Labour leader Ed Miliband chose the Sun newspaper to announce that a future Labour government would not offer a “soft touch” to foreigners.
“The Labour Party I lead will listen to people’s worries and we will talk about immigration… We know low-skill immigration has been too high and it should come down,” he wrote.
Miliband accepts a common sense, but mistaken, idea that migrants are causing a crisis.
Despite the long traditions of anti-racism in the working class movement, Miliband wrongly believes that millions of Labour voters share his assumptions. He makes no effort to counter the racism behind anti-migrant feeling.
Even those who are prejudiced against workers from outside Britain can be won over if they hear arguments for working class unity.
Immigration is not the reason why so many are finding it hard to make ends meet. The drive for increased flexibility and reduced pay packets goes back much further than the arrival of workers from central and eastern Europe.
Privatisation, outsourcing and subcontracting have intensified competition over the past two decades, especially in industries such as construction, agriculture, food production and healthcare.
Bosses use this competition to encourage a race to the bottom. Whether they succeed in driving down pay is a political question.
Where socialists and trade unionists seek to organise British-born and migrant workers equally they can stop employers being able to play divide and rule.
If they try to look after the interests of “British” workers ahead of “foreigners”, they will reinforce division and give the bosses an easy target.
Miliband’s capitulation makes the task harder—and makes it easier for racists to claim that all immigrants are a drain on Britain’s resources.
The Labour leadership has not just dropped a principled position since the Eastleigh by-election, when the racist UK Independence Party (Ukip)came second and Labour fourth.
Party policy gurus had been urging a harder line since before the last general election.
David Goodhart, head of the centre left Demos thinktank, wrote in 2010, “Labour should become the party that is anti-mass immigration, but pro-immigrant. This would more accurately reflect the interests of its voters, both poorer whites and minority Britons.”
Senior party figures say that under Tony Blair Labour’s policy was driven by a “metropolitan elite” who believed that immigration was a good thing.
Now, they insist, the party must turn around.
Labour has a long history of pandering to this kind of racist sentiment by backing tougher restrictions on migrant workers.
In 1962, the Tory government passed the first of a raft of immigration laws designed to keep black and Asian people out.
Labour initially opposed them, with leader Hugh Gaitskell saying, “The immigrants are healthy, law abiding and are at work. They are helping us. Why then do the government wish to keep them out? We all know the answer. It is because they are coloured.”
Yet Labour’s leaders soon slid into demands for tighter immigration controls. Why? The answer lies in the 1964 general election and the campaign for Smethwick, near Birmingham.
The Tories ran a viciously racist campaign there. Their candidate even condoned gangs of children who went around shouting, “If you want a nigger for neighbour, vote Labour!”
The sitting Labour MP, Patrick Gordon Walker, thought he could turn the racist tide by bending to it.
He issued a leaflet, saying, “Labour favours continued control of immigration, stricter health checks and deportation of those convicted of criminal offences.”
Walker lost his seat despite this. Labour won the general election, but in Smethwick there was a 7.2 percent swing to the Conservatives.
Racism had won votes. Labour could have pushed the Tories back by arguing that all working class people have a common interest in unity. But it drew the opposite conclusion.
After 1964 all the mainstream parties competed to offer more restrictions on migration.
In 1968 maverick Tory MP, Enoch Powell, made his Rivers of Blood speech. It opened the floodgates to a wave of racist violence and the growth of the fascist National Front.
Labour’s record of forcing through immigration controls went from bad to worse as capitalism needed fewer migrant workers with the growing economic crisis.
It shamefully rushed through legislation to bar persecuted Asians from east Africa from coming to Britain—despite the fact they had British passports.
Labour was happy to prioritise the needs of bosses above the need for workers’ unity. This is because it is a party committed to the idea of a “national interest”.
And now, once again, Labour’s pandering to racism threatens to open the door to more sinister forces. Every concession that Miliband makes is greeted with glee by Ukip and the Tory right.
The only way to beat racism is to unite workers of all backgrounds in struggle, and use the logic of unity to attack chauvinism.
Migrant workers are not a separate part of the working class. Not even if they appear to dominate a few parts of the economy, such as crop picking.
In general, they are employed alongside British-born workers—as health workers, bus drivers or on building sites. They live in the mixed communities, their children go to the same schools as others, and they use the same services.
In every battle against cuts to jobs and services divisions can be overcome.
We can draw on a long tradition of workers born here joining forces with those who arrived more recently.
But Labour’s leaders emphatically reject this approach.
They know that to unite workers on a class basis threatens a struggle that would not easily be contained. And it would not happily accept the rule of capital and the bosses.
Migrants play a particular role in capitalism. Bosses use them as a “reserve army of labour” and try to use them to raise the level of exploitation of workers.
In 1845, the revolutionary Frederick Engels wrote, “English manufacture must have, at all times save the brief periods of highest prosperity, an unemployed reserve army of labour, in order to produce the masses of goods required by the market in the liveliest months”.
Bosses ensure that there is a surplus pool of people, including migrants and the unemployed, that can be used in booms and discarded in slumps.
These groups also provide a useful ideological prop for the system as they can easily be blamed for its shortcomings.
Defending them from attack by presenting the need for all workers to be united is a crucial responsibility for the left.
Bosses often turn to migrants when they want to cut the costs of renewing the labour force such as investing in health and education services.
They use workers from overseas to fill gaps in the labour market but try to pay nothing towards the costs of them settling.
Occasionally, bosses try to employ migrant workers even when British-born workers are available. This is because they assume that migrants’ status will make them easier to exploit.
At the same time they spread rumours that unless workers already on the job accept lower conditions, they will be replaced by migrants.
In this way bosses push for increased labour flexibility, so that they can make more profit and compete more effectively with other firms.
But if one firm is able to force employees to work harder for less money, then another firm will try to do likewise in order to compete.
The result is a race to the bottom. Instead of trying to break this cycle by encouraging workers to resist, Labour demands ever greater “flexibility” in the hope of attracting investment to Britain.
It is bosses, not migrants, who drive down pay. And that is why socialists stand against all immigration controls.
- Immigration: The Myths They Spread to Divide Us Pamphlet by Charlie Kimber (£1.50)
- The Labour Party: A Marxist History by Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein (£5)
- Borderline Justice: The Fight For Refugee and Migrant Rights by Frances Webber (£19.99)
- The Condition of the Working Class in England by Frederick Engels (£9.99)
Available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk