Wanted: a 21st century internationalism for Labour

by Rob Marchant

Society, and not just in Britain, is increasingly dividing up into two parts: the first, those who work in a national context: public sector workers, most lawyers, a lot of media and small businesses. Those for whom “abroad” mostly means a holiday. Their day-to-day is dealing with other Brits, who in turn deal with other Brits. That’s one part.

And the second comprises those who work in an international context. This need not mean people constantly jetting around the world or spending their lives in videoconferences. It also means people in ordinary jobs working for global businesses (an awful lot of us) whose livelihoods depend on international sales; on dealing with other countries; on understanding how things work there.

If you are a UK manufacturing worker, you may be aware that raw materials are arriving in your workplace from Russia, part-made goods from the Far East and that the finished product is destined for, say, Dubai, and you don’t so much as blink.

The risk is for Labour, that some of those opinion-formers it needs to win back, like some of the Tory switchers from 2010, are in the second bracket: people who are more aware, if sometimes only by osmosis, of the world outside. Myopia can scare off these people.

One Nation, as I have commented before, is a great strategy for Labour. It is a unifying banner, around which its core supporters, along with those Labour needs to win back, can rally.

The Tories, by contrast, as evidenced by Cameron’s weekend speech (and previous conference speech), are staking their claim in two ways: one is through “aspiration”; the other through the “global race”. These are the battle lines, already starting to be drawn for 2015.

Labour may have already missed the boat on aspiration, its appeal to aspirational voters being sadly dulled by ham-fisted interventions about “producers and predators”.

But we might also argued that Cameron’s claim to unlocking aspiration is not necessarily that credible, when the economy is a mess and when he has not been putting much effort into educating people’s children, or providing credit for their small businesses. With a fair wind, we might end up with a no-score-draw on that point. We shall see.

That second Tory theme, though, the “global race”, is important: it is about internationalism, and that is an area where Labour is arguably rather weak.

Why? Because – and it’s hard to find the words to say this nicely – sometimes we look, well, a bit provincial.

Politicians themselves, on all sides, belong pretty much decisively in the “national” group – their day-to-day, naturally, is focused around their constituents and predominantly national issues. So their rhetoric about internationalism is often just that – rhetoric. But of the two main parties, those most likely to have worked in an international context are Tories, because they are more likely to work in the private sector. Their MPs are more likely to have worked or done business abroad. And so, they are the most likely to be believed.

The issue is this: Labour’s internationalism tends not to be the internationalism of today; of the internet, of international business, travel and communication. It too often harks back to the internationalism of solidarity, of comrades-in-arms. The internationalism, rather, of the Internationale. It is touching, and it strikes a chord with many of us. But it is an inward-looking, backward-looking definition.

The reason? Because practically none of its leading lights has the first clue about the internationalism that most of us see. Yes, they have visited other countries, on academic placements or political missions. But they have never, for the most part, worked in the private sector, that most international of environments. There is a blind spot there.

The fact is that there is a global race. It is not, as some Labour members would have it, a “race to the bottom”, in wages and protection for workers, although those things are important to safeguard. But merely pretending the race doesn’t exist is not an option, either.

How often do you hear a Labour MP talk about the “Asian century”? How many have visited Shanghai, the new hub of that continent? How many, dammit, even have dealings with continental Europe, if it is not to exchange political pleasantries with some European politician with an equally limited view?

And of the few who really do get out into the outside world, let’s face it, it is often as not that, relations of fraternal solidarity with sister parties or trade unions. Or worse, to make common cause with regimes of dubious morals in the name of left-wing solidarity dressed up as humanitarianism: to Cuba, Venezuela or Gaza. That is too often our idea of internationalism.

We know in our hearts that One Nation must be sans frontières rather than the little Englander, inward-looking Britain against the world. But we can sometimes, in our way, be as little Englander as the most shire-born Tory.

