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British Perspectives 2008
British Perspectives 2008
It is estimated that around 700,000 workers have come to Britain from Eastern Europe since 2004. In reality the figure is probably considerably higher, and there has also been significant immigration from outside Europe.
This is the largest wave of immigration in Britain's history. These workers are, in general, the lowest paid and most brutally exploited section of the working class.
The effect of this increase in migrant workers on a slowdown or recession is not yet clear. Without doubt this increase in the labour force, in particular but not only in the lowest paid sectors, has held down wages and prolonged the boom over the last period.
It is conceivable that it can also have a certain effect in temporarily limiting the depth of the slowdown or recession.
However, even if this is the case it will be on the basis of increased unemployment and the driving down of wages.
Of course, some Eastern European migrant workers will return to their countries of origin but, given the mass youth unemployment that exists in Poland, for example, many will not.
There will undoubtedly be sharpening tensions between migrant and indigenous workers, including increases in racist and xenophobic attacks.
The government, which has in reality encouraged migration from Eastern Europe in order to assist big business, will nonetheless be prepared to play on these tensions in order to defend itself.
A glimpse of this has already been given with Brown's references to 'British jobs for British workers'.
The need for a united trade union struggle to 'stop the race to the bottom' will become increasingly urgent.
An increase in racism and xenophobia will affect all ethnic and national minorities. However, the legacy of history means it will still be black and Asian immigrants who are on the sharp end of increased tensions.
An increase in racism is only one aspect of a certain general social fragmentation. The undermining of collective action - the simple idea of sticking together with each other - and the undermining of community consciousness have added to a sense of alienation and helplessness among some of the poorest sections of the working class.
It is no accident that, according to a recent survey, the murder rate has doubled since 1967. But the increase is concentrated almost exclusively among the poorest sections of working-class men.
If you live in Britain's poorest neighbourhoods you are six times more likely to be murdered than if you live in a wealthy area.
On the basis of growing unemployment and poverty in the inner-cities, we could see riots taking place on a scale not seen since 1985.
The brutalisation of parts of British society is not only related to the attacks of British capitalism but also the weakness of the labour and trade union movement in fighting against it.
In the past, the Labour Party, while it had a capitalist leadership, nonetheless had a working-class base, and gave voice, at least partially, to workers' struggles to improve their conditions.
Together with the trade unions it played a role in cutting across racism.
The far-right racist British National Party (BNP) is currently in internal disarray. In essence the splits reflect the tension between its fascist history and the populist turn it has taken in order to increase its support.
However, it would be an error to imagine that the BNP is finished. On the contrary, particularly given the lack of a new mass workers' party, it, or possibly another far-right force, could gain significant support in the coming period, possibly making the breakthrough to become the kind of electorally semi-stable far-right party that exists in many other European countries.
As recent protests against BNP leaders speaking in universities has shown, there is a desire amongst many young people to take action to prevent the growth of the BNP.
This is enormously positive. We have a key role to play, not only in mobilising against the BNP, but in proposing a programme that can effectively undercut it.
BNP voters, unlike its core membership, are often not primarily motivated by racism but by a desire to protest against the capitalist parties.
As we have explained before, the BNP consciously poses as a party of the white working class. Successfully undercutting the BNP is therefore clearly linked to the struggle for a genuine new mass workers' party.
Another growing factor in events is the national question in both Scotland and Wales. While this will ebb and flow the general tendency is for it to increase. There are separate statements dealing with Scotland and Wales. However, it is also beginning to have a certain impact in England. The existence of the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly has had an effect on consciousness in England, with 59% of English voters currently supporting independence for Scotland.
The fact that New Labour relies on MPs from constituencies in Scotland to push through legislation which only affects England is a growing issue, as is the fact that the prime minister himself is Scottish and represents a Scottish constituency.
From the point of view of parliamentary arithmetic it suits the Tories to raise this issue. Even in the last general election the Tories had a majority in England. However, for the ruling class any moves that will increase the momentum towards Scottish independence are enormously difficult.