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What’s behind Labour’s migrant panic?

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Too many Labour politicians are going along with the Tories’ racist arguments that migrants are taking jobs, houses and driving down wages. Dave Sewell looks at the facts
Issue 2524
Stephen Kinnock, Chuka Umuna and Rachel Reeves are whipping up scapegoating of migrants
Stephen Kinnock, Chuka Umuna and Rachel Reeves are whipping up scapegoating of migrants

The Tories and right wing press are ramping up their racist assault against migrants.

Theresa May wants to bring in new restrictions on European Union (EU) migrants’ rights—and some Tories want to end free movement altogether. Not a day goes by without newspapers pushing racist lies, myths and half-truths about migrants.

But too many Labour politicians are going along with them and argue the left’s priority should be addressing “legitimate concerns” about immigration. It goes much further than Rachel Reeves MP’s “rivers of blood” speech.

Socialist Worker has looked at their “concerns”—and answered them.

Do immigrants take our jobs, homes and services?

Greater Manchester mayoral candidate Andy Burnham told Labour conference that migration from eastern Europe had meant “job insecurity, more pressure on primary schools and GP services”.

This may fit with people’s experience. The decade since the European Union (EU) expanded into east Europe has also been a decade of layoffs, spiralling housing costs and slashed public services.

Blaming migrants also fits the common sense argument that the more people a cake is shared between, the smaller everyone’s slice. But this argument assumes that the size of the cake is fixed—it’s not.

The number of jobs depends on bosses’ decisions and whether or not capitalism is booming—not the number of migrants.

Schools, hospitals and local authorities are under pressure because the Tories have slashed their funding.

It’s harder to get decent housing, but the number of houses isn’t running out. At any given time there are some 635,000 empty homes in England alone and last year house building reached its highest level since the financial crisis.

But the houses that are being built aren’t affordable and are used as lucrative assets by the super rich. Housing costs have gone up most dramatically in London, where the population is going down because people can’t afford to live there.

People don’t just consume resources, they generate wealth.Migrants in particular tend to be of working age and put in more than they take out. A study by the University College London showed that migrants from the EU pay £20 billion more in taxes than they receive in benefits.

To get jobs, homes and public services will mean fighting the Tories and bosses—diverting the blame onto migrants is their attempt to stop that.

Do unskilled migrants undercut wages?

Shadow minister Barry Gardiner reconciled himself to not cutting the number of migrants by promising “quality controls on all migration”.

Even some ardent racists admit that migrants’ work is crucial to some sectors—notably the NHS. They call for cherry-picking those with the skills British bosses need, and for keeping out the rest.

The argument is deeply nationalistic. Why should Britain benefit from skilled workers trained by poorer countries without sharing the benefits of its richer economy with poorer migrants from those countries?

It’s also based on false premises. Unskilled migrants aren’t a burden—they come when there’s a need for more labour.

The “British people” don’t all share the same interests. Workers in Britain have nothing in common with their rulers—and everything in common with other workers abroad.

Thinking in terms of working class people’s interests—not “national interests”—shows how one-sided immigration controls are.

No one restricts bosses moving money and hardware across borders—around 30 percent of global foreign direct investment flows goes through tax havens.

In contrast, workers have to bend over backwards to prove they should be let in.

Immigration controls are a weapon against our class.

A study by the London School of Economics (LSE) found that immigration has not driven down wages.

While some bosses do pay migrant workers less, stopping this means fighting against the discrimination that lets them get away with it.

It’s telling that those politicians who talk about low wages when discussing immigration are never the ones championing the fight for £10 hour minimum wage.

Strikes by migrant oil workers at Fawley refinery won equal pay this summer—and were backed by British-born colleagues.

Restricting migrants’ rights makes it easier for bosses to blackmail migrants and divide the workforce. That’s what drives down wages and conditions.

Could dangerous people get in?

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner argues that “what undermines” support for immigration “is when people feel that it is unvetted”. Some newspapers revel in speculation about which undesirables are trying to get into Britain.

They emphasise the “young men” among the refugees in Europe, downplaying the growing numbers of women and children on the move.

They scaremonger about foreign criminals, or link the refugee crisis to sexual assaults and terrorist attacks. This flies in the face of reality—and panders to old racist stereotypes about black men as a threat to white women.

The 7/7 bombers were born in Britain. Last year’s Paris attacks were carried out by terrorists raised in France.

Terrorism is the fruit of imperialist wars. Keeping people out won’t stop it.

Should we separate refugees from migrants?

Former shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper warned in her conference speech that turning a “tin ear” to anti-migrant attitudes “will stop others listening to our case for helping refugees”.

Some refugee campaigners also stress that people who are fleeing wars aren’t mere migrants out for better lives. Of course it’s outrageous to downplay the violence people are fleeing from in warzones such as Syria and Afghanistan.

But the division isn’t always so neat. Poverty, starvation and environmental catastrophe can be as terrifying as bombs and bullets. People can be forced to flee—or choose to move—for complex sets of reasons.

