For workers' unity, for open borders

On January 26 the government announced yet another batch of anti-migrant measures in its UK Borders Bill, which will have its second reading on February 5. Peter Manson reports

According to a home office press release, the bill aims at "building stronger borders, tackling organised crime and removing incentives for illegal immigrants to come to Britain" (www.wired-gov.net/WGL-aunch.aspx?ARTCL=43739).

It will equip the new Border and Immigration Agency, which replaces the Immigration and Nationality Directorate on April 1, with "a wide range of new powers to deter, detect and deport".

Doubling the enforcement budget with an extra £100 million, John  Reid's bill will grant new powers to immigration officers (suitably clad in new uniforms) to arrest and detain on suspicion, including those they believe to have "fraudulently been acquiring asylum support", and to exercise "associated powers of entry, search and seizure". In addition foreign nationals "benefiting from living in the UK" will have to apply for a "biometric immigration document" - failure to do so will be penalised by a possible £1,000 fine and deportation.

And, of course, the promise of automatic removal from Britain for foreign prisoners who commit a "serious offence" has been made good. On completion of their sentence those jailed for 12 months or more will be deported immediately without any right of appeal "from within the UK".

Tough on crime, tough on migrants - the two go together for bourgeois politicians who believe that they can only garner votes by appealing to the kind of prejudice fed each day by rags such as The Sun and the Daily Mail. Yet in both policy areas the bankruptcy of their programme is all too evident. Although the prisons are full to overflowing, they can come up with no real alternative to longer sentences as their 'answer' to crime. And, although capital is crying out for labour in a number of sectors, they feel obliged to demonise those who come to Britain - first, in an attempt to keep them atomised and, second, to maintain cross-class national unity.

In recent years the main parties have tried to square the circle by, on the one hand, pointing to the "benefits to Britain" that migrants can bring and, on the other, insisting on their right to closely vet incomers according to their likely usefulness to 'British industry'.

Thus New Labour's policy is one of "controlled and managed immigration", which is "essential to the economic well-being of the United Kingdom and the health of the public services". But the fact that the number of permanent migrants allowed in has soared has produced its reaction. After all, there may be benefits for Britain - migrants, who are more often than not young and keen to work, tend to 'put in more than they take out' - but there are also disadvantages: the strain on already stretched public services, not to mention changes on the cultural landscape. Those have been the terms of the debate - on balance "is immigration good for Britain?"

The consensus among the centre ground has answered in the affirmative, with the emphasis now being laid even more than before on the importance of bringing in the 'right type' of migrant - and in 'manageable' numbers. This is the terrain over which Labour and Tories are fighting.

So, on January 28 Tory leader David Cameron declared: "We wouldn't be half the country we are without immigration. But [there was bound to be a 'but'] you can't have a situation where a country doesn't know - and can't control - who is coming in and out, and who is settling here. That puts pressure on housing, on public services, and helps create division, fear and resentment - among British people of all ethnic backgrounds."

That is why Cameron targeted the "immigration system" as one of five points of attack (the others being multiculturalism, "extremism", poverty and education). Ironically he referred to them as "five Berlin Walls of division that we must tear down together" - not quite the right image in relation to the "secure borders" that both Labour and the Tories keep going on about.

The mainstream consensus is perhaps summed up by Cameron's conclusion: "We can only live together if there is proper integration. And you can't have proper integration if people are coming into Britain at a faster rate than we can cope with." For Cameron, as well as for much of the establishment, "integration" has been undermined by multiculturalism, which has laid 'too much stress on difference' rather than our 'common Britishness'.

But one thing they are certainly not abandoning is official anti-racism - Cameron's "British people of all ethnic backgrounds" sums up to perfection the 21st century bourgeois ideology of nationalistic anti-racism.

Even the extreme right feels obliged to guard its language when opposing the mainstream consensus. The formerly openly racist British National Party adopts its terms: "On current demographic trends, we, the native British people, will be an ethnic minority in our own country within 60 years."

For the BNP, though, there is no positive side to immigration at all. Its policy statement continues: "To ensure that this does not happen, and that the British people retain their homeland and identity, we call for an immediate halt to all further immigration, the immediate deportation of criminal and illegal immigrants, and the introduction of a system of voluntary resettlement" (www.bnp.org.uk/policies/policies.htm).

Nevertheless, there is not that much difference between what the BNP wants and the policy of the mainstream - it is more a question of degree. However, there is no question of the BNP being invited to put the 'anti' side of the argument in the recent intense public debate on the value of migrants. That dubious honour has fallen to the "non-political" pressure group, Migration Watch.

Unlike the BNP, Migration Watch can recognise the benefit to British capital of migrant workers. It even agrees that, using the type of crude cost-accounting arithmetic so beloved by the bourgeoisie, there has been a net gain to 'the economy' as a result of recent immigration, particularly from eastern Europe. But this has been grossly exaggerated:

"In 2005 net immigration was 185,000 which, on a population of 60 million, is 0.31%. At the same time the government's estimate of £4 billion on a gross domestic product (GDP) of approximately £1,250 billion is 0.32%. The benefit in terms of GDP per head is therefore trivial - about 0.01% of GDP, or just 4p per head per week - less than a Mars bar per month" (www.migrationwatchuk.org/faqs.asp).

