The Conservatives, divided, embattled and lurching from crisis to crisis, have been desperate in recent weeks to highlight immigration as the defining issue of the moment. YouGov polling at the end of October actually showed that there had been a decline in those identifying immigration as one of their top three political issues amid a surge in concern about the economy and cost of living. There has been an overall trend towards people being more sympathetic towards those arriving in the UK, particularly those fleeing war and destitution.
This is not to say that the Tories are gaining no traction, but it has largely been about targeting a section of their voting base and a reflection of the increased influence of the right wing of the Tory Party on policy. Home Secretary Suella Braverman has sought to further ratchet up dehumanising and poisonous rhetoric on the issue; this is nothing new. David Cameron disgustingly referred to ‘swarms of migrants’ in the past.
Now Braverman is describing an ‘invasion’ on Britain’s southern coast and this has been amplified by the tabloid media. This language can act as a dog whistle and embolden the likes of far right terrorist Andrew Leak, who firebombed an immigration centre in Kent in late October.
It has been reported that more than 40,000 people have made the dangerous crossing of the Channel in small boats in 2022, undeterred by the threat of deportation to Rwanda or the terrible conditions in immigration centres in the UK. This is something the Refugee Council have explained is linked to the limited safe routes open to those entering the UK.
Right wing seeks to exploit refugee crisis
The most rabid wing of the Conservative Party, particularly those linked to the European Research Group (ERG), want to force the hand of Sunak’s leadership to take an even tougher stance on the issue and adopt an increasingly persecutory approach to refugees. For them, that was one of the primary reasons to campaign for Britain to leave the EU. Along with their allies in much of the billionaire-run media, they have succeeded in ensuring much of mainstream capitalist political discourse is dominated by xenophobic migrant-bashing.
Starmer recently suggested pressures on the NHS were partly a reflection of too many posts being filled by foreign-born workers, ignoring the chronic underfunding and privatisation most NHS workers will tell you has wrecked the service. Let’s also not forget that in the 2015 General Election, Labour tried to unsuccessfully steal the Tories’ clothes by producing mugs that promised “controls on immigration”.
The growth in popularity of Nigel Farage’s Reform Party is also having an impact on the debate. Reform is only polling at around 8% but, in key areas, this would likely be enough to take votes from the Conservatives and lead to lost seats. This was the role played by UKIP for a period, particularly in the run up and immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum.
The ERG strategy seems to be to use the threat of Reform to go even further than this. Craig Mackinley, Tory MP for South Thanet and an ex-UKIPer, was on the Chopper’s Politics podcast discussing this issue and sought to polarise the debate further. He suggested that the choice was actually between a hardline right wing approach to immigration or what was effectively a position of open borders, claiming that this was the secret goal of charities, NGOs and political groups organising to fight for refugee rights and to reform the immigration system.
A socialist approach
The effects of inter-imperialist wars, the uneven global effects of economic turmoil, and the increasingly disastrous impacts of climate change, all mean millions are forced to flee their homes. Socialists stand for refugee and migrant rights. As an immediate step to end the small boat crossings crisis, we call for the setting up of humanitarian ‘safe passage’ routes available to those seeking to claim asylum in the UK.
The nationalisation of P&O, including reinstating its outrageously sacked workforce, could help facilitate such a programme. We also call for the immediate closure of detention centres and rehousing of refugees in decent and humane conditions.
A mass programme of council house building could help make this possible, as well as providing jobs and affordable homes for millions already living here. We oppose cruel and often deadly deportations and defend the right for families to be reunited. The right to work for all asylum seekers, as well as to the going rate for the job and the ability to join a union, are essential for allowing people to build lives here.
The granting of these rights is also vital for preventing the undermining of all workers’ conditions – something which inevitably happens when a pool of desperate people are being forced to take ‘illegal’ work for super-low-pay. A socialist world would end national oppression and create a world where people could live and work where they choose, unhindered by arbitrary borders.
The creation of borders and nation states was woven into the very fabric of capitalism. Unified nation states were necessary to produce the conditions for markets to develop and the establishment of state forces that could enforce the demands of capitalism. Since then, capitalism has been unable to overcome the limitations of the nation state.
Trade has become global but still groups of capitalists come together on a national basis to preserve their interests, seen at its sharpest in wars, both military and trade. Therefore, the ending of borders would require the end of capitalism across the globe and a maturing socialism worldwide.
