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Immigration row: concessions to racism will always weaken us

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Labour’s Ed Miliband is playing a dangerous game when he lends support to Tory scapegoating, writes Anindya Bhattacharyya
Issue 2309
Immigration row: concessions to racism will always weaken us

The Tories know that their austerity policies will hurt ordinary people and that this will make them unpopular.

So they are desperate to find scapegoats to deflect popular anger towards.

This is why they have gone out of their way to attack migrants, Muslims and other minorities.

Home secretary Theresa May’s plans to strip immigrants of their rights to a family life are just the latest example of this.

May is following where David Cameron has led. Last year Cameron gave two major policy speeches ramping up his attacks on minorities—and blaming Muslims and multiculturalism in particular.

Faced with this onslaught you might have expected the Labour Party to fight back. New Labour in office made some effort to defend immigration as “good for the economy”, even as they hounded and deported refugees.

But in his latest policy speech Labour leader Ed Miliband did the direct opposite. He declared on Friday of last week that Labour’s previous lukewarm support for immigration was a mistake.


Miliband insisted that this about-turn wasn’t about “bowing to the right”. But that’s exactly what it is. The right has spent over a decade spewing a torrent of racist lies and abuse against immigrants. And now “Red Ed” responds by running a white flag up the pole.

The right wing of the Labour Party is naturally delighted. It has always wanted to chase votes by pandering to the anti-immigrant racism whipped up by the Tory press. But the Tories are even more cock-a-hoop. They have responded by raising the stakes on their racism.

The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh wrote a noxious article declaring that it was now “rare to hear spoken English” in London. He complained about the number of “babies born to foreign parents”.

The fascist British National Party (BNP) also took heart. Its leader Nick Griffin said Miliband’s speech was a “legitimation of our message” and hailed the Labour leader as a “BNP recruiting sergeant”.

Left wing Labour MP John McDonnell was about the only prominent voice in the media to hold fast to basic anti-racist principles and decline to join the immigrant-bashing bandwagon.

He was right to criticise Miliband’s speech for being “a nuanced version of blaming the migrants for the jobs and housing crisis”. And he was right to insist that immigrants are not to blame for housing shortages, low wages and lack of training for skilled jobs.

The tragedy is that his voice was so isolated. Socialists need to say loud and clear that we can only fight austerity if we are united. That means defending immigrants against the racists and bigots, not joining in the scapegoating.

Blue Labour’s poisonous influence

The most insidious aspect of Ed Miliband’s speech is the way he dresses up anti-immigrant poison as a “class issue”.

“Immigration made things easier for some, but it also made it harder for others,” he said. “Overall, it has benefits, but there are also costs.”

The implication is that immigration is good for the ruling class and bad for the working class. It follows that attacking immigrants can be justified in terms of defending the working class.

Tragically some parts of the trade union movement have expressed sympathy with these ideas—and that always weakens workers’ struggles.

The source of these ideas is the “Blue Labour” current championed by figures such as Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas. Glasman has even claimed Labour should be a party that “involves those people who support the EDL”.

Rather than understanding the working class as defined by its economic position, they see workers as bound together by cultural ties such as a common religion, nationality or “values”.

This allows them to present any kind of outsider or minority as undermining this common bond. So bigotry against minorities can be justified in terms of “solidarity”.

These ideas are poisonous and divisive. Workers cannot fight the bosses effectively if they let themselves be divided into warring “communities”.

Blue Labour’s ideas empty words like “working class” and “solidarity” of their real meaning and replace them with a fuzzy racism. Socialists should reject them.

The myth that immigrants are to blame

Ed Miliband blamed immigrants for generating “pressures on scarce resources such as housing and schools”, rather than questioning why they are so “scarce”. Both Labour and Tory governments failed to invest in council housing. They have underfunded schools too.

Miliband also blamed immigrants for driving down wages. This ignores the wealth of evidence showing no clear link between immigration levels and wages or unemployment levels.

In fact wages fell after 2008 just as immigration dropped off. And the myth deflects the blame for low pay from where it should really lie—with the bosses.

For more see Do migrant workers drive down wages? (March 2010)

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