Socialist Worker

The politics of migration

Our rulers see foreign workers as both a target for racist scapegoating, and as a source of cheap labour and easy profits, writes Ed Mynott

Issue No. 2016

Filling a gap - a Polish labourer at work

Filling a gap - a Polish labourer at work

People have always moved from one part of the globe to another. They have moved as settlers, to join family members, to study or to flee persecution. But ever since capitalism began to establish itself as the dominant mode of production, the main type of migration has been labour migration.

Wherever capitalism has spread it has hungered for labour, without which production would not be possible. And with the global spread of capitalism came urbanisation - people were sucked out of rural areas and into towns and cities. Often they would move for a mere chance of finding paid employment and giving themselves and their family a better life.

This process continues today. Billions of people are dependent on waged labour for their survival. A majority of the world’s population now lives in an urban environment, and millions more flood into cities each year.

Often people move from a rural area to an urban area within the same country. But migration under capitalism can also involve crossing the borders of nation states.

The concept of a nation state is a relatively recent one. There are two forms of competition at the heart of capitalism. First, capitalists compete economically for markets. Second, as capitalism developed it also created a system in which the globe is divided territorially into competing nation states.

The rulers of each nation state seek to do two things - to support the capitalists based within their own territory in their competition with foreign capitalists and to secure and to expand the territory under their effective control.

Controlling territory involves controlling the people within it. So capitalists have always been concerned with the population in “their” territory, not as human beings with needs, but as a supply of labour power.

But our rulers do not simply want our labour, they want a labour market - with workers forced to compete for jobs. One consequence is that while capitalists can never fully control migration, they can and do create a hierarchy among workers.

This hierarchy runs from those workers with full legal rights at the top, down through varying degrees of immigration status that make the worker less secure both in their right to live within a territory and their right to work there.

At the bottom of this hierarchy are those “illegal” immigrants whose status removes their legal right to work altogether, opening them up to the worst forms of abuse.

So international migration under capitalism creates a working class in each national territory that is united by its shared experience of exploitation, but divided by race and nationality. This create the potential for both conflict and solidarity within the working class.


Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries nation states developed a powerful notion of citizenship - the idea that people should enjoy formal, legal equality but under the jurisdiction of one national power.

The revolutions that helped establish capitalism as the dominant system in Britain, France and the US during the 17th and 18th centuries involved “the people” throwing off the status of royal subjects to become a nation of free citizens.

As capitalism developed, and class divisions became more stark, the capitalists and their state increasingly proposed a bargain to working people - give us your loyalty and we will protect and provide.

This bargain was always on the bosses’ terms and has always been subject to challenge. Nonetheless it is true that national identity has become common sense. This definition of “us” as a nation against other nations gives rise to potential conflict not only between states but also within them - on national or ethnic lines. Three important consequences flow from all this:

First, as long as states allow their own nationals to come and go, and as long as capitalists trade and operate across national boundaries, states cannot fully control immigration.

Second, the state can, however, institutionalise divisions among people within its territory according to nationality and immigration status. A section of the labour force then suffers uncertainty about its continued presence in the country and has fewer rights at work.

Those branded “illegal” suffer extreme exploitation and violence from employers and criminals. Any attempt to turn to the state for protection would only result in their deportation.

Third, the state’s declared preference for its “own” nationals, its designation of others as less deserving or even dangerous, and its declaration that it can control its borders, creates a politics of immigration favourable to right wing forces and racist agitation.

This lays the basis for scapegoating. Each apparent crisis is met with calls to tighten immigration controls or kick people out. Workers can only counter this right wing politics of immigration through their struggles to build unity.

The Labour Party’s record of bowing to the right

Historically, Labour’s record on immigration has been poor. After opposing immigration controls on Commonwealth citizens in the 1950s and early 1960s, Labour capitulated to racist pressures following Harold Wilson’s election as prime minister in 1964.

It entrenched and extended controls aimed at black Commonwealth citizens. It retreated, panic stricken, in the face of racist agitation personified by the far right politician Enoch Powell in 1968.

By the time New Labour was elected in 1997, a pattern was well established. Right wing politicians and the media would whip up a racist panic - scapegoating migrants for lack of housing, jobs and services, for example.

Labour, having backed and implemented policies that formed the real reason for these problems, would find itself powerless to respond to the scapegoating. Labour would bow to the pressure from the right.

Tony Blair’s government has been no exception. Determined that the right wing press “must not be able to get a cigarette paper” between Labour and Tory on immigration, Labour repeated their mantra - “firm but fair”. Once in office, they continued to crack down on those claiming asylum.

There were some signs of a partial break from the past. There have been some limited reforms, such as the abolition the “primary purpose” rule. This had been used by visa officers in South Asia to block the immigration of spouses on the spurious ground that a marriage had been entered into to facilitate entry to Britain.

Most significant, at least judging by the way it continues to enrage the Tory press, was the incorporation into British law of the European Convention on human rights.

The simplest and most powerful part of this was Article 3 - “No one shall be subjected to torture” - which prevents European states deporting anyone to a country where they face a real risk of torture.

How things have changed. Hardened by war, Blair and his ministers are embarrassed by their earlier optimism and obsessed with finding ways to get round Article 3. They are determined to deport at all costs.

‘Managed migration’ - having their cake and eating it

There is one aspect of Labour’s strategy which appeared to represent a significant break from the past - the “managed migration” policy pioneered by former home secretary David Blunkett. It recognised that immigration could not and should not be halted, stressing its economic benefits. There was a vast increase in the number of work permits granted.

This policy became more visible in 2004 when the European Union (EU) expanded into eastern Europe. Britain was almost alone among the existing EU states in allowing free entry to citizens from the new members states.

While the policy of managed migration has shifted the focus onto the economic benefits of migration it has also provoked more dubious claims. Dynamic global capital with its need for open labour markets is contrasted with the antiquated nation state whose irrational attempt to close borders is doomed to failure.

While some academic accounts envisage the withering away of immigration controls, more common is the message that only the pragmatism of managed migration can harness the “benefits” of globalisation while maintaining the power of the state to control its own borders.

Managed migration was in fact a gamble. Sections of the British ruling class hoped to access a new supply of educated and skilled workers to fill the gaping holes in sectors such as agriculture, hotels and construction. Economically the gamble paid off, but the entrenched right wing politics of immigration gave rise to sustained racist campaigns, especially in the right wing press.

It is also revealing to look at how managed migration works. It is only citizens of EU states who enjoy free entry. Other immigrants must hold work permits, which are granted to the employer. The worker is tied to specific job. No job, no right to stay - the threat of the sack carries the threat of deportation.

The government’s managed migration schemes operate the familiar hierarchy, with qualified professionals at the top enjoying the prospect of eventual settlement, while those deemed unskilled are excluded or barely tolerated, with no prospect of settlement in Britain.

The whole strategy is designed to serve the interests of British capitalism, without even the pretence of concern about the rights of migrant workers. The strategy also leaves untouched the pool of “illegal” labour for whom work itself is a criminal offence.

Left strategy

Under these circumstances the left and the labour movement face a challenge. We need to strengthen unity between migrant and existing workers. Trade unions have already done some excellent work in organising migrant workers.

But it is crucial that we deploy economic arguments in a class conscious way rather than simply pointing out that “immigration is good for the economy”, which echoes claims made by many of our rulers.

To put it crudely, immigrants don’t take resources, they create wealth because most immigrants are working class, just like most of Britain’s existing population.

When bosses try to use migrants as expendable cheap labour, and if they try to use migrants to undermine wages, the solution is not to oppose immigration, but to stand up for the rights and dignity that every worker deserves.

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