Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cameron's Turn To 'Divide and Conquer' Politics

Two shifty looking characters crossing the UK border, probably up to no good
David Cameron's latest speech on non-EU immigration was best summarised in a satirical Tweet by comedian James Cook: "You know who I blame for the country's problems? The people in our society with the least amount of power or wealth." It is a transparent bid to distract from the unpopularity of the government's policies and canvas for right wing support in the coming local elections. But even more importantly than that, it is a resurrection of the age old 'divide and conquer' politics, aimed at undermining the working class as a whole.

Large sections of the elite will back Cameron's proposed 'immigration cap' (which would apply only to working class people). From the perpective of the ruling class, it makes a kind of utilitarian sense. Traditionally, in times of low unemployment, migrant labourers have been accepted by governments of the richest countries, since they represent extra bodies for exploitation, and exert downward pressure on wages. In times of economic stagnation - i.e. when it is unprofitable for capitalists to 'create' jobs - a surplus of migrants can be a drain on profitability, and wage claims are already partially kept down by workers' fear of unemployment.

However, other sections of the bourgeoisie disagree with such caps, and for the moment they are represented in government by Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable. Even before Cameron made his speech, the former economist was describing the Prime Minister's comments as "very unwise". For Cable and other Lib Dems, the exploitation of migrant labour "is crucial to British recovery and growth", so they hope to "support British business" by "exempting overseas students and essential staff from the cap on non-EU immigration".

For the Tories and the Lib Dems, this is a very convenient dividing line in the run-up to local elections, after a year in which they have been politically joined at the hip. No doubt it will help both coalition partners scrape a few more votes, which they can then present as public acceptance of their savage cuts agenda. For their part, Labour will struggle to make much of this disagreement, because they were just as prone to rolling out populist racism to get votes.

Of course, New Labour's embrace of racism occurred at a time of relative industrial peace. Cameron's diatribes must be seen in a very different context. Broad swathes of the population are struggling to make ends meet, and very much worse is yet to come, as the coalition's cuts take hold. A majority of UK voters are opposed to Cameron and Clegg's bloody war for oil in Libya, and the government is facing mutiny from health workers over Andrew Lansley's NHS 'reforms'. By changing the agenda to the 'problem' of immigration, Cameron will hope to gain some breathing space.

But it is the 'divide and conquer' aspect of Cameron's speech that is most significant. In times of scarce resources, people are compelled to fight for their share, and it is precisely a united working class that Cameron, Clegg, and the bankers behind them most fear. By resurrecting hoary old tabloid chestnuts like immigrants not learning English (whilst the government is slashing English for Speakers of Other Languages tuition), Cameron is in effect pointing at all non-white people in the UK and screaming "It's not us, it's them".

The PM's speech is of a piece with his recent remarks on multiculturalism, and indeed Tory 'intellectual' David Willetts' comments about how feminism had harmed male career chances. It's all about shifting blame from the powerful to the powerless. But hatred of the powerful has never been stronger in modern times, so all these provocations actually reveal the government's weakness, and not their strength.
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