So while as socialists we fight for a world based on solidarity and internationalism, rather than division and national competition, we also need to raise demands that can oppose racism and discrimination and unabashedly defend the rights of refugees, while simultaneously raising the consciousness of wider sections in society and successfully answer the deluge of lies and distractions from the ruling class.
Fundamentally this is a class question. If you are a billionaire, you have your pick of places to live, work and do business. It is the working class and poor who face restrictions on where they can go. Sections of the capitalist class, like Tony Danker (Head of the CBI), are campaigning for an increase in immigration to enable them to fill vacant posts, particularly those with low wages attached to them.
For him, this is preferable to acceding to demands for higher wages and better conditions, which would cut into profits. Under capitalism, workers’ lives, their families and their wants are always superseded by the interests of profit.
The trade unions have a key role to play here. Firstly, raising unifying demands for improved pay for all but also supporting the right of refugees to work and join a union so that artificial barriers between workers can be overcome. In many communities, a basic solidarity exists that can be given weight by workers’ action.
In June in Peckham, over 200 people were mobilised in a short time to prevent a raid aimed at deporting a local man, facing down violent attacks by the police. This success
shows the power of mass action to prevent racist immigration policies. The trade union movement, with six and a half million members, could play a key role in halting state attacks against migrants on a national level.
Internationalism is essential
Immigration policy does not develop in isolation from other areas of policy, particularly foreign policy. Internationalism is a fundamental tenet of building a united socialist movement worldwide. In the early part of 2022, 1 in 4 people attempting the Channel crossing were from Afghanistan.
Is it any wonder after the role of British imperialism in invading, occupying and then fleeing the country as the Taliban advanced? Unless the workers’ movement is able to make that link and point out the hypocrisy of those who support British military intervention overseas and a tightening of immigration policy at home, then even some on the far right can seek to twist these points to, in a sick way, justify anti-migrant policies.
For example, Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s new far right prime minister, appeared on television to attack the imperialist policies of the French state in Burkina Faso. She declared “The solution is not to take the Africans and bring them to Europe, the solution is to free Africa from certain Europeans who exploit it.”
Meloni has no interest in the plight of people from Burkina Faso, evident from the vicious approach her government take towards refugees and asylum seekers arriving at Italy’s shores. However, she does see an opportunity to cloak her racist policies with an element of populism and anti-imperialism that may appeal to sections of the Italian population.
We cannot rely on capitalist institutions like the European Union to defend the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. In response to Meloni’s callous refusal to allow boats carrying refugees to disembark on Italian shores, the EU has meekly stood by. Last year, almost 1,000 refugees died in the Mediterranean trying to enter ‘fortress Europe’.
Moreover, the underdevelopment of nations in the Global South, driven by imperialist powers in Europe, the US and elsewhere, is one of the key factors driving the refugee crisis, fueling the desire of millions to leave their home country and seek a better life abroad.
Bold socialist policies needed
What much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric plays on is a feeling of scarcity and insecurity within working class communities around a lack of decent jobs, pay and housing. As Karl Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto “A development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise [of communism], because without it want is generalised, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive.”
In other words, in order to prevent the spread of anti- immigrant, racist and other reactionary ideas, the basic needs of the mass of the population must be met. We have to fight for a programme of mass council house building, rent control and minimum living standards.
A minimum wage reflecting the real cost of living – a first step towards which would be £15 an hour for all – could help cut across the idea that some are ‘scrounging’ from others. Equally, guaranteeing trade union ‘rates for the job’ and democratic union control over hiring and firing could prevent bosses playing migrant workers against others in an attempt to increase the exploitation of all.
But in order to put an ultimate end to the ‘generalised want’ which creates the ground for racism and bigotry, the mass of the population must have control over the enormous wealth that exists in society. Scarcity and precarity is manufactured by capitalism, it is not a fact of life. There are 100,000 families in temporary accommodation and effectively homeless while 238,000 houses remain long-term empty.
A democratic plan of production and the allocation of resources would overcome this absurdity and enable all those in Britain, including those seeking asylum, to be provided for.
That is the basis of socialism, something worth fighting for and the reason the ruling class will play every trick they can to divide and divert the workers’ movement from achieving that.