules that the major powers, such as Britain, have introduced. Environmental concerns were also used to bolster his position. This is the common fashion among radicals these days – and is essentially a dig at China, in line with major power policy – despite the fact that the major powers have done by far the most to destroy the global environment.
Corbyn later criticised Donald Trump for demonising foreign workers, but, despite his anti-racism, he still managed to point to migrant labour as a problem for British workers. Even from his own perspective, he could have more simply said that migrant labour is not the problem, it is the capitalist labour market, and that he would demand the same conditions for all workers, whether migrant or not.
Immigration and UK politics
It was on the explosive popular issue of immigration that Corbyn was most evasive. He posed regional investment as a solution! The implicit logic was that if the state could encourage investment in those areas that were most anti-immigrant (basically, in England, and probably also in Wales), then such sentiment would fade away. This stepped aside from the post-Brexit issue of who is meant to benefit from the national investment policy, while his statement would, of course, be taken as meaning the ‘national’ working class. When asked about whether he agreed with the view of Keir Starmer, Corbyn’s Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, who has argued that immigration should be lower, Corbyn said:
‘I think it [immigration] will be lower if we deal with the issues of wage undercutting, deal with exploitation, but we should also recognise that the migrants that have come to this country work and contribute, and pay taxes, and the NHS would simply not survive without the level of migrant labour, doctors, etc, because we have not invested enough in high skills in our own economy.’
So, migrants are justified on the basis of their economic contribution, but there is also the hope that training domestic workers, and enforcing higher wages, will cut immigrant job applications! This is the national welfarist’s solution to the anti-immigration outlook of his electorate. Just in case you thought that Corbyn was ignoring the demand from a sizeable chunk of that electorate for immigration to be checked, even reversed, he wants to stress that his policies will help do just that.
In a final, summary comment, Corbyn makes the broader points that his economic policy is for ‘left behind, broken Britain, poverty Britain’, one that will oppose the Conservative government’s policies on the National Health Service, etc, and appeal to the electorate that there really is an alternative that the Labour Party under Corbyn can implement. But there’s the rub. How to reconcile the predatory demands of capitalism and imperialism with the social welfare outlook of the reformer, while not giving too much ground to popular reactionary nationalism that the middle class, for now, still finds unacceptable?
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