This trivial gain of £4 billion is, for Migration Watch, completely offset by unwanted changes to the current 'way of life' and pressure on existing public services - "the pace of change "¦ is simply too great in some areas at present". There is nothing wrong with a "managed migration policy", but the problem is, it is just not managed: "The ideal would be to achieve a position where the numbers of people entering Britain was similar to the number emigrating" (original emphasis - www.migrationwatchuk.org/outline_of_the_problem.asp).

The debate between the two sides over migrants centres, then, on the 'national interest' - by and large it is about the numbers and rate of migration that would be 'good for Britain'. An argument between two gangs of nationalists, in other words. What a pity then that the Socialist Workers Party insists on seeing racism at its core - and as a result can sometimes give the impression of siding with the pro-immigration nationalists.

Typical is Simon Basketter, who wrote a few months back: "Newspapers last week wanted us to panic about the 64,000 workers from eastern Europe who came to Britain last year. We are apparently supposed to be less concerned by the 68,000 people who came from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa - and we are expected to ignore the thousands of people from Britain who left the country. Such scare stories against eastern European migrants are based on racism - they attempt to divide workers in order to weaken them and exploit them more effectively" (Socialist Worker November 11 2006).

Note how the definition of racism has gradually changed. Whereas previously the bourgeoisie attempted to divide us by giving preference to whites over and above blacks and Asians, now it does the same by looking kindly on South Africans (including black South Africans) and doing down eastern Europeans. Strange.

In order to combat the 'racist' anti-migration lobby the SWP comes close to arguing that migration is 'good for the country'. In the words of Colin Barker: "Targeting immigrants and asylum-seekers feeds racism. Racism says immigrants are a threat to our society. Socialists don't just deny this: they insist immigration is a marvellous benefit" (August 9 2003).

True, comrade Barker is talking about "celebrating human diversity and the enrichment of our own culture" rather than benefit to the GDP, but the question is still posed in terms of the advantage to the host country, to "our society", not in terms of enriching global culture or even defending the basic democratic right to live and work where you want.

Similarly comrade Basketter claims that workers in the host country tend to benefit from the mere presence of migrants: ""¦ there is little basis for this 'common sense' notion that wages are lowered by migration. 'Immigration is found to have, if anything, a positive effect on the wages of the existing population,' says research based on four reports commissioned by the home office in 2003" (November 11 2006).

Of course, all SWP writers stress the need for workers' unity to combat attempts to divide us - even comrade Basketter acknowledges that lower wages may result when migrant workers act as worst paid labour. But the SWP never gives prominence to the central question - the right of all to move across borders without restrictions.

Comrade Barker did slip into his article the phrase, "When socialists reject immigration controls, when we declare 'Asylum-seekers are welcome here'"¦" I suppose you could say that "when" is the operative word. True, every issue of Socialist Worker still proclaims: "We oppose all immigration controls" ('What the Socialist Workers Party stands for'). But in reality the SWP has dropped this central principle from its day-to-day practice.

This change has been forced upon it by its popular frontist method - since those to its right in the various 'united fronts' it inhabits will not accept open borders, it is better to rephrase things slightly - comrade Barker conveniently places one of the SWP's substitute slogans ('Asylum-seekers are welcome here') alongside the rejection of border controls, as though the two are one and the same.

The SWP actually voted down the CPGB's principled call for the scrapping of all immigration controls at the October 2004 conference of Respect - it knew George Galloway would not accept that. In arguing her party's position, the SWP's Elaine Heffernan stated that such a principled stance would be "a step backwards". So the programme that the SWP puts forward to voters when its members stand as Respect candidates is different from what it claims to believe. Instead, Respect election material talks about the rights of "asylum-seekers and refugees", not all migrants or would-be migrants.

Meanwhile comrade Galloway is free to ape the populist calls of Cameron's Tories and John Reid for 'controlled immigration'. In an article in the Morning Star he called for a "points system" to determine which migrants are to be deemed 'useful' to British society (and should therefore be allowed in) and which are not: "we should publish an economic-social-demographic plan for population growth based on a points system and our own needs" (Morning Star February 12 2005). I wonder who decides "our own needs" in capitalist Britain and on what basis.

"Every country must have control of its own borders - no-one serious is advocating the scrapping of immigration controls," Galloway wrote. It is true that the SWP is not "serious" about it, but we in the CPGB most certainly are.

Capitalism is becoming more and more obsolete. Instead of massively cutting working hours and generally introducing the latest labour-saving technology it constantly tries to drive wages down and up the hours worked. To that end ever increasing numbers of poor workers - skilled and unskilled - are sucked into the metropolitan countries.

Far from siding with "our" state against the majority of our global working class, as comrade Galloway suggests, while the SWP remains silent, 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.

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 after six months.

We know that often migrants come here because they are desperate and, initially at least, many of the poorer ones are a source of resentment especially amongst backward sections of the population. But on balance it is quite clear that immigration is a progressive phenomenon because it helps to break down national differences and national narrow mindedness. It objectively unites workers in Britain with the world working class.