Anyone reading the press or listening to politicians’ speeches will notice periodic attempts to whip up fears about immigration “running out of control” and to blame immigrants for creating all manner of social problems.
Both the Tories and New Labour are talking immigration up as an issue, grubbing for votes by competing to appear “tough” on migrants.
That’s at the “respectable” end of the debate. At the other end is a slew of lies, rumours and hate propaganda churned out by racists, whether they be of the casual variety or involved in organised groups such as the fascist British National Party (BNP).
Many of these stories are racist myths that have simply been recycled to fit new targets. Last year the Daily Mail ran a story claiming that Eastern European immigrants had been capturing and eating swans.
Exactly the same story was spread about asylum seekers a few years ago – and about Gypsies and Travellers before that.
Another typical anti-immigrant myth involves attacking migrant workers for being a drain on society or gaining illicit access to services such as benefits or council housing.
These stories whip up hatred against migrant workers while simultaneously providing the authorities with a convenient excuse for their failure to deliver.
One story doing the rounds at the moment claims that Lithuanians are being paid £5,000 by the government to return home. They are taking this money, so the story goes, yet returning to Britain illegally in order to claim the money again.
These stories may seem ridiculous, but they are often believed.
For example, the BNP made political mileage with claims that council housing in the east London borough of Barking & Dagenham was being preferentially assigned to African immigrants.
There is a chronic shortage of council housing in the borough, and it has seen significant population changes in recent years as people from across London have moved there – many of them from ethnic minorities.
The combination of these two factors meant that many people bought the BNP’s lies – despite the fact that no such “preference for immigrants” scheme existed, and despite the fact that the BNP councillors in the borough voted against building new council housing.
The picture is the same across Britain – recent immigrants, whether they be refugees or migrant workers, only account for a tiny fraction of social housing.
The housing charity Shelter estimates that less than 1 percent of social housing in 2006/7 went to new arrivals from the latest countries to join European Union (EU).
Only 0.7 percent of homeless acceptances were from these countries.
But the lies persist, with stories, for instance, that maternity units in hospitals are being filled up by “Polish mothers”.
In fact immigrants are more likely to be single and of working age than the population in general – and consequently depend less on public services such as healthcare.
As workers, migrants contribute to British society and the economy. They help to pay for and run public services. The NHS, public transport and a host of other services simply wouldn’t function without immigrant labour.
Some studies suggest that Britain will need many millions of new immigrants over coming decades if it is to maintain the present ratio of workers to pensioners.
According to official statistics immigration is rising – some 600,000 people came to live in Britain in 2006. But so is emigration, with 400,000 people leaving the country in the same year. The right wing notion that Britain is “full up” does not stand up to scrutiny.
But on the left too there can be confusion about migrant labour and a tendency to see these workers in primarily negative terms – that they drive down wages, that bosses use them to break strikes, that they are hard or impossible to organise.
The people who put forward these arguments need not be crude racists. They may well hold progressive views on a whole host of other issues.
But the underlying pessimism of this position – the despair over ever achieving unity among workers – is ultimately an echo of the divide and rule tactics over immigration used by the ruling class.
These tactics need to be confronted. The conditions many migrants work in are shameful. A recent TUC study of workers from new EU states found that nearly a quarter had no written contract and over a quarter had problems receiving their full wages.
The study also found that migrants were ten times more likely to be working for less than the minimum wage. One case highlighted by the Guardian newspaper this week involved a Lithuanian construction worker taking home £8.80 for a 39-hour week after deductions.
Organising these workers should be a priority for trade unions. Unity is the only way of ensuring they get decent pay and conditions and that bosses do not exploit their vulnerable position to drive down employment standards more generally.
We should acknowledge and celebrate the contribution that migrants make to our daily lives, and resist attempts to denigrate and demonise them.
But we should also understand why these myths have a resonance in society. There is a lack of affordable housing in Britain. Our health service is frequently in crisis. And vast swathes of people across the country earn too little money to make ends meet, leading to a lifetime of stress, debt and misery.
All these circumstances are now being sharpened and intensified by the impending financial crisis. Soaring inflation is coinciding with plummeting house prices and a panic over debt in financial circles – the so called “credit crunch”.
The signs are that this economic crisis will get worse – leading to further pressures on wages, housing and public services.
People who are angry look for someone to blame – and immigrants can become a target in this context. It is the duty of the left to defend them – and to argue that this defence ultimately helps all workers.