England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Issue 6 feature: Immigration – a socialist approach

The Johnson government’s plan to introduce a points-based immigration system may be one of the most cynical moves of any Tory government in recent years. It is a blatant attempt to divide the working class on the basis of the false idea that those who settle in this country from elsewhere are overwhelmingly the poorest, who don’t financially ‘contribute’ to society. Never mind the outrageous undervaluing of low paid, essential jobs that this argument indicates and the complete dismissal of the fact that people’s contribution to society and their communities goes well beyond what their job may be. Even more laughable is the idea that the Tories have any interest in making things fair for the majority of ordinary people or solving the crises of unemployment, underemployment and low pay.  

This is the logical next step for a government which has shown time and again its keenness to use attacks on migrants to try to whip up a section of its voting base. Johnson’s whole Trumpian approach is to encourage divisions between sections of working-class people, and play the part of the leader willing to ‘say what everyone is thinking but too scared to say’. This is the prime minister who referred to Muslim women who wear the niqab and the burqa as ‘letter boxes’ and ‘bank-robbers’.  It’s the government of the ‘hostile environment’ which led to at least 83 wrongful deportations of Windrush generation migrants and an unknown number being wrongfully detained or denied access to services. The government which just last month forcibly deported 29 Jamaican-born people – many who had grown up here and have families they have been forced to leave behind – who had been convicted of crimes, some many years ago and for which they had served their allotted prison sentence. The government that calls on landlords and even health workers to act as spies expected to report those ‘illegally’ in the country or accessing services. 

This right-wing agenda suits the Tory party at a time when their support has been extremely unstable. But in fact this restrictive approach to immigration is not popular with many of their big business friends and financial backers, in industries such as IT, hospitality and agriculture. For the capitalist bosses, more relaxed immigration rules mean access to ‘cheap’ labour. Only a mass trade union-led struggle of workers for decent pay and working conditions for all can cut across that. The short-termism being shown by the Tories in introducing these rules is yet another sign that the capitalist class increasingly has no party it can rely on to act in its long-term interests. Those capitalists who do back the policy recognise that in some industries where low paid, insecure work dominates, an increased pool of desperate undocumented migrants can easily be super exploited and used to further drive down wages and conditions for all.

Of course, the most important opposition isn’t from the super-rich anyway. One of the main ways in which immigration can be an important issue under a Johnson government is not just the way in which it is being used by the Tories and the far right, but also the very real prospect that it can be a spark for significant mobilisation of workers and young people keen to express anti-racist and internationalist principles.

In the vast majority of cases internationally where there have been attacks on immigrants the solidarity of ordinary people has been clear. Some of the first major protests against Trump following his election in 2016 were in opposition to his ‘Muslim travel ban’ – which did have success in temporarily halting the ban. In many cases, members of Socialist Alternative (our US sister organisation) played a leading role in those protests, including Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant who led a 5,000-strong peaceful mass disobedience at Seattle Tacoma airport. Particularly during the first wave of the refugee crisis, workers on the Mediterranean coasts played heroic roles in rescuing people directly and opening their homes, while thousands of others have donated clothes and food.

In Britain there has not yet been such a focal point for this type of anger – no threat of a literal wall being built to keep immigrants out. But the huge demonstrations against Trump that have taken place here – for many motivated largely by anti-racism – show the potential for opposition to any similar attacks. And it’s clear that Johnson’s policies, combined with his own bigotry, create a high possibility of flashpoints emerging over these issues in the medium term.

In all the big struggles in Britain at the moment, an internationalist outlook is clear, particularly among the younger generation. Through the climate strikes, tens of thousands of students have taken action along with millions around the world against the destruction of the planet. In community campaigns to save the NHS the point is constantly made that the health service would struggle to function without the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who work in it. The ongoing industrial action at universities and in Royal Mail bring together workers from around the world in a common struggle against the bosses. 

So it’s understandable that many of the most combative, anti-Tory fighters have had concerns about what they perceive to be a win for the anti-immigrant right wing: Brexit. But consistently the main reasons given for people voting Leave have been shown to be related to the idea of ‘taking back control’, decision making and democracy. Of course the right-wing Leave campaign leaders have no intention of giving working class people control over anything. But there was an instinctive understanding of the anti-democratic role of the neo-liberal European Union (which has in fact shown complete disdain for immigrants, refusing access to Italian ports for rescue ships, and attacking Syrian migrants fleeing from Turkey to Greece).

This is not to claim that fear of immigration played no role in the vote for Brexit. On the contrary, immigration is generally the second most common reason given for voting Leave. Throughout the referendum campaign and afterwards right-wing politicians from all establishment parties and from both sides of the referendum debate have lazily and hatefully fallen back on attacks on immigrants. Undoubtedly some of these views have filtered down into wider society, and certainly an existing racist right wing has felt emboldened to spout their ideas more confidently. 

