Anti-migrant snake oil
Cameron’s immigration speech was an attempt to out-Labour Labour, says Eddie Ford
With the UK Independence Party breathing down his neck after the Rochester and Strood by-election, David Cameron on November 20 delivered his long-awaited speech on immigration at a factory in Staffordshire. Endlessly redrafted, re-edited and re-rehearsed, it was supposed to be of central significance - at last an answer to Ukip.
Previously we had heard all manner of stories and rumours about limits, ceilings, blocks, etc on immigration - which naturally got the pulses racing on the Tory back benches and in the Daily Mail copy room. But in the end, far from being a snarling British lion, Cameron was more of a mouse. Or, as one wag put it, not so much “rivers of blood” as “tributaries of tender toughness”.1 Dave is no Enoch. Which is not to say, of course, that his speech was not important - far from it. It was significant for two main reasons. Firstly, it gave us a clue as to how the Tories are going to react to the Ukip threat; and, secondly - far more importantly - it posed the question of Britain’s future in the European Union. Does David Cameron, supposedly a sensible, mainstream centre-right politician, really want to sleepwalk into a situation that sees a major flight of capital from Britain? Anyone who imagines that an EU exit would not have any drastic and unrecoverable consequences is living in cloud cuckoo land - though, of course, sections of the rightwing press, petty bourgeoisie and indeed the left do indeed inhabit a nationalist fantasy world (remember the late and unlamented No2EU?). Even the slightest hint that the British government was planning to leave the EU would see the City - capital at its most fluid - relocate to a safer haven abroad, and in one stroke 20% or more of the UK’s tax base would vanish into the ether. After all, we had an intimation of this during the Scottish referendum: the Bank of England, with George Osborne’s blessing, was preparing emergency measures to stop a run on the banks in the event of a ‘yes’ vote.
Anyhow, we heard a barrage of platitudes about how “extremely proud” Cameron was that Britain had a “successful, multiracial democracy”, where “people can come with nothing and rise as high as their talent allows” - even doubtlessly become prime minister (so long as they come from a family of stockbrokers, have been to Eton and Oxford and are a member of the Bullingdon Club. In a clear reference to recent comments by Ukip’s newly elected Mark Reckless, he conjured up the “appalling prospect” of repatriating “totally legal” migrants who have lived in the country for years. Naturally, the prime minister has no truck with those who use immigration to “foment division” or as a “surrogate for other agendas” - a cue to bash Ukip again and all those who “sell the snake oil of simple solutions”.
Yet you would have listened in vain for any defiant challenge to the free movement of labour - there was none. Despite all the high hopes and expectations from the right, Cameron ducked it - the lion that never roared. He admitted that his immigration plans would need EU treaty change and the chances of all member-states consenting to such proposals is zero - though he could not help blaming the Liberal Democrats for holding him back from pushing through his previous immigration pledges. There is also the distinct possibility that Cameron’s schemes will be challenged in the courts. To say the very least, treating EU citizens differently when it comes to benefit, etc is deeply problematic.
Getting the right wing of the Tory Party very aerated, numerous stories in the press have circulated about Cameron having his arm twisted by Angela Merkel. For instance, Der Spiegel ran a very plausible story saying that in the view of Merkel and the German foreign ministry, Cameron was pushing his country toward a “point of no return” with his talk about imposing an upper limit for immigration from EU member-states: Berlin sources report that Merkel “left no doubt” about where she stood on the issue during a private meeting with Cameron at the October EU summit.2 If Cameron continued down this path, “that would be that” and Britain would get its marching orders.
Then again, it is not just Merkel or the European Commission that thinks an EU exit would be madness. Just listen to the Confederation of British Industry, which you could describe as the industrial wing of the bourgeoisie, as opposed to the banking/finance wing. An overwhelming majority of CBI members are adamantly opposed to Britain waltzing out of the EU, considering it reckless. Rather oddly, big business - just as with the Scottish referendum - has not made its voice decisively heard during this debate: it almost had to be forced to come out and express an opinion. Not something you can say about Kenneth Clarke though, who told the BBC’s Sunday politics show that the free movement of labour was “absolutely essential” to the whole concept of a single market - pointing out that the Norwegians, who the Eurosceptics admire so much, totally accept the notion and in fact have got a bigger proportion of other EU nationals in their country than Britain. Facts are stubborn things.
In the latest issue of Socialist Worker, comrade Ken Olende claims that in his speech David Cameron “talks tough” in a “racist bid” to “head off Ukip rivals” - or out-Ukip Ukip (December 2). But this is not actually the case. Rather, Cameron was trying to out-Labour Labour. Just prior to his speech, Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions minister, had written a revolting article for the Daily Mail promising that Labour would crack down on in-work benefits (tax credits, housing benefit, etc) claimed by about 252,000 working and fully legal EU migrants - extending the period for which they are prevented from claiming from three months to two years. This earned the praise of the paper, which gushed about “Labour’s attempt to outflank Tories and Ukip on immigration” with its plans to “curb welfare tourism” (November 18).
Of course, Cameron had the advantage of delivering his speech after that and was able to raise the bid to four years - that would apparently reduce the “true pull factor” drawing unskilled migrants to the UK, who it seems are desperate to claim tax credits, child benefit, and so on. This is all nonsense, as repeated studies have shown. The vast majority come to get a job, not reap the wondrous rewards of housing benefit - it is as simple as that. In fact, on average, migrants claim less state benefits than the indigenous workforce. Meaning that Cameron’s measures, even if implemented, are in reality aimed at the most weakest and vulnerable migrants: and they do have the advantage of being an easy target to kick.
