This essay was the main part of my Observer column this week. (The column included also a shorter piece on sports and ethics.) It was published in the Observer, 11 March 2018, under the headline ‘Aping populist attacks on migrants is not a winning strategy for the left’.
On Christmas Eve 1980, Paul Mercieca, the communist mayor of Vitry, near Paris, led a gang of 60 men, mainly Communist party supporters, in a ‘direct action‘ to stop 300 Malian immigrants from being rehoused in the town. The gang turned off the water, gas and electricity at an immigrant hostel and used a bulldozer to smash up the building. Georges Marchais, general secretary of the French Communist party (PCF), justified the action, arguing that immigration was a capitalist “evil”.
It’s worth recalling this story in the context of the current panic about immigration and populism. The results of last week’s Italian elections confirmed yet again the trends of many recent European polls – the trashing of the centre-left, the rise of populism, the strengthening of the far right, all against the background of a fraught debate on immigration.
The Vitry case reminds us that the roots of what we now call ‘populism’ have been marinading for a long time. It reminds us, too, of the shameful role of sections of the left in enabling rightwing populism. As the BBC correspondent Jonathan Marcus put it in his perceptive book, The National Front and French Politics: ‘While the National Front has been the principal beneficiary of the political debate on immigration, it was not Le Pen’s party that first brought the issue on to the political agenda. It was the communists, who… launched a campaign against what they saw as the over-concentration of immigrants in communist-run municipalities.’
The Communist party did not reflect the left as a whole. The PCF was notoriously reactionary in its attitudes to immigration. And the world has changed hugely since 1980, from the rise of globalisation and free-market policies to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the decline of the labour movement. Few then talked of “populism”, still less panicked about mass anti-elite movements.
The Front National was overtly neo-Nazi. Today’s populists range from organisations of the far right to those of the far left. What they have in common is that all position themselves as outsiders to the old liberal consensus.
Yet, for all the differences, the response of the PCF to the nascent political threat posed by the Front National against the background of a recession echoes that of much of the non-Stalinist left to the challenge of populism in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. By insidiously linking the problems of the working class with immigration, the Communist party not only cleared the ground for the Front National, but also allowed it to project itself as a defender of working-class interests. The PCF’s strategy only hastened its demise. The old communist heartlands around Paris and in northern France are now Front National strongholds.
The left has yet to learn the lesson. In the 1980s and 1990s, the initial response of much of the left to a changing world in which free-market policies looked unassailable and the labour movement had become marginalised, was to move away from its traditional working-class constituency. Feeling abandoned by the left, many working-class voters looked instead to populists to help regain a voice; many populists in turn adopted social policies that once were leftwing staples: defence of jobs, support for the welfare state, opposition to austerity. Half the unemployed who voted in last week’s Italian elections backed the populist Five Star Movement.
Panicked by populism, much of the left has responded by talking tougher on immigration. It is a strategy that will no more win back support than that of the PCF four decades ago. It merely confirms, in the minds of many, that the populists were right, hence increasing cynicism about mainstream politicians, especially about the left. Since immigration is not the primary cause of working-class marginalisation, far from transforming working-class lives, it will only deepen the sense of grievance.
For the left to reassert itself, it needs to rethink its whole strategy. Rather than aping populist anti-immigration sentiments, it needs to stitch together a liberal case on immigration with progressive economic arguments, rooted in social need and a belief in the community and the collective. Too many who rightly bemoan the corrosion of working-class organisations see the problem as too much immigration. Too many who have a liberal view on immigration are willing to accept attacks on working-class living standards. Until both those blinkered approaches are confronted, there will be no real challenge to the populists, nor to the erosion of the influence of the left.
The image is of ‘Immigrants’, created by students of St. Luke School at Colossi, Limassol and winner of the 2016 Saatchi Gallery/ Deutsche Bank Art Prize for Schools.