This sentiment could have been largely cut across had Jeremy Corbyn and the leaderships of the trade unions taken a different position.  A pro-worker, anti-racist and anti-austerity Leave campaign with those mass leaders at its head could have won millions to the position that working class and young people should oppose the capitalist EU, while building concrete solidarity with all those fighting austerity and oppression across Europe.

Contrary to the pessimistic view of many on the organised left, it is not the case that attitudes in general or on the issue of immigration are moving to the right. In fact, a number of recent polls suggest a decrease in opposition to immigration in Britain. A survey by Ipsos Mori for the BBC, for example, showed that in 2019 48% of people thought immigration had had a positive impact on the UK and 26% thought it had been mainly negative – a reversal from the 19% positive, 64% negative found in the same survey in 2011. It places the UK as one of the countries with the most positive view of immigration globally.

Importantly, many of these polls show that a turning point was the EU referendum – undoubtedly partly reflecting that thousands have been repelled by the establishment politicians’ race in the intervening years to be the most anti-immigrant. This is in stark contrast to the perspective of many left Remain organisations and figureheads, both in advance of the referendum and since, that the Leave vote in the EU referendum was a uniformly reactionary one which has strengthened the anti-immigrant right wing. While that trend has made gains in formal terms (Johnson’s rise being the clearest example), under the surface in society the picture is much more complicated.

This is also the case internationally. There is no doubt, for example, that the far right has made electoral gains in many countries in Europe, and that the single most prominent argument they have used is that against immigrants. And yet, opinion polls show no change in people’s attitudes towards immigration. So what has changed? Even the Guardian newspaper admits that the main reasons are related to the fact that mainstream parties of all colours have disgracefully incorporated the far-right’s anti-immigrant rhetoric into their own, and that there is a major collapse of ‘loyalty’ to political parties.

In other words, establishment parties – including those traditionally representing the working class – have abandoned workers, and have been abandoned in return, leaving a space for the far right to make gains. So making a stand against anti-immigrant ideas has to include a serious approach to the political alternatives on offer and building political parties that are truly representative of the working class.

What type of programme, for example, should Corbyn’s Labour Party have adopted towards this issue?  It should boldly stand against all examples of racism and xenophobia, opposing every racist comment and policy the Tories make. That also means rejecting previous examples of Labour administrations attempting to compete with the Tories’ racism – Ed Miliband’s immigration controls mug, for example, as well as the policy it referred to. This opposition also needs to be in actions as well as words – where physical attacks take place or deportations are threatened, mass protests and resistance should be organised by the trade union and Labour movement.

It was correct that Labour’s 2019 manifesto pledged to guarantee the right to remain in the UK for all EU migrants already living here. This should be energetically demanded and fought for by the trade unions now. The chaos of the Settlement Scheme applications should be made redundant and no one should face being forced to leave once Brexit is complete.

There must similarly be a struggle for the rights of asylum seekers, who are often some of the most vulnerable in society. This should include demanding that the detention centres are closed immediately and asylum seekers are not treated like criminals. All undocumented migrants should be given immediate amnesty, along with the right to work and to join trade unions.

Many of those workers who may have adopted some of the reactionary ideas being spouted by right-wing politicians can be won to an anti-racist position that defends the rights of migrants along these lines. Rather than allowing employers to super exploit migrants as part of their race to the bottom, a socialist programme would unify settled workers fighting for their jobs, terms and conditions and migrant workers. The trade union movement should campaign for mass unionisation of migrant workers – some of the ‘new’ unions have led successful struggles for cleaning and catering staff in London – fight for industry-wide agreements on pay and conditions to apply to all workers. This is the best defence against the race to the bottom. 

The right-wing benefits when working people believe there are not enough resources to be shared out, spreading the idea that we either ‘take care of our own’ or allow migrant workers in. But this can be challenged and beaten, by building a mass, trade union-led movement against austerity. A collective struggle by workers of all origins for decent jobs, pay, public services and council homes cuts across the argument that attacking the rights of immigrants is the only way to win these things for British workers. We should be clear that no Tory policy will hand any of these things to us – the working class has always had to fight for the things we need, and very often migrant workers have been at the forefront of those struggles.

We should have no faith in the government to decide who can and can’t come to live in Britain. The points based system is just an extreme version of what was already the case – the world’s super-rich, the real scroungers, are welcome to come and go as they please, but ordinary people have to jump through impossible hoops to attempt to make a decent life for themselves and their families.

As socialists, we fight for a world without borders, where everyone is free to travel and live where they please, without being forced to move because of war, persecution or poverty. On the basis of international socialism, where the means of producing wealth are collectively owned and democratically planned on a global scale, we could begin to eradicate want and meet the needs of all the world’s people, and the planet. That would open the possibility of genuine free movement, and with it an end to racism and division.


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