And while Cameron has had a difficult year and an even worse week, with his humiliating climbdown over the Leveson report, he is down, not out. We must expect a Tory recovery and a narrowing of polls over the next two years, simply because that is what almost invariably happens to incumbents.

One Nation is a strong theme for Labour; but so is “global race” for the Tories. The devil will be in the detail and the credibility with which these themes convert into policy.

In short, Labour must find a way of looking more like prospective winners in an interconnected, globalised century, whose focus will be everywhere but Europe, from where, as Hamish McRae pointed out only yesterday, power is “draining away”.

And it starts with looking up from our myopic focus on these little islands.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at the Centre Left

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4 Responses to “Wanted: a 21st century internationalism for Labour”

  1. Dan Fox says:

    A very interesting angle on how and why our Party – and many politicians of all colours, in fact – fail to grasp just how quickly, and in what ways, the world has changed.

    I think there’s a couple of other aspects to this. First, a deep misunderstanding of globalisation, leading to an out and out mistrust of any organisation, business or individual that is part of it. Traditional (e.g. Marxist) anti-capitalism was about recognising that what was produced was not distributed fairly. Trendier, more contemporary anti-capitalism, such as that of Occupy, into which much of our movement has been sucked (suckered?), is about there being too much production overall, however it’s fruits are distributed. So even if they agreed that international trade and economic development could lead to greater advances in global equality and poverty reduction than it has already, they would still feel queasy about it.

    Which in turn leads to my second point: the comfort felt by some in advocating a more autarchic approach to our national economy. Hence the attraction of ideas such as ‘locatarianism’, ‘transition’ and ‘co-production’ that ignore how wealth is created not just within nations, but between them, too.

  2. Nicholas C says:

    The backward-looking, provincial and small-minded “outlook” on Venezuela and international solidarity goes in exactly the opposite way of the title.

    “It too often harks back to the internationalism of solidarity” Yes, I hear the echo of Margaret Thatcher ranting against pinkos. How modern, when Latin America, one of the few growing regions of the world, where growth has come without inequality growing for the first time ever last year, is doing this precisely based on the “internationalism of solidarity”.

    Sounds like you’re just warming up to the “new” post Berlin wall market fanaticism… For some reason I took the title seriously, but this is evidently still a very provincial country and you are no exception.

  3. Rob Marchant says:

    @Dan: yes, globalisation has become a dirty word for some on the left, which is plain silly. Apart from anything else, it globalisation has lifted millions out of poverty. With regard to how the world has changed, I was in a conversation on Twitter earlier, and I noted the lack of awareness that a few yrs ago we were 4th largest econ. In 20-30 yrs we will be 15th or 20th. The impact on our global clout will be, and already is being, highly significant. Our children will live in a future where Britain will have a much, much more modest position on the world stage.

    @Nicholas: Sorry, but when you start talking about talking about Venezuela as a beacon for the West, you lost me. If you need a starting point in that conversation, you might start with how a former president amassed such a massive personal fortune, or how he became an avowed homophobe and anti-Semite.

  4. Nicholas C says:

    If you re-read what I’m saying, it’s about genuine progressive politics and growth with diminishing inequality across South America, not about some -as far as I’ve seen unsubstantiated criticisms levelled at Hugo Chavez’ personal views and a claim about his family fortunes which may have something to it.

    I have to say in your defence that the British press is beneath woefully inadequate in its “reporting” on the region, and I’m sure this is intentional, given that the region is trying out many interesting alternatives to the unbridled Thatcherism that, despite causing this economic crash, continues to possess all the mainstream political parties in Europe, and it won’t do to show people in Europe that we can get rid of the Camerons and Montis and replace them with something socially useful.

    With all the warts, mistakes, etc. that one can surely also find, the South American region’s economic relations are nevertheless to a notable extent based on motivations of solidarity and the sense that coming together (as the European Union idea once embraced)rather than competing like dogs over meat will make them all stronger, and on governments that serve their populations for a change. (Unthinkable in this continent).

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