Cameron also announced in the speech that he would exclude future EU claimants from universal credit (if it ever gets off the ground), deport any jobseeker who has not found work after six months and bar EU migrants from access to social housing. Like Reeves, he would see to it that migrants do not receive child benefit if their children live outside the UK. Showing his mettle, Cameron declared that he would impose longer bans on rough sleepers, beggars and fraudsters returning to the UK and introduce tougher rules on deporting foreign criminals. Perhaps more radically, he would tell Brussels that he wants to prevent new member-states from being given the same freedom of movement rights until their GDP reaches a certain level (Albania, Turkey and Bosnia-Hercegovina are all currently queuing up to join the EU). In this way, Cameron believes, “every family” in Britain would “identify with” and “support” this package because it is “plain”, “reasonable”,” decent”, “fair” and represents “common sense”.
Yet all this is predicated on the toxic idea that migrants are a problem that needs to be sorted out: something must be done. But, as we have seen above, this is not an idea or affliction that is unique to Ukip, but something that unites the mainstream parties. That is why singling out Ukip as somehow beyond the pale or qualitatively different to the mainstream, as the Socialist Workers Party always does, is a fundamental mistake - and a stupid one at that. But what the heck, when has stupidity ever held back the SWP? Hence the Socialist Worker front page headline shouting, “Racist filth”, accompanied by a picture of Nigel Farage, Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell (November 25); or excitably telling us that the “Nazi” Nick Griffin tweeted an “endorsement” of Ukip for next year’s general election - which for some reason makes Ukip’s claim to be a non-racist party “sound even more hollow” (December 2).
In fact, nothing the SWP says about Ukip or immigration makes any logical sense. We also read in the aforementioned articles about the urgency of resisting racism “from Ukip and the mainstream parties”. In which case, why set up an organisation (ie, Stand Up To Ukip) that implies we should vote for anybody except Ukip? On the other hand, we find out that the SWP has “always argued that it’s impossible to have immigration controls that aren’t racist - we have to oppose all of them”. Very praiseworthy. Hang on though. The comrades support the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, which is only opposed to “racist” immigration controls: ie, presumably Tusc (like No2EU) is in favour of non-racist immigration controls, which are “impossible”. We look forward to the next SWP central committee missive on this issue.
However, what is qualitatively different about Ukip concerns what you actually do about migration. If you genuinely think migration is a problem, for whatever reason, then there is only one logical solution - you have to pull out of the EU. No ifs, no buts. As Cameron ruefully noted, the fact of the matter is that there are treaty obligations concerning the free movement of labour that will not magically go away - Berlin, for one, will make sure of that. Therefore Ukip is quite right when it says if Cameron was sincere in his previous pledge to get migration down to the “tens of thousands” by 2015, then obviously you have to do precisely what Ukip calls for - come out of Europe, erect border controls and take the consequences, which will be considerable. But, as we all know, Cameron’s pledge was a foolish and idiotic bit of posturing - he never had a hope in hell of getting migration down to such levels, and everyone knew it (including him).
Indeed, official statistics for the year ending June 2014 show that net migration is higher than when the Conservatives came to power in 2010 (migration from outside the EU has also risen significantly). The figure now stands at 260,000, increasing by 78,000 in the past year alone - which is noticeably above the 244,000 when David Cameron and Theresa May took office (though the level of labour mobility within Europe is still only about 25% of the rate in the US). The office for national statistics said the 43% increase in net immigration was the second-highest annual rise on record - thanks to the EU recession, of course. Wise after the event (or maybe not), Cameron dolefully noted in his speech that when he made the promise he did not know there would be “potentially three recessions in six years” inside the EU - constituting a “major barrier” to the achievement of the target.
Ed Miliband’s response? Totally pathetic, but just what you would expect from such an insipid individual. Cameron has “absolutely no credibility” on immigration, according to Miliband, as “people are not going to believe his new promises when he has broken his old promises”. But you could say exactly the same about Ed: he is not going to do anything about migration either, so long as Britain remains within the EU, to which Labour is also committed.
And that, of course, is something most capitalists are pleased to hear, given that they are in favour of the free movement of labour. Why? Because they want labour, just like every other commodity, to be freely movable, as it enables them to undermine wages. Simple fact: increase the supply of labour and wages tend to go down. Building sites and hotels, for example, often take on migrants working beneath the minimum wage, etc. What the capitalists are most decidedly not in favour of, however, is paying for the taxes that enable migrants to get NHS treatment or unemployment benefit.
So what should be the response of communists to mass migration? Essentially, we need to go back to the traditions of the First and Second Internationals - the former famously organising Irish workers originally brought in to scab and the latter at its 1896 Fourth Congress in London passed a resolution saying we do not line up against our brothers and sisters who happen to come from abroad. We in the CPGB could not agree more. As far as communists are concerned, all human beings inhabit the planet Earth - we should be allowed to live anywhere we like on this globe, our natural environment as a revolutionary species. No bureaucrat or dictator should have the right to tell us where we can or cannot go.
Naturally, we recognise that the capitalists will always try to pit worker against worker - which is why workers combine together into trade unions to limit competition between us as much as objectively possible, though it can never be abolished under capitalism. But, to the degree that workers in Britain and the world organise, that becomes practical politics - not starry-eyed idealism. Anything else is to fall for the politics of national sectionalism. Nobody today would object to someone moving from Glasgow to London or vice-versa, unless they were crazy. But it is a peculiar feature of the modern world that it is divided up into a patchwork of rival countries and we have, as a result, a carefully cultivated national consciousness: we have come to think of countries as normal, even eternal. Communists, as internationalists, fight to change this dismal state of affairs.
1. John Crace (The Guardian November 28).
2. Der Spiegel November 3: http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/merkel-fears-cameron-crossing-red-line-on-immigration-a-1000743.html.