Freedom of movement in the EU – what have the suffragettes got to do with it?

Quite a lot really. The demand for freedom of movement seems axiomatic not just for socialists, but also for a wide range of liberals who share concern for human rights, and know of the injustices that occur when that freedom is restricted, when some are considered undesirable and discriminated against purely through an accident of birth that prevents them accessing equal rights. How could that demand for free movement not be seen as progressive?

Here’s another progressive demand: “Votes for Women” – popularised by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) formed by Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester in 1903. The WSPU were known from 1905 as Suffragettes – a term intended originally as an insult hurled at the movement by Charles Hands, a Daily Mail journalist. He was comparing activists from this new movement, which was prepared to engage in civil disobedience, unfavourably with its law-abiding suffragist predecessors. But the WSPU embraced the term, pleased to have found a name to distinguish them from the more longstanding section of the movement which restricted its activities purely to constitutional methods .

Votes_for_WomenThe WSPU originally called its own newspaper Votes for Women, but soon changed it to Suffragette. (It had one more name change during World War One. Emmeline’s eldest daughter, Christabel, insisted on changing it to Britannia to underline the movement’s patriotic credentials.) The Women’s Freedom League, which had splintered off from the movement in 1907, and the East London Federation of Suffragettes, expelled from the WSPU in early 1914,  certainly wouldn’t have supported that change as leading lights in both these organisations opposed  the War,

But let’s return to “Votes for Women” as a slogan. There was an Anti-Suffrage League that opposed it, claiming that men make political decisions based on robust intellectual arguments, while women do so on the basis of emotion. It is depressing to acknowledge that Mary Ward, who made her name as a late 19th century campaigner fighting to expand women’s education and employment opportunities accepted this argument and promoted the Anti-Suffrage League. But the WSPU also faced more principled opposition to its approach, from the left,  especially from socialists rooted in working class communities.

Why would they oppose “Votes for Women”? It was because “Votes for Women” was only half the sentence. The rest was: “on the same basis as men”. At that time barely 60% of men had the vote,  strictly on a property basis – property owned or rented at a high enough value. The poorest 40% of men, with the least access to the property that counted, remained disenfranchised after three 19th-century Reform Acts. If that was equalised, which women exactly would be enfranchised?

Rose Witkop, an immigrant Jewish anarchist among the precariat living in sub-let accommodation in London’s East End asked: “How shall we benefit if instead of electing our master – as we do today –  we elect his wife to govern us?” Dora Montefiore, active in the Marxist SDF (Social Democratic Federation) joined the WSPU, but did most of her women’s suffrage campaigning through other groups committed to enfranchising the working class. Dissident activists such as those within the East London Federation of Suffragettes characterised the WSPU’s demand as “Votes for Ladies”. They believed instead that women’s political rights would be advanced best through the introduction of universal suffrage, which would enfranchise the whole working class: women and men.

Female trade union activists, such as Mary MacArthur of the National Federation of Women Workers, were equally underwhelmed by the WSPU’s demands, and stayed aloof from it. Alongside other prominent female trade unionists, she argued that a partial, middle and upper-middle class-based franchise for women would merely strengthen Conservative forces in society, and potentially act as a barrier to the wider goals of women’s equality.

This may seem a harsh assessment of the WSPU, which was undoubtedly a courageous, rebellious movement. No doubt many of its own members saw through the limitations it imposed on its demands, but nevertheless chose this vehicle because it had a chance of at least partial success, and held out the prospect of additional gains later. Women, after all were working from the baseline of zero votes.

In the last two weeks I’ve been encouraged by several people to sign a statement prepared by the “Labour Campaign for Free Movement”. I probably will, very critically, but then try to apply political pressure from within and without for something bolder and more progressive. The ghosts of Mary MacArthur, Dora Montefiore, and East London suffragettes are stirring my discontent.

