Border wars

The left must put forward a clear alternative to Tory-Labour attacks on migrants, writes Peter Manson. We must fight for the free movement of people and the international organisation of all workers

Desperate to make some headway in the polls, the Conservative Party is playing the chauvinist card with a vengeance in the run-up to the general election. The Tories have calculated that they can only hope to win (however slim that hope is) through appealing to voters on a rightwing nationalist basis, irrespective of the extent to which their proposals suit the immediate needs of British capital. Michael Howard has made it clear that an ideologically loaded assault on immigration will be a central plank of the Tory election campaign. In this way he hopes to steal the thunder of the British National Party and UK Independence Party, shore up the Tories' own base support and start to eat into New Labour's lead through a populist appeal to the hatreds, fears and frustrations of voters. Bourgeois politicians must inevitably seek out scapegoats for the failings of their system, and the outsider is an easy target. With the steep rise in the number of asylum-seekers and economic migrants entering Britain over the last decade, Conservative and New Labour have been vying with the far right in ratcheting up their ideological attacks on those who are said to be abusing Britain's generosity. Not surprisingly immigration is now high on the list of 'voters' concerns', according to the pollsters. With both the main parties aiming to outdo the other in the anti-migrant stakes, it is Labour, the party of government, that has always been able to keep the initiative up to now. Yes, the backlog of asylum applications rose steadily until the last year or so, but Blair has been able to keep the Tories at bay by a range of attacks: the removal of the right to work; the policy of dispersal; the use of detention centres and increased deportations; section 55, which denies 'late' applicants and failed asylum-seekers - including families with children - any support whatsoever, reducing them to destitution; the criminalisation of asylum-seekers arriving without documentation, including children over the age of 10. The National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns reports "a steep rise" last year in telephone calls from concerned teachers informing the NCADC that immigration 'snatch squads' had removed children from their classrooms. In the cases reported, the parents were not even present when their children were taken away to be locked up in a removal centre. In addition to such current inhuman practices, Labour has announced plans for more detention places and committed itself to continuing to deport more failed asylum-seekers than the numbers applying. It has succeeded in cutting the applicants through its disgraceful treatment of those who dare to arrive here. More than that, it has been able to use the issue of 'bogus' asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants, along with the 'terrorist threat', to push the 'need' for identity cards - a measure of further control over the whole population. In view of the long-drawn-out Tory-Labour battle over the question, where neither could gain a decisive advantage and which was, because of the stalemate, in reality playing into the hands of the BNP and Ukip, the Tories have now attempted to pull the ground from under Blair's feet by calling for the rules of the game to be swept aside: in order to be free to simply turn asylum applicants away at the borders, the Conservatives now say they will withdraw from the 1951 United Nations refugee convention, which commits signatories to take in people fleeing persecution and civil war. An annual limit on the numbers Britain will take will be set in advance. Since, says Howard, only around 20% of asylum-seekers are eventually accepted as 'genuine', he will fix the proposed annual quota much lower than the number of current applications - perhaps at around 10,000. Cases will be processed abroad in reception centres run by British authorities; or the UN could be invited to nominate people already in refugee camps for acceptance by Britain. Of course, both schemes - and it is not clear whether they are meant to be parallel or alternative proposals - would need the cooperation of other governments or international bodies. Moreover, since asylum at present accounts for only a small proportion of total immigration, the Tories will also set an annual ceiling on the total number of migrants of all categories allowed into Britain. They have not yet specified a figure, but it is likely to be well under 100,000 - a dramatic cut compared to 2003, when 513,000 people came into the UK on a long-term or permanent basis (362,000 emigrated). Howard said: "Immigration must be brought under control. There are literally millions of people in other countries who want to come and live here. Britain cannot take them all." The Tories claim they would take into account so-called skill shortages and levels of unemployment, as well as the number of refugees fleeing persecution or civil wars, when setting the total quota. It is, of course, a fallacy