Conviviality and the way past Labour’s immigration paradox

In typical pithy manner, Chris Dillow sums up one key reason for why many people feel alienated from British left politics, and why as a Marxist he cannot call himself a leftie:

There is an element of preachiness in leftism which I dislike….. they are smug and patronizing and out of touch with the working class. They are too quick to identify the “white working class” with backward attitudes, and too slow to see the genuine racism of the ruling class.

Chris is right, but it’s also easy enough to see the dilemma the British left finds itself in: be critical of the “legitimate concerns” of the white working class and it’s seen as “out of touch”, but be accommodating of those concerns and you’re condoning racism.

It’s a dilemma which has faced pretty well every Labour canvasser who’s ever canvassed — disagree with an immigration rant on the doorstep and you risk losing a vote; murmur bland understanding of it and you not only lack integrity, you also consolidate the legitimacy of a position on behalf of the ruling class, just as Chris says we do.

There is, I suggest, a (Marxist) way to resolve the paradox. It goes like this.

  1. If we simply condemn the white working class for its “backward attitudes”, we are favouring agency at the expense of structure. That is, we are investing in the white working class a power over societal structure and practices that it does not actually have.
  2. If we simply acknowledge that the white working class’s “legitimate concerns” are indeed legitimate, we are favouring structure at the expense of agency. That is, we are saying the white working class has no power to change its own social practices.
  3. We can, though, recognize that the white working class has demonstrated very considerable agency in developing progressive social practices but that this is necessarily an ongoing task in the face of the structural constraints imposed upon it by the ruling class for its own benefit, not least via the “divide and rule” process.

The ‘narrative’ of the working class set out at 3 has the distinct advantage of being true.

Looked at in historical perspective, the working class has outstripped its masters massively in terms of tolerance and inclusivity towards outsiders.

The multicultural Britain of the Blair years didn’t happen just because New Labour ordered it should be so; it happened because communities up and down the country had got on with living in the conditions imposed upon them and by developing an everyday “conviviality”, to use the term deployed by Paul Gilroy in his study of postcolonial Britain, which shifts from bitter critique of enduring structural racism towards a muted celebration of

those emancipatory interruptions that can perhaps be defined by a liberating sense of banality of intermixture and the subversive ordinariness of this country’s convivial culture in which “race” is stripped of eaning and racism, as it fades, becomes only an afferaffect of long-gone imperial history rather than a sign of Europe’s North American destiny (p.150).

This is, of course, a glass half full story. This growth in everyday conviviality cannot and should not conceal the very real and very frequent acts of racism conducted by those who define themselves of working class; to do is simply a version of 2 above.

But the left can only really develop a convincing political strategy to solve the immigration paradox if we first develop a compelling counter-narrative to the glass half empty view that the white working class is a lost cause to social progress.

Part of this narrative needs to be about a distinction, in the Seth MacFarlane tradition, between what people say and how they act.

The Brexit vote shows clearly enough that lots of people in working class communities expressed hostility to immigration and to immigration. Why would they not do when they have been subject to years of convincing patter telling them that immigration is an evil imposed on us by ZaNuLiebour’s cosmopolitan elite, delivered to their doorstep and radio set by other members of a cosmopolitan elite who have found fame in claiming not be?

Why would people not express distrust of immigration when policymakers in the postwar period went out of their way, in the interests of still-colonial mindset of the ruling class, to segregate the first post-war wave in different housing and schooling areas, creating a path dependency of segregated communities and consequent distrust? [1]

Why would people not feel distrust of people in Muslim address when they are consistently peddled a lie that the whole Muslim community is responsible for, first, its marginalisation, and now for terrorism?

Yet despite this, and especially in areas where the longer standing population and immigrants/those from immigrant backgrounds do get to meet in everyday situations, actions speak louder than words; words then feed back into convivial social actions, creating a virtuous circle where once there was only a vicious one of ignorance, distrust and an expression of hate.

Behind this typically negative interpretation, for example, The British Social Attitudes Survey shows that having one or more migrant friends more than doubles the chance of someone saying migrants are an economic and cultural good.

Arguing that there is a way out of the current immigration paradox, via a more nuanced, diachronic understanding of the structural impacts of class on immigration on sentiment and the countervailing impacts of (class) conviviality on that structure, is only of course a first step. A coherent argument still needs to be widely heard, and become more persuasive than the deeply embedded alternative.

In the longer term, this celebratory history of a working class convivial enough to overcome the divisive structures imposed on it needs to be embedded in a wider set of associational practices.

