“British jobs for British workers,” the placards read, at the Lincolnshire Total refinery, which has been brought to a standstill by three days of wildcat strikes. The Total workers walked off the job last week, over the decision by the refinery to subcontract further work to IREM, a company which specialises in short-term contract labour — in this case from Italy and Portugal, ununionised and working for less pay.

The strike was quickly joined by workers from nearby BP and Shell sites, and by the weekend sympathy walkouts and protests over similar deals had broken out in half a dozen places, all emphasising the “British jobs for British workers” theme.

But who is it running this xenophobic campaign? The feral wing of the Conservatives staging a party insurgency? The British National Party breaking out of its apparent stronghold in the English ballet industry?

No, the phrase is of course Gordon Brown’s, launched with gusto at the Labour Party Conference in 2007, part of his attempt to define a new sense of progressive nationalism as a means of generating solidarity — and of course distract the southern middle classes from his Scottish socialist roots ahead of the forthcoming election.

The “Britishness” campaign was always barmy of course. As Brown and Labour relentlessly pushed the virtues of globalisation and European integration, of borderless labour markets and ceaseless mobility, the Britishness theme was being deployed as a way of re-concretising national identity at the ideological level, the faster you pulled it apart at the economic and social level.

So, your employer is German, your TV is American, your dinner is Indian, your 21st was a Ryanair flight to Prague, your plumber is Polish (or was — he’s gone back to his old position as head of surgery in Wroclaw now) and the competition for your job are people whose cost of living is half yours — but hey apples and pears guv let’s av a pint we’re all in this togevver. Wot are vose black fings where your teef should be?

The “progressive nationalism” — which has now come round to bite Brown on the arse, sorry bottom — was largely gingered up by David Goodhart and others at Prospect, a magazine whose readers and writers are as part of a global borderless elite as any. Goodhart argued that such elites should take on the “progressive nationalist” idea almost as a sort of Men in Black style mind-wipe. Forget what you know about nationalism, and how it is constructed out of the material limits of travel and exchange (or the tensions thereof), and live as if you believe it mattered in your life — so that it could also be sold to people who spent less time than you in the departure lounge.

Thus what has been notable about the strikes — which were initially wildcat actions before the unions scrambled to get out in front of them — has been the absence of older-style xenophobic themes and chauvinism. Most of the workers have worked beside foreign workers before — they’re simply opposed to being excluded from either the preference or possibility of getting skilled work when labour contracts are handed en masse to foreign workers.

For Labour, which has hitched its star to globalisation, it’s a huge headache — especially as the Tories are deploying a ‘one nation’ conservatism by which they can present themselves as more representative of the workers than Labour. “There are questions to be asked of this company,” David Cameron opined, leaning on the possibility that the company might have broken the law by explicitly excluding British workers (rather than obeying its letter by de facto excluding them), before scrambling back to a defence of property rights.

With the government facing almost daily backbench revolts — sixty votes against a third runway for Heathrow, perhaps 100 against an upcoming proposal for Royal Mail privatisation — they now have real problems in a complete crumbling of base support, as upcoming defeat makes it sauve qui peut. But lining up with grubby oil workers is likely to piss off even more of the habitual conservative voters they peeled off from John Major in 1997, at least some of whom they need to retain if they are to have a chance of retaining enough seats for minority government.

It’s a problem that is not confined to UK Labour, as Kevin Rudd’s recent return to public philosophising makes clear. Labo(u)r’s long romance with neoliberalism has effectively identified the two in the public mind — especially given the way that members of the Right section of the parties embraced the ideology as a way of bashing their left colleagues over the head. As late as last year, Rudd was urging people to go out and spend whatever bonuses and tax breaks they were getting, to keep the carousel going round.

Now Rudd, like Brown, is faced with the problem of speaking out of both sides of the mouth simultaneously, urging on regimes of competition, mobility, global etc — while at the same time talking of “social capitalism”, as some sort of state-directed, nationally and locally constrained God knows what. Capitalism is by its nature asocial — its base conversion of work into labour power turns people into things, and its hard to be less social than that — and we arrive at a socio-economic mix by the struggle between human needs and an autonomous market.

For the last decade or so, the advantages of globalised capitalism to individual western workers — more stuff! — in exchange for longer hours, more flexibility, etc, has been emphasised so much that backing out of this in the face of a depression — less stuff! but national unity! social capitalism! — shows how empty, clueless and panicked labour parties are. Having abandoned the critique of market society that was, even in the 80s, still a part of their founding ethical-political reason for being — they’re now scrambling to grab back whatever remnants of social critique remain.

This is not a role nor a period to which either Gordon Brown or Kevin Rudd are suited. Practical men making up for their intellectual mediocrity with hard work, they’ve worked their way to the heads of their parties by going along with the orthodoxy of the moment. Brown started in the Scottish Labour Party as a leftist, editing books about how an independent Scotland could be a fully socialist republic; Rudd joined the diplomatic service and paid court to the Chinese. Labour’s rightward shift suited them temperamentally, as it meant less they had to define themselves against, and a lot more grain to cut with.

Now, they’ve finally made it to the summit — just as an avalanche pulls the mountain from under them. With the dominant mood at Davos and other globo confabs being bewilderment at the way things are falling apart, national leaders face huge historical challenges. For whatever happens in this recession/depression and on the way out of it, it will not be business as usual for the West.

Leave the banking system as it is, and we’ll simply blow a bigger bubble to be burst a few years hence — a real economy-wrecker. Regulate the global banking system, and circulating capital in the West will slow to a level that can’t sustain a consumer-centred economy. The system, as may have been mentioned once or twice elsewhere, is in contradiction with the basic principles of life.

Labour used to have an understanding of that, and a way of talking about it. They better get it again — and it will need to be something more searching than “social capitalism” — or there will be plenty of others lining up to offer an alternative way of looking at things, and one which has no hesitancy about the idea of “British jobs for British workers”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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