Left gets it wrong
Cameron should not be condemned for playing into the hands of the BNP, argues Peter Manson. He should be condemned for pushing a vicious anti-working class line right now
David Cameron’s major anti-immigration speech last week was, as just about all commentators are agreed, clearly aimed at shoring up the Conservative Party’s rightwing support in the May 5 English council, Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly elections.
But those on the left who say it was intended to whip up racism are badly mistaken. In fact Cameron went out of his way to demonstrate his politically correct, anti-racist credentials just three days earlier. Speaking in Harrogate on April 11, he used the opportunity of a question on the effect of tuition fees on poorer students to deflect criticism from coalition policy onto the elite universities for being insufficiently inclusive: “I saw figures the other day that showed that only one black person went to Oxford last year,” he said. “I think that is disgraceful.”
In reality, as well as the one student he was referring to who self-described as ‘black Caribbean’, there were 23 ‘black African’ and four ‘black other’ among the new intake in 2009. The university stated that 22% were from an ethnic minority that year. Slightly misleading then. Especially when you consider that, out of all the 16,591 Oxford undergraduate and graduate students who disclosed their ethnicity at the start of the 2009-10 academic year, 1,477 were ‘Asian’, 1,098 described themselves as ‘Chinese’, 838 called themselves ‘mixed race’, 254 said they were ‘other’ and 253 were ‘black’.
It is pretty clear, then, that the problem is not one of ‘institutional racism’, as Cameron implied, but the failings of the class-biased education system, which means that state schools in working class areas are totally inadequate - they are underfunded and underresourced, and most certainly incapable of helping their students attain the kind of grades demanded by the top universities. Not to mention the deprivations of the inner-city environment, where many working class and, in particular, black children have the misfortune to go to school.
Clearing the way
However, Cameron was not in the slightest concerned at the outrage expressed by Oxford officials and top academics. His deliberately exaggerated and carefully prepared remark had the intended effect: clearing the way for his April 14 address to Tory activists in Hampshire on his desire to achieve “good immigration, not mass immigration” into the UK.
The speech itself was couched in anti-racist language and even pointed to the benefits of immigration that anti-racist and liberal critics of UK migration policy have continually acclaimed: “... yes, immigrants make a huge contribution to Britain. We recognise that - and we welcome it.” Cameron also declared: “I want us to starve extremist parties of the oxygen of public anxiety they thrive on and extinguish them once and for all.”
Note that the more common phrase, ‘oxygen of publicity’, was cleverly amended. For such speeches from mainstream politicians have a dual effect: on the one hand, they do allow the likes of the British National Party some more space temporarily, since the migration question is at the centre of their agenda (Simon Darby of the BNP spoke, not inaccurately, of the “ceremonial adoption of our policy about two weeks before any major vote”); on the other hand, this type of speech generally succeeds in reclaiming support from people tempted to vote for the far right. And it is certainly true that millions of people are ‘anxious’ - in hard times they instinctively accept the ‘obvious’ answers of greater control over immigration to protect ‘our’ jobs, conditions and services.
However, in this area of his speech Cameron was to the left of Gordon Brown’s crude “British jobs for British workers” nationalism. He said: “This is not a case of ‘immigrants coming over here and taking our jobs’. The fact is ... there are not a fixed number of jobs in our economy. If 100 migrant workers come into the country, they don’t simply displace job opportunities for 100 British citizens ... they also ... create wealth and new jobs.”
Nevertheless, the sheer weight of numbers has posed logistical problems, he says: between 1997 and 2009 “2.2 million more people came to live in this country than left to live abroad. That’s the largest influx of people Britain has ever had ... and it has placed real pressures on communities up and down the country.” Again this is an argument that will ring true for many, especially for those in high migrant areas suffering the effects of the Tories’ own cutbacks.
The one area where Cameron did make a concession to BNP-type racist nationalism was in the section of his speech that bemoaned the ‘changed character’ of certain localities: “... when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods ... perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there ... on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate ... that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.”
Having acknowledged the vague sense of “discomfort” that many feel whenever a locality they are fond of and used to undergoes substantial change, Cameron went on to appeal to people’s sense of injustice. Railing against “forced” and “sham” marriages, he used this to justify appalling restrictions on all British citizens who want to live in the UK with a non-European Union partner. Because “some marriages take place when the spouse is very young, and has little or no grasp of English”, the coalition has “introduced a requirement for all those applying for a marriage visa to demonstrate a minimum standard of English ... and we will defend the age limit of 21 for spouses coming to the UK.”
The truth is that migration restrictions are aimed not at stamping out the exploitation of vulnerable women or any such nonsense. They are aimed at controlling the flow of labour to suit the needs of capital. That is why Cameron specifically linked the whole question to the insufficient ‘incentive’ - from the point of view of capital - of UK-resident workers to take employment as and when required: “... migrants are filling gaps in the labour market left wide open by a welfare system that for years has paid British people not to work”.
While it is true that there are no restrictions on the free flow of labour within the UK (eg, workers migrating from a depressed area to a more prosperous one) or, in general, within the EU, that is more than made up for by migrants from outside Europe. Whereas “net immigration” (those coming in minus those who moved abroad) from the EU was just 27,000 in the year ending June 2010, from elsewhere it was 198,000.
It is hugely advantageous for capital to be able to place restrictions on such a potentially unlimited supply of labour - keeping out those deemed surplus to requirements at a given moment, while actively attracting and welcoming those with particular skills or abilities. This has the knock-on effect of disciplining the indigenous labour force - if UK workers will not knuckle under, there are plenty waiting outside to take over their jobs. And if a whole swathe of ‘illegal’ workers is created as a result of immigration controls, so much the better. Such workers have no employment rights and are in a very weak position to complain about their superexploitation.