to suggest that immigration is not already "under control" (the control of capital, that is) - just as much as it is to suggest, as one Tory commentator did, that the entire population of China might one day suddenly decide to try and squeeze into the UK. In fact New Labour has been attempting to attract new migrants with particular skills over recent years. Blair has steadily upped the number of work permits issued and people granted residence in response to calls to meet less-cost labour needs in several industries. As a result, large-scale 'primary immigration' has been underway for the first time since 1972. In the past, most notably the 1950s, the Conservatives have presided over similar sharp rises for the same reason. In that sense, the proposal to drastically reduce total immigration does not meet the needs of British capital as a whole. But that is not Howard's main concern. Firstly, he hardly looks likely to be the next resident of No10, so he can safely spout populism without any real possibility of having to act on his words. But if he were able to revive the Conservative fortunes and narrow the gap in the polls, then he could at least claim that the party was returning to health under his stewardship. If, by a miracle, the Conservatives were returned in May, he would no doubt be able to ease up his migration targets. Right now, the main purpose is to seize the initiative from New Labour. In that regard, Roscam Abbing of the European Commission has been most helpful. He bluntly stated that Tory plans to withdraw from the UN refugee convention would be illegal - a 'qualifications directive' already signed by Britain would come into force in September 2006, regardless of who won the general election. This directive, in line with the convention, establishes a binding definition of who is a refugee, obliging signatories to take in asylum-seekers in cooperation with the EU. (He could also have pointed out that the UK government has no power to halt migration from other EU countries - perhaps the whole of Germany or Italy will decide to come here next year and what would that do to Howard's quotas?) This was a gift for the Tories. Raising the level of chauvinism still further, Brussels could be condemned as yet again interfering in UK affairs and encroaching on British sovereignty by stealth. In fact, the directive is part and parcel of the agreed strengthening of 'Fortress Europe', aiming to clamp down more firmly on asylum-seekers and more tightly control migration from outside. For example, the directive lays out the barest minimum of standards of shelter and welfare it believes is required by the Geneva convention and states that asylum-seekers have no right to work or benefit. In addition the EU is putting in place new proposals for a 'white list' of countries deemed 'safe', from where no asylum applications will be accepted. The EU is already looking to implement Howard's call for reception centres, calling for 'holding camps' in north Africa for the processing of asylum applications. It is Britain that has been amongst the most aggressive in pushing for the EU to adopt such proposals. Here again, it can scarcely be in the interests of capital if individual states begin opting out of international arrangements for dealing with social dislocation that threatens the stability of an entire region. The UN high commission for refugees is up in arms in case other countries were to take a leaf out of the Tories' book, thus impairing the ability of imperialism to manage the fallout from crises and war. In addition to withdrawing from the 1951 convention, the Tories' stated intention of refusing even to hear asylum applications over and above their ceiling would perhaps require the renouncing of clauses contained in the European Convention on Human Rights and certain torture conventions. These prevent people from being deported to countries where they are likely to face oppression, torture or death. It has to be said that Labour has been forced onto the back foot over the issue, claiming that the proposals would be expensive to operate and therefore "at odds" with the Conservatives' projected spending plans - transport secretary Alistair Darling said the Tories had already put forward plans for £1 billion-worth of cuts in the immigration and nationality service. Not a particularly hard-hitting argument. Neither is the line that attacks on migrants are nothing but racism, as Socialist Worker would have us believe: "Many will see through this opportunist electioneering for the vicious racism it is" (January 29). The comrades are right to call Howard's schemes "opportunist electioneering" and "vicious", but wrong to dub them "racism". To say this does not mean we believe that racism is a thing of the past, that it no longer exists in all sections of society. For example, what should we make of the headline in The Daily Telegraph, above an article arguing in favour of the Tory proposals, which read: "Immigration is altering Britain's ethnic mix" (January 24)? But such openly expressed sentiment is increasingly consigned to the margins, for Britain's official ideology is today undoubtedly nationalist, or national