Immigration: Chauvinist demagoguery
Paul Demarty looks at the poisonous bilge of our native reactionaries
A striking feature of present political debate is its increasingly disturbing noxiousness concerning migration.
On December 31 the Mail Online headline declared: “Sold out! Flights and buses full, as Romanians and Bulgarians head for the UK.”1 But by January 14 the same paper was forced to admit that “just 24” Romanians have so far come to Britain to take our jobs, women and housing benefit.2
Alas, the initial claims were rather more widely propagated and believed. Polling data repeatedly shows striking ignorance on the part of those surveyed, who generally overestimate vastly the numbers of migrants arriving and already settled. Never mind that the Romanian economy is in a similar flat-lining pseudo-recovery to ours, with a lower unemployment rate; never mind, even, that most Romanians planning to take advantage of the new situation intended moving to France rather than Britain. We were to expect hordes of delinquent gypsies, according to the Mail, its if anything more cranky competitor, the Daily Express, the United Kingdom Independence Party and substantial sections of the Tories.
Not helping on this front is the vile Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary, who brought down a shitstorm by calling for restrictions on the movement of “jobseekers” - as opposed to workers with a firm job offer. It is ironic at best, and hypocritical at worst, for a man whose father came to Britain presumably without such a firm job offer himself to make such a call.
More to the point, it was a pretty stupid political error from a Labour point of view - not so much for its repugnant chauvinism, but for legal reasons. It is straightforwardly the case that any such restrictions contravene existing European treaties. This is not a problem for Ukip, since it calls for withdrawal from the European Union; it is not so much a problem for David Cameron, as he is playing a tactically dangerous game over Europe to keep his restive right wing on board. Labour, however, is routinely in the business of pointing out that Tory rhetoric on immigration is cheap demagoguery, which ignores the fact that its fulfilment is incompatible with EU membership. Embarrassing, indeed, for Umunna’s little wheeze to fall immediately at just the same hurdle.
Unsurprisingly, Ed Miliband has distanced Labour from this argument. His idea of how to protect the interests of British workers is to close loopholes in minimum wage rules, to stop employers from taking on foreign workers at obscene poverty pay levels.
To be fair to Miliband, he is at least poking in the right direction here. His schema does acknowledge that migrants are not ‘benefit tourists’, and overwhelmingly move across borders to work (where they are not fleeing atrocities); and that the other social ills cited by alarmist reactionaries have to do with the precarious, superexploited state of migrant workers rather than migration as such.
Of course, being a product of Labour’s intellectually hollow political machine, Miliband does not go remotely far enough. His idea would put paid to the practice of bringing large contingents of casual workers as fruit-pickers for poverty wages. The minimum wage itself, however, is totally inadequate, particularly in places like London; there are still more opportunities to cajole foreign workers into accepting worse conditions than native workers, who enjoy greater protection. More urgently necessary is getting all workers unionised, whatever their country of origin, and on an equal footing in practical terms in order to face down the sharp practices of capitalists.
Miliband’s political calculation here is based on a careful appeal to core voters - listening to ‘concerns’ of sections of the working class, while not promising too much; beating the anti-immigration drum without alienating liberal supporters. We shall see how it works out for him.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the out-and-out opponents of migration, such as Ukip’s Nigel Farage. Responding on Radio 4’s Today programme to truisms about the overall ‘benefit to the country’ of immigration, Farage bluntly stated: “If you said to me, ‘Do you want to see another five million people come to Britain?’ and if that happened we would all be slightly richer, I would say, ‘Do you know what? I would rather we were not slightly richer’.”
Between the two are, first of all, the Tories - playing a cynical game, with shadowy election guru Lynton Crosby egging them on, of attacking Labour for being ‘soft’ while - again - not actually promising much to the ‘Enoch was right’ brigade (apart from reducing migrants’ access to health services); and, secondly, well-meaning liberals, who argue that immigration has a net positive effect on economic activity, and so forth.
The trouble with the latter view - which has it, at best, that anti-migrant sentiment is produced ex nihilo by the rightwing press and, at worst, that the lower orders are simply bigoted ignoramuses - is the same as the trouble with all technocratic arguments of this sort. Financial sector hypertrophy, large-scale privatisations and other Thatcher-Major-Blair ‘achievements’ gave a major boost to headline growth rates; but those at the bottom of the pile were hardly better off as a result.
Nick Clegg may talk about “Dutch accountants” all he likes, but it is not well-paid professionals who feel the additional labour market pressure from migration, but unskilled and semi-skilled workers. It does not end at work, either - we have recently had the experience of capital itself appearing to speak to us directly, in the person of Fergus Wilson, a large-scale private landlord who summarily evicted all those tenants who were on housing benefit, announcing his intention to let to hard-working migrants instead. This was not out of any stupid prejudice against scroungers, he informed us with bland insensitivity, but simply a matter of the bottom line.
High-profile stories such as this, and the scare over Bulgarian and Romanian migrants, are simply the latest variations on a long-running theme: tensions between different layers of workers inevitably flare up. Leave aside the petty-bourgeois bile of the Mail reader: the willingness of working class people to hold anti-migrant sentiment stems ultimately from its being an unfortunate, deflected and highly sectional form of elemental class-consciousness.
Recurring patterns in history testify to this. The ‘taking our jobs’ line is a very old saw indeed; it has animated working class anti-migrant sentiment, along with the convulsive rhythm of capitalism’s development and the level of working class mobilisation, since time immemorial. In America, it provoked the hostility of unskilled labour - particularly among the Irish, for a long time the most exploited free labourers - to emancipation of the slaves, and subsequently bitter racism up to and after the civil rights era.
If the jingoistic scaremongers are presently winning this ideological battle, it is above all else due to the lack of an anti-chauvinist force based on the working class. Given the choice between three groups of clones, all impeccably loyal to queen and country, it is hardly surprising that many people succumb to sectionalism. What exists of the left in this country is, in its largest contingents, not up to the task, of creating such a force.
The most egregious offenders are, of course, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, which - in line with its decrepit illusions in national roads to socialism - calls for ‘non-racist’ immigration controls. As an exact inversion, the Socialist Workers Party can only repeat liberal nostrums in a shriller pitch - apparently native workers never lose out when migrants compete for the same jobs. What nobody (it seems) can face up to is the most blindingly obvious salient in the whole matter. It takes two to tango. Every migrant who comes to Britain does so from somewhere else. The race to the bottom in the labour market can only be solved through international political action.
On this point, as on so many others, the left needs urgently to develop the perspective of united workers’ action on a European scale - not relegated to the distant future, but in response to the burning issues facing the class right now. There is no reason, except the nationalism of the labour bureaucracy, why there should not be trade union action across borders tomorrow; there is even less reason for the Marxist left, which claims the mantle of internationalism, to refuse this strategic perspective.
Communists support the free movement of people, as a matter of principle. For the broad masses to take up that principle, however, we need to argue for a revolutionary and internationalist perspective. We can be damn sure that Ed Miliband is not going to do it for us.
1. www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2531440/ Sold-Flights-buses-Romanians-Bulgarians-head-UK.html.