What has been the reaction to Cameron’s speech across the political spectrum? As for the Conservatives’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, for the most part they behaved in their by now accustomed manner - forgetting all their pre-election talk about an amnesty on ‘illegals’ and generally going along with the Cameron line.
Maverick Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable was an exception when he broke cabinet discipline to dub the Tory leader’s remarks “unwise”. Rather pathetically he said that “talk of mass immigration risks inflaming the extremism” of the far right. What? Just talking about it, even when you say it is not going to happen? Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg was happy to ‘re-interpret’ Cameron’s pronouncements to bring them more into line with his party’s alleged liberalism. What a joy it will be to see hundreds of Lib Dems ejected from the council chambers following their drubbing on May 5.
What about Labour? Its leaders were equally pathetic, concentrating their fire on the coalition’s internal divisions. Ed Miliband said the coalition needed to “get a grip”, while shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said that the government “needs to tell us urgently what their policy actually is”.
The truth is, there is a far-reaching establishment consensus on immigration and the alleged need for tight border controls. Which is why the left gets it so very wrong when it condemns Cameron not so much for his actual migration policies - anti-working class to the core though they are - but for playing into the hands of the BNP. So the Socialist Workers Party published a very short front-page article entitled ‘Cameron wades into racist sewer’. But the only other mention of racism came in this sentence: “He is cynical enough to give confidence to the racists to try and save his own sorry skin” (Socialist Worker April 23).
The SWP-led Unite Against Fascism issued a statement entitled ‘Cameron’s dangerous remarks will boost racists and fascists’ (April 14). According to UAF joint secretary and SWP central committee member Weyman Bennett, Cameron’s immigration policies will not stop “extremist parties”, as he claims: “they will have precisely the opposite effect. Both the tone of his language and the content of his arguments feed the myth that Britain is somehow being flooded by immigrants.”
Comrade Bennett went on: “The effect of this rhetoric is more hatred, more hysteria and more strife and division in society.” The BNP “and other racist and fascist organisations will thrive in such a climate. History shows that giving in to racist arguments does not make the racists go away. It endorses them and encourages them to demand more.”
The comrade concluded: “Cameron should be ashamed of himself - and we should be proud to live in a multicultural society, where people from all backgrounds work and struggle together.”
Dear me. Cameron should be “ashamed” - not for promoting policies that serve British capital, but for allegedly undermining the “multicultural society”. Comrade Bennett should try switching on his television some time to see just how much not just the Tories, but the entire establishment, promote the idea of “people from all backgrounds” working and cooperating (if not struggling) together. Every popular TV programme - from Casualty to Match of the day reinforces the same message.
Of course, the establishment notion of multiculturalism is a little different from that of the SWP. The former exhorts “people from all backgrounds” - black, white, yellow or brown - to work together in the interest of the British nation: ie, British capital. Which is why British business must be promoted and protected, including through restrictions on the movement of labour.
Instead of whinging about the BNP, why doesn’t the left stand up against our main enemy - the entire pro-capitalist establishment and its parties, who - right now - are strengthening their own hand and weakening ours through their management of the flow of labour?
Unlike the SWP, which prefers to keep quiet on the question, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain actually favours border controls. So we read in the Star’s editorial on Cameron’s speech: “There is a ... lacuna in his argument about preventing entry to Britain for people without the right documents, which ignores his government’s slashing of 5,000 border agency civil servants’ jobs” (April 15).
That is clear enough: “preventing entry to Britain for people without the right documents” is a valuable task that is being undermined by those unpatriotic cuts. For our part, we say, ‘No to all cuts in public services’ - as opposed to cuts in institutions of public assault. The border agency, like the production of Trident and other weapons of mass destruction, should be closed down and their staff transferred to useful work without loss of pay or employment rights.
While usually the Morning Star merely implies support for border controls, the CPB’s extreme nationalist wing openly demands them. An example came in an article published in the Star in March, which was written by the man ‘credited’ with drawing up the ‘No to the European Union, Yes to Democracy’ programme to contest the 2009 EU elections: Brian Denny.
The article, co-authored by Linda Kaucher, denounces an EU free trade agreement currently being negotiated (by Britain, as it happens) with India - part of a policy which allows “big business to bring in cheap labour from poor countries to carry out skilled work for very low wages - the process known as social dumping”.
Denny and Kaucher inform us that the proposed agreement contains “no limit on numbers”. However, “If transnational capital can simply tap into an inexhaustible reserve army of migrant labour, it will further diminish the skills base and training opportunities in Britain ...”
Actually the “reserve army of migrant labour” is not quite so “inexhaustible” in practice. After all, Cameron insisted in his speech on a 20,700 annual cap on skilled employment visas. But that is far too many for the red-brown wing of the CPB. These ‘comrades’ not only insist on the necessity of immigration controls: if you want to stretch the point, you could say they favour racist immigration controls. After all, they have no problem with British workers migrating from town to town within the UK. But when it comes to workers from India ...
Denny and Kaucher continue: “But the EU does at least stipulate that [the] workers should be ‘graduates or equivalent’. Good news? Not really. India has millions of graduates, and graduate unemployment over here is very high already” (‘The EU, mode four and social dumping’, March 24).
To think that the Socialist Party in England and Wales stood - uncritically - on Denny’s programme of nationalist poison under the No2EU banner. Genuine communists and internationalist socialists do not demand that the capitalist state take on yet more powers to restrict foreign labour in order to protect the jobs and conditions of British workers. Instead we call for the working class to take advantage of capital’s internationalisation of the proletariat through organisation across borders - let us unite to level up pay and trade union rights and strive to build international political organisations.