And so the rage begins. For months we have sat inert as the economic roof collapses in on us. The Greeks and the French rioted, but we – the British – were shocked into silence. Until now. The pervasive insecurity has finally taken physical shape, with thousands of unofficial strikers taking to the streets bearing fury-streaked banners.
So which of the people responsible for knocking out the support beams of the economy are being picketed and pilloried? Is it the market fundamentalist politicians – both Tory and New Labour – who told us endlessly that economies work best when they are regulated least? Is it the bankers, who used this deregulation to spread the dry rot of bad loans throughout the banking system? Is it the bank CEOs who – even now – are using taxpayer money to pay themselves fat bonuses for screwing up? Is it the corporations who are refusing to pay £12bn in taxes every year? Is it the super-rich who are stashing £11.5trn in tax havens – many of them British dependencies – rather than contribute to rebuilding this mess?
No. It is a few immigrant workers, living in hostels. They are the only people who have seen a British protester outside their door in this depression. The wildcat strikes are directed at them – and they are spreading.
Our anger has skipped over the people responsible, to people who are not. Why? The political elite and much of the media have a vested interest in directing our rage away from their own responsibility on to someone – anyone – else. Murdoch's News Corporation – and other lackeys of self-interested billionaires – sold us the deregulation- mania and tax-slashing that contributed to this disaster, and have refused to pay any net taxes in Britain for over a decade.
The political elite was happy to follow their lead and bask in their applause. So now it has reached its predictable end-point, they have failed to tell the story of how this disaster came to pass. They have not named and shamed the bankers and market fundamentalists who brought the economy crashing down – because they would have to point into a mirror.
So the wildcat strikers settle on the people closest to hand: the Poles and Italians. The men protesting outside their factories and plants are – rightly – worried about their jobs and their futures. Because nobody has given a shape to their anger or offered a roadmap out of this insecurity, they have lapsed into zero-sum scrambling for the scraps that seem to remain.
There is a real issue concerning recent immigration – but it is low on the list of the factors threatening these men's livelihoods. Nonetheless, we have to be honest about it. It is true that immigrants make a net contribution to the British economy of £2.5bn a year, but it is also true that this benefit isn't felt equally. When there is a significant increase in the supply of cheap labour – with immigrants arriving in large numbers – the price businesses pay for it falls. This means at the bottom of the income scale, wages are eroded. It is not racist or irrational for people in that position to feel angry.
But is the solution to turn on those immigrants? The protesters in Hull and Lincolnshire are motivated first, second and third by a desire for a secure job. They need to be shown that the route they are pursuing now won't achieve it – but there is an alternative to fight for that will.
What would happen if we ended the freedom to work across the European Union? Yes, one million Europeans based here will have to go home, and you won't be competing with them any more. But the 1.5 million Brits based elsewhere in the EU will also have to return too. You would be competing against them instead, in an economy that would be even more depressed by the unravelling of European trade.
No. The best way to deal with the wage-depressing effect of immigration at the bottom is to demand an increase in the minimum wage. This places the white working class and immigrants on the same side against the CBI-led elite – rather than squabbling among themselves as the bankers stroll away laughing.
But this is only the first step. If we are going to pull out of this depression, we need the Government to embark on a huge programme of job creation, just as the US government did in the 1930s. We urgently need millions of jobs anyway to turn Britain into a low-carbon economy – and the Government can pay for it by closing tax havens and finally getting the rich to pay their fair share. That's real, urgent work.
But so far, the Government's fiscal stimulus has seemed to only concentrate on people at the top: bankers and big business. Gordon Brown is not talking plainly about launching huge programmes to get Britain working through a depression. His response has been filled with jargon and hard to follow.
Compare it to Barack Obama's statement last week, calling Wall Street "shameful" and saying "the American people will not tolerate this behaviour". David Cameron's Conservatives are much worse, renouncing the idea of any fiscal stimulus at all – guaranteeing a much more bitter economic contraction.
But neither party is going to spontaneously propose the New Deal we need. They have to be pressured into it: even FDR had to be spurred by heavy waves of public protest. My friend Nick O'Donovan has launched a British equivalent to the US campaigning group moveon.org to draw together the great latent mass of people in Britain who want to lobby for a progressive way out of the slump. It is called Dosomethingaboutit.org.uk – and it should be the fulcrum for turning anger currently directed at immigrants into demand for a British New Deal.
If we turn on each other like rats in a cage, the depression will only become longer and more bitter. There is a better way. We should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the wildcat strikers and, yes, immigrants too, in protests outside Downing Street demanding a big fiscal stimulus that will get us all back to work. That's the only outlet for our anger that will drag us up and out. Our choice now is between a New Deal – or a national ordeal.Reuse content