Let me be completely clear. I believe totally in free movement of people, and asylum and real support for those forced to flee the lands of their birth. I grew up in an immigrant family . One of my parents and all of my grandparents and their brothers and sisters were immigrants. My attitude of disrespect for national frontiers, but seeing the world as my border, is hard-wired into me and represents my earliest strong political opinion. I feel very comfortable with the “No Borders” position in the spirit of the No One is Illegal manifesto published in the early 2000s. When people scapegoat immigrants for social problems or tell me that immigrants undercut wages of indigenous workers, I give them examples like the dockers in 1889 supporting immigrant Jewish tailors in strike to create a win-win situation for East End workers, and I remind them that bosses cut wages and undermine conditions, not migrants.

I have been active for decades in anti-deportation, and pro-refugee campaigns and, at a professional level in the 1980s, as Publications officer at the Runnymede Trust,  I oversaw the publication of many reports,  pamphlets and books such as Divided Families; Undocumented, Lives, Fortress Europe… that exposed and countered the racist and narrow nationalist philosophy behind the  panoply of anti-migrant, anti-refugee legislation. At Runnymede we also argued that in addition to treating large numbers of migrants as undesirables, and humiliating them and oppressing them, this approach also strengthened racist attitudes to all minorities within our society.

So what exactly is wrong with the Labour campaign for Free Movement statement? It is certainly good to have a strong group in Labour arguing for migrant and refugee rights and challenging any accommodation to anti-immigrant arguments. But I searched the statement in vain for a crucial two-word phrase: “Fortress Europe”.  Free movement for EU nationals is undoubtedly a good thing in its own terms, allowing people to come here to work and enabling British citizens to work in other European countries, plus all the benefits of enriching each others’ cultures and breaking down stereotypes. But it takes place within a wider discriminatory system that makes it increasingly hard for non-EU workers to come to work in Britain.

FORTRESSS-e1459782581752The Tories slipped through legislation in recent years raising the amount very considerably that non-EU migrants need to be assured of earning if they are going to obtain the right to work here. Those who want to come, but are most affected by this happen to be Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans. I have  heard British-born black people describe the experience of travelling to central and eastern Europe for work under EU free movement. They met such a level of racism in their countries of destination that they felt compelled to return to Britain.

A recent Morning Star editorial  put it quite sharply: “…we effectively have a ‘whites-only’ free movement policy… For anyone living in Asia or Africa it is almost impossible to join family members settled within EU boundaries unless you have significant wealth or high qualifications. As in Britain, police across the EU are required to search for ‘illegals.’ Almost all will be from Africa and Asia… the EU Border and Coastguard Agency will now take increasing responsibility for ensuring uniform enforcement Last year it forcibly deported 10,000. This year the figure is likely to reach 20,000. This is the other side of the EU ‘free movement’ coin.”

My friend Sue Lukes, who has dedicated her adult life to anti-racist, pro-migrant and pro-refugee causes is also skeptical of this new campaign. In a recent discussion on social media she wrote: “Free movement as offered by the EU is very conditional and that is what is being defended here. Roma have been deported from France within those rules, Dutch citizens of Somali origin denied benefits and EU citizens deported from Britain for being homeless. I don’t want to defend any of that.” I agree.

I also searched in vain in the Campaign document for a critique of the freedoms for people-trafficking – or more precisely workforce trafficking – that are extended to capitalists to move workforces, deprived of rights, from low wage economies to higher wage economies, engage in super-exploitation while helping to undermine conditions won by workers in those higher wage economies. A true defence of freedom of movement must also be a defence of the rights of all workers.

These issues are bringing divisions within the Labour Party and the labour movement. I have a nagging doubt – and I hope I am wrong – that this issue is being exploited in a particular way by some people using it as a proxy for replaying the Brexit Referendum and taking a pot shot at the Labour leadership who have navigated a difficult path under pressure from many sides and from the right wing media who are still attempting to destroy that leadership.

By all means let’s have a Labour Campaign for Free Movement but let it target Fortress Europe and let us make sure that it will seek to equalise access for would be migrants workers wherever they currently reside.