By Dave Sewell
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2523

Labour won’t win support by clamping down on migrants

This article is over 7 years, 6 months old
Issue 2523
Migrant workers do not push down wages, bosses do
Migrant workers do not push down wages, bosses do (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The whole Labour right, some on the left, and most of the media seem to be testing whether saying something often enough can make it true.

They claim Labour is losing support, particularly among white working class people in northern towns, because workers don’t like immigration. They conclude that Labour can only win them back by pledging to abolish the free movement of European Union (EU) migrants.

One of the latest salvoes came from right wing MPs Rachel Reeves and Stephen Kinnock in a new Fabian Society pamphlet.

Rachel Reeves

Rachel Reeves (Pic: Policy Exchange)

They argue that immigration drives wages down and unemployment up. But the evidence is so scant they had to shift their emphasis from immigration’s real effects to perceived ones.


Kinnock argues, “The impact of immigration is not measured, it’s experienced”. It takes the form of white working class people “feeling discriminated against” in favour of minorities.

He partially acknowledges that they’re obviously not, but says that doesn’t matter. “To deny the reality of the experience of white working class people smacks of ‘class privilege’,” said millionaire’s son Kinnock.

They claim that accepting anti-immigration myths is a “progressive” way of undercutting racism.

Some even argue that immigration is the cause of racism, but this lets racism off the hook and blames the victims.

If that were true, anti-immigrant sentiment would tend to be higher in areas with high immigration. But the Financial Times newspaper’s Gavin Jackson found the link is weak. It actually points the other way—you’re more likely to oppose immigration if you live somewhere with few immigrants.

The main exceptions are parts of eastern England, where large numbers of migrant farm workers are isolated from British-born town dwellers.

Reeves and Kinnock call for wearing down the stigma that still rightly surrounds scapegoating. But this normalises the lie that the migrants’ presence causes problems—laying the ground for more hostility toward them.


The unions’ and the Labour left’s call to revive Gordon Brown’s “migration impact fund” is softer than the right’s call for repression.

But it still implies that immigration is a burden people should be compensated for. Pandering to these myths only strengthens the racism that feeds on them.

Labour is indeed paying dearly for its failure to “tackle head on” the immigration question, as Kinnock puts it.

But to do so would mean busting racist myths instead of echoing them. It means saying loud and clear that immigration isn’t to blame for the suffering caused by capitalism.

Racism isn’t inevitable—it’s pushed by our rulers

Anti-migrant attitudes have hardened across society—but it is a libel on workers to blame it on them.

Racism against migrants isn’t inevitable. People’s ideas are always in flux, and are shaped by struggles in society.

Surveys tend to show slightly more open hostility among poorer people than among those at the top.


This difference reflects how workers, whose living standards have fallen, have more reason to be afraid or resentful. Some can be misled into blaming migrants.

But the difference in attitudes is far less than claimed by the media.

The real culprits are the bosses, the landlords and the politicians who push austerity—and the system they represent.

Union leaders have failed to lead the resistance that could make an alternative credible.

In the absence of workers fighting together, migrants make a convenient scapegoat.

The bottom line is that EU immigration has not harmed the pay, jobs or public services enjoyed by Britons.

Jonathan Wadsworth, author of LSE study

Too many Labour politicians push this scapegoating rather than confront the bosses.There’s an urgent need to take on racist arguments.

That’s one reason why Stand Up To Racism and its conference on Saturday 8 October are so important.

When anti-racists are on the streets it’s harder for racists to spread their poison. And when workers fight together for their common interests, it gives them a sense of unity.

Why their myths do not add up

One of Reeves’ and Kinnock’s only concessions to reality is referring to a recent study by the Resolution Foundation think tank.

Reeves said it found that while immigration “had no overall impact” on British-born workers’ wages, “it had caused ‘a slight drag on wages’ in some sectors”.

But the report emphasised that cutting immigration won’t boost wages. It found this “slight drag” too marginal compared to the overall wage “squeeze” for it to be responsible for low pay.

Even this a red herring—it doesn’t prove causation.


It only shows that in some sectors workers have lower wages if they are in regions with higher immigration.

It doesn’t show that higher immigration causes those lower wages.

A study by the London School of Economics in May found no correlation between high immigration and lower wages.

One of its authors Jonathan Wadsworth said, “The bottom line is that EU immigration has not harmed the pay, jobs or public services enjoyed by Britons.”

Bosses push wages down—and workers’ struggles can push them up.

But if workers are divided, bosses and politicians have a freer hand to push through more attacks to make life worse for all workers.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance