They all scapegoat migrants

The reaction to Gordon Brown's attack on the 'bigoted' Gillian Duffy demonstrates the depth and breadth of the national chauvinist consensus, argues Eddie Ford

Quite clearly, large sections of British society feel deep-seated insecurity. Angry, atomised, beaten and demoralised, they are fearful about the future - quite rightly so, with the entire political establishment committed to deep cuts in public spending and austerity. The global financial crisis continues to wreak social-economic havoc - just ask Greek workers - and, of course, it is ordinary workers who have to pay the price, not the capitalist class or the bankers/speculators. So the pain will come - the question just being, how much and when?

Squeezed and threatened by the reality of mass unemployment, poverty, social deprivation and gross inequality - and a shrinking budget for transport, local authorities, social security, etc - it is inevitable that people will seek someone or something to blame. However, tragically and criminally, as things stand now, there is no viable progressive alternative capable of persuading millions where the blame belongs - at the door of the system of capital itself. In the absence of such an alternative fighting for universal human liberation, easily identifiable scapegoats will be found. Like immigrants and asylum-seekers.

Therefore to very many ordinary workers the idea of continued mass migration to Britain, if not any migration whatsoever, seems like irrational lunacy. Every new migrant surely means another job lost or another council house gone - or so they think, encouraged by a pernicious rightwing press and by general peer pressure (your mates down the pub, etc). Hence the plain but unfortunate fact is that anti-migrant sentiments - to one degree of virulence or another - are widespread: indeed, have long acquired the status of ‘common sense’.

Of course, anti-migrant prejudice does not straightforwardly translate into racism. After all, immigration controls (just like capitalism) are not inherently racist - as some leftists are dogmatically and rather stupidly inclined to argue. Indeed, the British state itself - which polices and enforces immigration controls, like all states - is now institutionally anti-racist, with the mythology of a plucky Albion under Winston Churchill leading a democratic crusade against fascism/Nazism now forming an essential part of its reconfigured post-World War II ideology. Racism, fascism, Nazism - all are presented as very ‘unBritish’ phenomena. In countless films, dramas, school textbooks, solemn newspaper editorials, holocaust memorial days, and so on.

However, this establishment, top-down anti-racism is combined with British nationalism, or national chauvinism. All of us, brown or white - Mr Smith or Mrs Patel - are meant to be equal under the British flag: all of us must pull together in the ‘national interest’ - which means defining ourselves against ‘the other’ - Poles, Somalis, Chinese, Afghans, Iranians, etc. These are ‘our’ competitors and rivals in the rapacious, dog-eat-dog world market place. Therefore we need to protect ‘our own’. Which, of course, is why we need “British jobs for British workers”, as Gordon Brown put it in his 2007 address to the GMB union - a position, it almost goes without saying, heartily endorsed by David Cameron and enthusiastically quoted by the British National Party in its general election manifesto.

This provides the context with which to understand Gordon Brown’s now legendary encounter in Rochdale last week with Gillian Duffy - instantly, and rather tiresomely, dubbed ‘bigotgate’. Some have even cruelly suggested that Brown’s “bigoted woman” remark could have been “the shortest suicide note in history”, an ‘election clincher’. Whether this was an accurate observation is unclear. But one thing that can be said with absolutely certainly is that Gordon Brown, and doubtless every Labour supporter in the country, dearly wish that they could step into a time machine and get him to take off that microphone after his meeting with the 65-year-old widow and grandmother.

Gillian Duffy is a proudly self-proclaimed “ordinary woman”. She worked for Rochdale council for 30 years with vulnerable and disabled children. By her own account, she had three things “drummed” into her very early - education, the health service and “looking after people who are vulnerable”. More to the point, at least for Gordon Brown, she - just like all her family - is a Labour “ordinary woman”. To the extent that she recalls her father regularly belting out the ‘The red flag’ when she was a teenager.

As for the actual exchange between Brown and Duffy, readers will no doubt be familiar with it in almost excruciating detail - thanks to the rolling, non-stop, media treatment. Well, a good story is a good story and the fascinatingly grisly sight of a prime minister being exposed in almost ‘real time’ as a two-faced hypocrite thanks to that microphone - and then forced to eat an enormous helping of humble pie and issue a grovelling personal apology - makes for very good copy. Over and over again.

In their four-minute conversation, Duffy expressed her concerns about the high taxes she pays, unemployment, government debt and, because she has two young grandchildren, student loans. She then remarked that you “can’t say anything about the immigrants ... all these eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?”

After replying that, while a million people might have come to Britain from Europe, it was equally the case that a million British people have gone to Europe - “you do know that there’s a lot of British people staying in Europe as well?” - Brown ends the brief meeting by congratulating Duffy on her choice of red jacket and praising her for being a “very good” woman: “You have served your community all your life,” he told her.

