Leading Leave and Remain supporters have found an issue that unites them—drawing up new ways to control immigration.
They see the issue as so crucial that they are competing over who can be the toughest. And both sides try to paint their anti-migrant ideas as progressive.
Theresa May is less successful at this. Last week she suggested that European Union (EU) nationals would no longer be able to “jump the queue” to come to Britain after Brexit.
No one fell for the idea that May was seeking to promote the rights of migrants from Africa, Asia or anywhere else outside the EU. Her comments rightly caused outrage.
But the anti-immigrant rhetoric from parts of the left is more insidious.
This says that fears about immigration drove the Brexit vote. Those on the left can’t ignore these “genuine concerns” of working class people.
The argument goes that we have to show we are taking them seriously by backing immigration clampdowns and policing migrants.
This is very dangerous. It bolsters a view that attacking migrants is in the interests of workers.
It divides the working class and allows those at the top to get away with scapegoating vulnerable people for problems they have caused.
Immigration wasn’t the only factor driving the Leave vote. Many people voted to leave the EU because it does nothing for them—and to give the establishment a kick in the teeth.
But at the same time many ordinary people do think immigration is a problem, and that’s no surprise.
The press and the Tories have spent decades fostering the idea. And workers can be susceptible to accepting racist ideas particularly when there isn’t much struggle against those at the top.
The way to address “concerns” about migrants isn’t to repeat racist lies about them
We are encouraged to blame migrants for lack of decent housing, overstretched services, low wages and unemployment.
Migrants have caused none of these things. Cuts, austerity, neoliberal policies and profiteering bosses have.
The way to address “concerns” about migrants isn’t to repeat racist lies about them.
It’s to reject the argument that immigration is a problem and point the finger at the real enemy—the bosses, the rich and the Tories.
But many in Labour, the unions and on the left are failing to do that. Instead they are parroting racist myths.
So Labour peer and EU fanatic Andrew Adonis backed a report last week that recommended ID cards and forcing migrants to learn English. Adonis said, “The choice between EU membership and controlling migration is a false one.
“The best way to take back control is to stay in the EU and get serious about immigration and welfare enforcement.”
The Global Future report said people aren’t against immigration in principle but were concerned about crime, pressure on public services, access to jobs and integration.
This racist dog-whistle rhetoric paints migrants as the cause of social problems and unemployment. Indeed, Adonis spoke of “solutions to immigration”.
Former Labour home secretaries Charles Clarke and Alan Johnson wrote in the Guardian last week that “concerns about free movement” must be addressed.
Both pushed through racist policies when in office.
“Millions of people voted for Brexit because they felt immigration was outside their control,” they wrote. “Concerns about immigration have to be properly addressed.
“We need tighter control of EU migration into the UK by applying current EU rules.”
And they want these rules to be tougher too.
“The UK should require EU migrants to register with their local authority,” they said. “Those without jobs should be required to return to their country of origin.”
“We need stricter labour market controls. We should re-establish a national identity system. This would make it easier to identify illegal migration.”
They go on to discuss what could be done to deal with “exceptionally high inflows”.
And they say clamping down on migrants can be achieved “more effectively inside, rather than outside, the EU”.
It’s a disgrace to repeat racist rhetoric about “taking back control,” “illegal migration” and to describe people as “inflows”.
But Johnson and Clarke also couch some of their arguments in pro-worker language. They claim to want tougher controls to stop “exploitation” and trafficking. Like Adonis, they say jobs should be offered “locally” first.
This feeds the myth that migrants are undercutting British workers by taking “their” jobs. It fails to point out the real cause of unemployment is the capitalist system.
Scapegoating migrants does nothing to tackle job cuts, low wages or underfunded services.
Pitting one section of the working class against another doesn’t benefit ordinary people—it benefits the bosses and the rich.
The most high-profile racists demanding more controls on immigration are the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.
But Labour won’t wholeheartedly defend migrants either. Partly this is because of the nature of the party.
But capitalism is based on delivering the best deal for the bosses and is racist to the core. So Labour has a problem.
It wants to show that it can responsibly manage capitalism for the bosses. Bosses want access to labour and so are for immigration—but they also want to use racism to divide us, and so want controls.
So Labour advocates “reasonable management of migration” and “fair rules”.
It says it will get rid of the income thresholds currently in place for migrants but will replace this with “a prohibition on recourse to public funds”.
And the party has accepted the idea of a two-tier system that meets the bosses’ needs.
Giving in to myths about migration reflects a pessimism about the working class
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said in September that migrants with “specified bona fide skills” could come to Britain under a Labour government.
Giving in to myths about migration also reflects a pessimism about the working class.
Some in Labour and the unions assume that workers are racist, so think they have to be racist in order to win their support.
All this creates a vicious cycle where ordinary people blame other ordinary people, often the most vulnerable, for their problems.
And it boosts the fascists and the far right by making some of their ideas appear more mainstream and acceptable.
Similar debates are taking place in the left across Europe.
In Germany parliamentary co-chair of the left wing Die Linke party Sahra Wagenknecht has called for a cap on refugees and more police.
In the context of rising Islamophobia, she has claimed that immigration is linked to terrorism and issued warnings about Islamist groups.
This is apparently part of a plan to undercut racists by taking workers’ “concerns” seriously.
It’s right to want to win people away from racist ideas. We won’t do that by agreeing with those racist ideas.
Anti-racist events and protests—and the scale of solidarity there has been with refugees—shows that racism isn’t all-pervasive.
There is potential to push it back. But accepting anti-migrant myths makes this harder.
The people pushing hardest for both Leave and Remain tell us we have limited options. They say we can either have Brexit with no free movement or be part of the racist EU with controlled free movement.
The fact that nothing better is even considered exposes the rottenness of the system we live in.
Revolutionaries have long stood for something different—genuine internationalism and solidarity between workers wherever they are from.
In 1907 some 884 delegates from 25 countries debated how to approach immigration at the International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart. They backed the abolition of all restrictions and discrimination towards migrants.
The Russian revolutionary Lenin in a letter in 1915 warned against seeing workers from other countries as the enemy.
He referred to “opportunist leaders” of the US Socialist Party “who are in favour of restrictions of the immigration of Chinese and Japanese workers”.
“We think that one cannot be internationalist and be at the same time in favour of such restrictions,” he wrote.
We have to unite to push back racism and fascism in the here and now.
But we also need to fight for a socialist world with genuine free movement, no borders and no racism.