chauvinist, and this British nationalism is 'multiracial' and multi-ethnic. So, no, we have not been 'taken in' by the Tories' denials (although it is interesting that Howard felt obliged to begin his immigration speech by rejecting that claim - such is the anti-racist consensus in official society). It is not difficult to show that a large proportion of the migrants that both parties want to keep out are white and European; or that a majority of the ethnic minority population - along with most 'white British' - also accept a good part of the lies about greedy asylum-seekers, too many people for too few resources, and all the rest of it. According to most polls, over 50% of migrants themselves think there should be tougher controls on immigration - it does, after all, seem like common sense that there are 'only so many we can take'. In a society that puts profit above need there will always be want and shortage. Instead of blaming migrants, we blame the system. While capital is free to move across borders in the hunt for markets and sources of profit, the representatives of capital insist on their god-given right to tightly control the pool of labour they have available to exploit; and to keep those same borders sealed off to surplus labour of the 'wrong' type - whether that means workers with inadequate skills, unsuitable work culture or too great an instinct for class solidarity. It is actually highly desirable for capital that such border controls create as an inevitable by-product millions of illegal migrants - workers with no rights, used to further divide and undercut the indigenous workforce. That is why it is essential for working class politicians to demand the legalisation of all such workers, the abolition of the entire 'illegal' category. That means open borders - the right for all to live, work and settle in any country in the world with full citizenship rights. Capitalism is becoming more and more irrational and more and more obsolete. Instead of massively cutting working hours and generally introducing the latest labour-saving technology - that would be humanly rational - capital does no such thing. It wants to drive wages down and up the hours worked. To that end ever increasing numbers of poor workers - skilled and unskilled - will be sucked into the metropolitan countries. These people move from their homes almost always because they have to endure appallingly bad conditions and are desperate for a better life. Many will borrow a small fortune in order to pay gangs of smugglers to get them in - so that they can work endless hours for pitiful pay. For them that is a better life. Because of imperialism and the growing extremes of uneven development, their own countries are visibly rotting - lawlessness, endemic war, bandit governments, plague and premature death are the lot of countless millions. Gordon Brown's plan for Africa will do nothing to change this situation. Nor will debt cancellation or relief. Nor will Bono and Band Aid. Nor can working class living standards in the advanced capitalist countries be protected through immigration controls, whether 'racist' or 'non-racist'. To take such a road would be to opt out of history and the global struggle for socialism, banking instead on a permanent Swiss solution. No, far from trying to do a king Canute and suicidally siding with 'our' state against the majority of our class, we must first and foremost fight to organise all workers. Crucially into trade unions and revolutionary political parties which are as united as objective circumstances permit and increasingly act as one. Only that way can competition between workers be limited and the means forged to actually supersede the system of global capital. Unfortunately, most of the left falls well short of what is historically required. At Respect's founding convention in January 2004 and again at its first conference in October, the Socialist Workers Party saw to it that any such principled, internationalist perspectives were roundly defeated. Respect's policy is not for the free movement of people but the "defence of the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers" (my emphasis Founding declaration). One of the motions passed at the conference with SWP support clearly implied that a system of people-control was acceptable: "Respect would "¦ reinstate a proper two-tier appeals process. No-one who fears persecution, torture or war should be denied asylum." Obviously this means that those who failed the "proper two-tier appeals process" (to determine whether or not their fear of "persecution, torture or war" was well-founded) would be "denied asylum". And Socialist Worker ends its short commentary on Howard with the sentence, "Only Respect will take a principled stand in the election, defending the rights of refugees and arguing that immigration is a benefit to British society" (my emphasis, January 29). What about the benefit to the working class? And what about the rights of migrants in general? As home office minister Hazel Blears stated, when asked for her comments on Howard's quota proposals: "Everyone agrees with controlled migration." Including Respect and the SWP, it seems. Print this page