However, of course, there was a different, contemptuous, reaction inside the ‘privacy’ of the prime ministerial Jaguar. With Brown blurting out, “That was a disaster” and complaining that his advisors “should never have put me with that woman” - and, most notoriously of all, described Duffy as “just a sort of bigoted woman” who “said she used to be Labour” - Brown, for some reason, found this idea “just ridiculous”. His horrified reaction to the meeting gives us an insight into the elitist mindset of an establishment politician - as clearly the experience of meeting an ordinary person who wanted to engage him in some sort of debate, however truncated or partial, had evidently rattled him.

Upon being made aware by his horrified spin-doctors that his petulant and bad-tempered outburst had been broadcast to the nation, courtesy of a gleeful media, Brown declared - no doubt genuinely - that he was “mortified” to find himself in such a situation and interrupted his packed schedule to make a public pilgrimage to Duff’s modest abode in Rochdale. After disappearing to undertake his 40-minute conversation and apology to Duffy, he re-emerged to announce that he was a “penitent sinner”. And the rest of the day was spent engaged in various other humiliating exercises in mea culpa recantation, culminating in an obsequious open letter to Labour Party members - where he confessed to having “weaknesses” as well as strengths and how we all “do things we regret” now and again.

“The worst thing about today,” he wrote, was the “hurt I caused to Mrs Duffy” - the very “kind of person I came into politics to serve”. But for all that, despite the spectacular gaffe, he hoped that “tomorrow you see once more someone not just proud to be your leader” but “who understands the economic challenges we face” - and knows “how to meet them” and “how that improves the lives of ordinary families all around Britain”.

Of course, the Tory press had a field day - maybe David Cameron can score an outright victory after all! So into full-on rightwing populist mode. Accordingly, The Sun headline crowed, “Brown toast” - and recounted the exploits of the “feisty” “caring gran”, the “salt of the earth”. An editorial piece thundered how the “unelected” prime minister is “perpetually on the hunt for someone else to blame”, but we have just seen the real face of the “phone-throwing, pen-stabbing raging bull” that is Gordon Brown. For Labour “party bosses”, it observed, not entirely incorrectly, Duffy and millions of other lifelong Labour supporters in strongholds like Rochdale “are no better than voting fodder” (The Sun April 29).

The Sun cut straight to the chase, offering the opinion that “anyone who dares question Labour’s decision to wave five million migrants into overcrowded Britain in eight years is automatically ‘racist’” - like Duffy, we are meant to presume. Brown’s “abuse” was “aimed at every voter who shares her concern”: which is, “You are all bigoted”. Making its chauvinist premise even more explicit, The Sun righteously concludes: “The Labour Party has been caught red-handed, secretly and deliberately changing the face of Britain without permission. It deserves all it gets. But Mr Brown’s words will also turn a toxic torch on would-be king-maker Nick Clegg. The Lib Dem leader wants to lure millions more illegals by offering an amnesty. If voters are paying attention, Mr Clegg might not be the man who picks our next prime minister after all.”

Obviously the Daily Mail wanted to get in on the anti-Brown act too, with Stephen Glover stating, “If this woman’s a bigot then I’m proud to be one too.” He even ventured the thought that she “might almost have been picked out by divine providence as the perfect representative of all those whose concerns are ignored” by Brown and the “doubtless vast swathes of the metropolitan elite who rule this country” - those who look down with “icy disdain” at the “unfashionable concerns” of the “little people” (Daily Mail April 29).

Now, we are obliged to point out that Duffy’s remark about “flocking” eastern Europeans did indeed express bigotry or, put another way, chauvinist prejudice. Perhaps they were even reminiscent, you could argue, of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous January 1978 World in action interview, where she talked about how the British people are “afraid” that the country might be “swamped by people with a different culture” - thus undercutting electoral support for the then resurgent National Front.

But the plain fact of the matter is that Duffy’s comments differ in no essential way from Brown’s own “British jobs for British workers”. Rather, in reality he helped to sow bigoted ideas, along with all the other mainstream politicians who have promised to ‘get tough on the illegals’ - are we supposed to forget the spectacle of Brown and David Cameron during the leaders’ debate rounding on Nick Clegg in order to denounce the Liberal Democrats’ proposal to offer an amnesty to some illegal migrants? Not that the ‘nice’ Nick Clegg would behave any differently from his two rivals if he were to find himself in a governmental position. Over the years we have witnessed a grotesque Dutch auction of bourgeois politicians outbidding each other in demanding stricter and stricter controls over immigration, Gordon Brown being no exception.

We in the CPGB call for the abolition of immigration controls and adamantly oppose anything which seeks to stigmatise or scapegoat migrant workers. The real cause of unemployment, poverty, poor housing, etc is not ‘foreigners’ taking British jobs, but the irrational and dysfunctional capitalist system - where power and wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of people, free of democratic control and accountability.