Change the word “British” to “American” in this quote from Stephen Kinnock’s pean to Keir Starmer’s Labour conference speech, and you get a sentiment that could easily have been expressed by Donald Trump or Steve Bannon.
“Turning to our sense of national security, there is an equally compelling story to tell. For decades, unfettered globalisation has been allowed to rip through our communities, off-shoring jobs, tearing at the social fabric of our towns, and complacently inviting Chinese state-owned enterprises to dominate our supply chains and insert themselves into our critical national infrastructure. The British people are crying out for a government that will stand up for their interests on the global stage.”
Lets look at this in detail.
It follows a paragraph in which he rightly notes “there can be no doubt that for decades people’s sense of local and national security has been eroding, to the point where we now live in what the economist and author Paul Collier calls the ‘Age of Anxiety’. But he does not examine what it is that is causing that anxiety – and indeed, growing mental health crisis – particularly amongst those being impoverished and disempowered.
That is probably deliberate, because spelling them out would lead to very different conclusions from the ones he wants to draw.
People in the developed world are now on the receiving end of tactics long employed by business in the Global South. In the same way that soldiers in Europe in the First World War found themselves on the receiving end of military technology previously deployed exclusively by them against “lesser breeds without the law” in the colonies. In the end, it all comes home to roost. So, insecure employment, zero hours contracts, hire and fire, weakened unions and bullying managements, stagnating wages, “in work benefits” as a subsidy to employers, food banks, a social security system worn so thin that the fabric is long torn, are all a feature of workers experience across the entire system; regardless of locality or nation. Its not China that is “tearing at the fabric” of our high streets, its Amazon. Its not China that is “offshoring Jobs” its businesses like Dyson. People are anxious about whether they will keep their jobs, whether their children will find decent work or housing, how they will be cared for in old age. All this is global. Not local. Not national.
People are also anxious that the future feels more like a trap than a promise. Since 2008, neo liberalism has been incapable of inclusive growth. Climate breakdown is increasingly apparent. 75% of young people globally say they are frightened by the future. 39% say they are planning not to have children. This is global. Not local. Not national.
For Kinnock, this is not about capitalism, its about “unfettered globalisation”; an enemy of the local and national. That would be the “unfettered globalisation” that Tony Blair argued for in his 2005 Labour Party conference speech. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.” This was before the 2008 crash. When Blair and those like him believed that it was possible to eliminate “boom and bust” and sail ever onwards and upwards, and the accession of China to the World Trade Organisation would slowly but surely turn the entire world into one gigantic American suburb. It didn’t turn out like that.
so, now, we find economic nationalism back in a big way. A dog whistle in Starmer’s speech about how awful it is that wind farm components are “towed in from places such as Indonesia”. So, workers in the developing world, getting a toe hold on industrialisation, are the threat to workers here; setting them head to head in a zero sum competition rather than complimentary parts of a global division of labour that could be win win for all of us. And what a wonderful phrase that is; “places such as”. Places that were once colonies, places that “we” could once happily disregard as far away countries of which we knew nothing and cared less, but now that they are getting uppity and wanting work, should be put firmly back in their place.
Starmer seems more concerned with jackets and towers for wind farms being made in Indonesia and Vietnam, than he does about the more lucrative and skilled jobs making the motors being done in Europe. This is a dangerously misleading trope with a racist whiff. A study on the reality of offshoring by multinationals carried out by the University of Nottingham in 2005 found that of 925 UK Multinational firms in manufacturing and 1,928 in services
- 96 per cent of UK multinationals in the manufacturing sector had at least one subsidiary within OECD member nations, while just 20 per cent had subsidiaries within non-OECD countries; only eight per cent had subsidiaries in either China or India.
- In the services sector, 95 per cent of UK multinationals had at least one subsidiary in OECD member countries; only 18 per cent in non-OECD countries; and just 4.5 per cent in India and China.
- They concluded that “these findings refute the common misrepresentation that the UK is offshoring jobs largely to ‘cheap labour’ markets” and that “the truth is that the most frequent locations for foreign affiliates are other developed countries, mainly other European nations and the US.”
And Kinnock does not notice the irony in his speech. “Chinese state owned enterprises” have done rather well since the crash, primarily because they are state owned. Time was, Labour was in favour of that. Kinnock is painting a paranoid picture – two parts “Yellow Peril” to three parts “Red Menace” -akin to that of the Base Commander in Dr Strangelove. It was, of course, a dreadful thing that Chinese steel maker Jingye invested £1.2 in saving British Steel in Scunthorpe, and the 3,000 jobs that went with it. And China’s offer to build HS2 in 5 years at a fraction of the cost currently projected is obviously an evil plan to infiltrate our precious bodily fluids.
On the basis of seeking truth through facts:
- In 2020, China accounted for 12% of the UK supply chain (imports) – the same level as Germany. The problem for Kinnock is that this proportion is growing on the basis of normal trading relations. If he wants to launch a trade war on Trumpish lines, the net effect would be the same as in the US, increased costs for consumers and an increase in economic insecurity.
- This graph shows the sources of FDI into the UK in 2019. China’s contribution is somewhere in “other” and below that of France. So, less than 4.6% and and not exactly “commanding heights”. Kinnock seems unconcerned that US capital is inserting itself “into our critical national infrastructure” on a very large scale indeed.
It is his final sentence that is most concerning. “The British people are crying out for a government that will stand up for their interests on the global stage.” It reads like a Daily Mail or Express headline. Its as if he watches Henry V every morning before breakfast. “The British people”. As though it were a single entity with a single voice, with no contradictions and no arguments on the way forward. This is unreconstructed nationalist populism; a leading Labour politician allowing himself to be used as a ventriloquist dummy for the posturing imperial nostalgia of Boris Johnson; a kind of viagra for a sense of resentful national decline. The belief that we still live in a time in which sending a big gunboat to the South China Sea and being a mini-me for the New American Century is a route to “security” is deluded. There is nothing quite so dangerous as a faded imperial power trying to strut its stuff and strike postures “on the world stage”.
This isn’t a performance. If we want security, we have real problems to deal with – climate breakdown, Covid, poverty, racism, stopping a new Cold War. At the UN last month, Xi Jinping called for global co-operation to deal with all of them. That is the path to security for all of us.