In turn, this requires a turn away from dominant British leftwing doctrine, especially apparent in Corbynism, that it is Labour’s job to impose a tolerant and just society on the reluctant masses rather than to offer appropriate solidarity to groups of people who know perfectly well how to get on with each other and make progress together.

In the longer term, Labour needs a little less Tony Benn, a little less adulterated Gramsci, and a little more EP Thompson, anda lot more Paul Hirst.

But even in the shorter term, there are ‘style’ things that the Labour leadership can offer to start to move the narrative forward, and provide the tools that Labour’s doorstep army needs to move beyond the current legitimate concern/pandering paradox.

This new style has, I suggest, a fit with the personal style of Corbyn himself. His appearance after the Grenfell disaster, for example, marked him out from other politicians as a person with genuine empathy, and it is the Gilroyesque celebration of widespread, positive empathy for others, whatever their background, that should mark out Labour’s new approach, in differentiation both to the current, more negative “we will not discriminate” [2] line, and to the older Blair era celebration of diversity as social good, which emphasized what Nikesh Shulka calls the Good Immigrant at the expense of the everyday decent neighbour.

In other, now all-too-common terms, Corbyn Labour needs to help us take back control of the story of what we have achieved as a working class in post-war Britain, countering both the Blue Labour idea that the working class is inherently conservative, and the New Labour assumption that cosmopolitanism is necessarily a trickle down affair.

In so doing, and by utilizing the structure-agency concepts that Marx gave us, can we move on from the “preachiness” that Chris abhors, and maybe even allow him to become a lefty as well as a Marixt.


[1] The words of sociologist John Rex, written in the 1970s, are worth quoting at some length on the structure of racism imposed upon the white working class in the afterglow of empire:

British people confronted with immigrants from what used to be the Empire, cannot but be expected to react to them in terms of the roles which the immigrants used to fill. This is not a matter to be established by some naively designed attitude test [here’s he’s referring to the whitewash that was the Survey of Race Relations]. It is matter of history and of logic.

It is part of the situation of the British working class that it has lived, particularly during the period of the second British Empire from 1880 onwards, in a world in which the British economy and British life were structurally related to the economies and societies of the Colonies. No Englishman concerned with his reputation during that period would have wished to become confused with a colonial native, and, if this were true in general, it was particularly true of Birmingham [where Rex based his studies] where the populist politics of Joseph Chamberlain’s local political caucus were combined with the advocacy of imperialism abroad.

All of these attitudes, moreover, could only have been strengthened by the experience of conscript soldiers who took part between 1945 and 1965 in a series of colonial wars, including those in Malaysia, Kenya, Aden, Suez and Cyprus. The whole of the imperial experience from Chamberlain down to Antony Eden and beyond was built into the consciousness and the very language of the people of Birmingham, and only a liberal or socialist optimist of the most unrealistic kind could expect that other ideological conceptions of anti-racist kind could act as a sufficient counterbalance to neutralize those beliefs.

The assimilation into British society of colonial immigrants, then, was bound to be a traumatic experience for low middle- and working-class people, simply because they were more likely de-statused themselves, through having to accept these people as equals, as fellow workers and neighbours. In work, some kind of status line could be drawn with black colonials doing the dirty work, but status lines could not so easily be preserved when black men presented themselves as neighbours. to live with the blacks raised the possibility that one might be classified with the blacks for status purposes, which was a terrifying threat for those whose status had become insecure anyway as they were left behind by educational, industrial and urban change.

[2] While I was writing this, I was struck by this Facebook thread comment about his black grandfather’s experiences:

When my grandad arrived in the UK he worked at the Locomotive works in Derby. The union wouldn’t let blacks join. One day a boiler exploded and my granddad and his colleagues were burnt. The union paid sick pay for its members who were injured. Granddad was in work the next day because he couldn’t afford to be off ill. Luckily a few of his colleagues saw the state he was in and had a whip round for him to have 2 days off.

The trade union let my granddad down because he was a black migrant worker. This is the kind of protectionist shit being displayed in that tweet.

It struck me the extent to which the conviviality of this man’s white workmates is seen as “lucky” rather than as evidence of working class conviviality, and as a agency responding to the racist structure of the 1970s union.

This is, I stress as above, not to seek to downplay the effects of that racism, which had a greater material effect than the decency of work colleagues, and of course the whole Facebook thread is about how racism is an enduring feature of the labour movement. Still. I though it reflected the way structure-agency has been itself structured into the way we see our labour history, and I do wonder if EP Thompson would have wanted to know more about the comradely workmates than about the union’s racist rules.