Fear of violence can be the deciding factor for someone thinking of moving in search of work. And someone fleeing a warzone will look for a destination where they can rebuild their lives.

Insisting on this separation between legitimate refugees and supposedly illegitimate migrants does two things.

It reinforces the idea that it’s a bad thing when people from abroad come here.

It means a vast machinery of enforcement and controls—walls, fences, armed guards, detention centres and deportation flights. This violent, arbitrary system is what forces refugees to risk their lives at sea or languish in Calais.

Instead of trying to isolate the sympathy for refugees from the broader immigration debate, anti-racists need to generalise it into a case against locking people out.

What about our language and culture?

Blairite Chuka Umunna told a Fabian Society fringe meeting, “we have got to be quite clear” to immigrants living “parallel lives” that they must “become part of the community”.

It’s a nod to the perception that migrant populations aren’t “integrating” enough with British-born people.

This is particularly used to demonise Muslims, with their religion supposedly at odds with some mythical “British values”. Tony Blair’s governments also used this to smear those opposed to their wars as out of sync with these values.

The Tories have cut courses that teach English to migrants. Labour figures rightly slammed them and called for more support for those who wish to learn. But why shouldn’t people speak their own language if they choose?

Most people from migrant backgrounds already live and work alongside people born in Britain. If that’s not enough, what would it mean to “get involved in the community”?

There isn’t a monolithic British culture that newcomers can simply adapt to or stay aloof from.

Culture is a fractured, varied thing in a constant state of flux. And one person’s experience and expression of culture is always different to another’s.

Migration has always been a big part of that process.

Surely it’s not racist to want to cut immigration?

Responding to Jeremy Corbyn’s speech, right winger Jack Straw said it’s “neither racist nor xenophobic” to have “concerns about unrestricted migration”.

Of course there is a huge difference between the 77 percent of people who want immigration reduced and the tiny minority of hardcore racists.

Working class people who accept some racist ideas about migrants shouldn’t be treated in the same way as the racist politicians who push them (see right).

But it’s impossible to limit immigration without racism—immigration controls discriminate against people based on what part of the world they come from.

They mean that some people in the country don’t have a legal right to be here.

This leads to more discrimination—from the policing of “suspected illegal immigrants” to landlords and bosses avoiding those who look like they might be illegal.

It legitimises the racists on the streets who tell people to “go back home”.

Pandering to racism won’t help to beat it

Labour MP Rachel Reeves

Labour MP Rachel Reeves

It’s not that most in Labour believe the myths about immigration, but many are scared to confront those who do.

A number of Labour MPs, including Rachel Reeves, have called for free movement to be scrapped.They believe that working class people have shifted to the right—and that Labour must accept right wing arguments about immigration to be elected.

They argue that disagreeing with working class people who accept myths about immigration is “patronising” them.

For some MPs that is precisely why immigration must be seen to be controlled. Stephen Kinnock said giving a “sense of reassurance and of control over our borders” can undercut racism by stopping people worrying.

But even if there are short-term gains in elections, legitimising hostility to migrants is deadly for Labour. It strengthens the Tories and feeds the racist right. It weakens the idea of solidarity that underlies Labour’s support.

Migration has always taken place, so politicians’ targets to restrict it mean little. But enforcing targets means more checks, more demands to show passports or birth certificates, more raids and more deportations.

This would only reinforce the perception of migrants as a “problem” and “outsiders”.

What happens if the targets are missed? Guardian columnist Owen Jones suggests making hay out of the Tories’ failure to lower the number of migrations, because they made a promise and couldn’t keep it. In practice, this would mean crowing that “too many” foreigners got into Britain.

Such tactics are founded on the faulty assumption that people’s experiences of migration are what turn them against immigration.

But the opposite is true, as an Ipsos Mori poll carried out before the European Union referendum found.


When asked, 42 percent of people said immigration had a negative impact on Britain. But only 24 percent thought it had been bad for their area. And 51 percent said immigration had no impact on them personally.

This was even higher among Leave supporters—52 percent said immigration had not affected them.

We can’t dodge arguments about immigration—but we can win them.

Fears of immigration aren’t inevitable. As the poll showed people’s ideas are shaped by both the propaganda that’s pushed from the top and their own experiences of living and working alongside migrants.

This means that people’s ideas can change.

The outpouring of solidarity for refugees in September last year demonstrated how that can happen.

Up to 100,000 people marched through London and millions donated and signed petitions—something that hadn’t seemed possible during the general election a few months earlier.

When asylum seekers were allocated to Glasgow housing estates in the late 1990s and early 2000s, their new neighbours were outraged at attempts to deport them.

If there is such thing as a “white working class”, it includes the Glaswegians who got up before dawn to thwart Border Agency raids.

Turning the tide will take patient, principled arguments against the racist myths used to divide us.

But it will also take mass struggles that unite workers and give them confidence to assert the interests of their class and take on our rulers’ lies.

The right don’t want to see that—and the left must do much more to build it.

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