Increasing attempts to scapegoat immigrants mean we need to challenge the growing xenophobia of our political elite argues Sean Ledwith

Racist vanPoliticians seem to be falling over each other at the moment in a sordid race to blow the dog-whistle of anti-immigration rhetoric. Ukip MEP Godfrey Bloom was universally denounced recently for his horrendously crass comments about ‘Bonga Bonga’ land but it is indicative of a poisonous political climate that he is unapologetic about such blatant racism and that he probably suspects his remarks will actually win support in some quarters. It is also depressing that an elected British politician can utter such words without been sacked on the spot.

Bloom and the like-minded sickeningly object to a meagre 0.7 percent of GDP being utilised to avert the starvation of 20 million children overseas and then joke about their objection.

Even more insidious has been the Home Office’s deployments of anti-immigration vans in parts of London, advertising a campaign to allegedly round-up illegal migrants. Bearing the slogan ‘Go Home’, the vans are in reality a scaremongering tactic dispatched on Cameron’s orders to whip up racist sentiment in conspicuously multicultural areas of the capital.

The hidden agenda of the vans was also apparent from the simultaneous presence of border police in a number of tube stations checking the status of random members of the public. Unsurprisingly the vast majority of people stopped were non-white. The shameful scenes of unjustified harassment of innocent commuters on the basis of their ethnicity would hardly have looked out of place in Nazi Germany.

Labour on the defensive

Labour’s immigration spokesman, Chris Bryant rightly denounced the clumsy Home Office initiatives:

‘Not only was the message ill-judged – no consultation but causing much offence – it revealed the desperation of an increasingly out of touch government that now desires only that it appears to be doing something.’

However, he then went on to resume the familiar defensive posture that Labour has adopted on the wider issues:

‘Under Ed Miliband ‘s leadership, Labour has recognised we made mistakes in the past and lost touch with many members of public. Immigration – and particularly low skilled immigration – was too high, and it is right to bring it down. We should have done more to ensure integration of people already here. And our borders must be properly managed. But, instead of posturing on this issue, Labour would be rolling its sleeves up and dealing with the cause of people’s concerns.’

Unfortunately, ‘Rolling its sleeves up’ can be interpreted as code for blundering to the right in a misconceived attempt to hoover up the anti-immigration vote that has already found a home with Ukip and the right of the Tory Party. Bryant subsequently screwed-up another attempt to make political hay out of immigration when he got his facts wrong about how Tesco and Next were supposedly using migrant labour to undercut wages. The fundamental political flaw in his argument was not the lack of fact-checking but the notion that the injustice to ‘British’ workers was the most grievous aspect of the situation. The exploitation of underpaid migrants apparently not being something that ‘British’ politicians should be concerned about. The internationalist cornerstone of left politics has been sacrificed on the altar of electoralism.

Bryant’s almost exclusive focus on the interests of British workers at the expense of their foreign counterparts is an echo of Gordon Brown’s disastrous 2009 slogan of ‘British jobs for British workers’.

Like his current and former leader,Bryant thinks there is a hard-core anti-immigration consciousness among working class voters that must be pandered to in the quest for election victory in 2015. Miliband’s flimsy One Nation rebranding is based on this assumption that an under-emphasis on ‘Britishness’ led to the defeat of Gordon Brown in 2010. Last year he said:

‘We became too disconnected from the concerns of working people, we too easily assumed that those worrying about immigration were stuck in the past. We were too dazzled, too sanguine about globalisation. We lost sight of who was benefiting from that growth’

The Labour leadership is still stuck in rabbit in the headlights mode over immigration as they collectively believe the Gillian Duffy incident was the key factor they lost power.

The notion that the 5 million votes the party lost between Blair’s first election win in 1997 and Brown’s defeat might be due to the former’s warmongering in Afghanistan and Iraq and the latter’s bailing out of the banks after the 2008 crash does not appear to have registered with the One Nation Milibandistas.

Coalition offensive

Miliband’s risible failure to assertively defend Labour’s record on the issue and the wider benefits of the immigration in British society is especially spineless in light of the Coalition’s increasingly spiteful approach to the issue. As the Jewish son of a anti-Nazi refugee from Hitler’s Germany ,it is especially lamentable that Miliband is unwilling to aggressively defend Britain’s multicultural heritage. The ‘Go Home’ vans and random checks on the tube are only the latest in an accelerating tranche of Tory-led attacks on the status of migrants and the diverse nature of contemporary British society

Ukip’s apparent surge of support in the May council elections and Eastleigh by-election has provoked Cameron into a lurch to the right where he feels vulnerable to the thinly-veiled racist bile of Farage,Bloom and company. Under the supervision of his new election strategist,Lynton Crosby, Cameron has rowed back on his pre-coalition image of the compassionate conservative and resorted to the dog-whistle tactics most notoriously associated with Michael Howard’s ‘Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking’ campaign in the 2001 election. Crosby’s fingerprints are all over Cameron’s new approach. As advisor to the Australian Tories in 2001, Crosby masterminded a horribly inflammatory campaign that included utter fabrications about refugees throwing children overboard in the Pacific in order to secure entry.

The contents of Cameron’s Queen’s Speech in April reflected the sordid scramble to regain the xenophobic initiative from Ukip. The proposals included a crackdown on so-called ‘health tourism’, demanding that GPs check the immigration status of all NHS patients. Like the rest of the anti-immigration offensive, this is pure political showboating,not a response to a genuine problem. According to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt,foreign visitors are costing the government £200 million a year. The department Hunt is in charge of indicated according to their own figures that the cost to the NHS is 18 times less than the amount claimed by the government.

On similar lines, the EU Commission has reported: ‘There is no evidence that the UK suffers significantly from benefit tourism.’

Cameron has also talked about ending an alleged NHS culture based on the notion of something for nothing. This particularly specious phrase is one politicians frequently wheel out as a cover for attacking the principle of social security. He has asserted ‘This is a national health service not an international health service.’

Aside from the mean-spirited motivation of this view, Cameron is intentionally overlooking how massively dependent the NHS is on migrant labour. One third of nurses in London are from overseas and the proportion of new recruits to the profession nationally is set to reach 50%.

Britain’s most treasured public institution would collapse without foreign workers-and the same applies to other essential public sector services such as education and transport.

Tabloid myths

The instruction to GPs to act as snoopers for the state is also to be applied to private sector landlords, again on the utterly false premise that migrants are responsible for Britain’s shortage of affordable housing. This also ties in with the dismally familiar tabloid driven myth of queue-jumping overseas families. The sober reality of this situation is that the housing shortage is actually caused by the neoliberal slashing of social housing construction since the Thatcher era.

The queue-jumping myth was definitively exposed by a Local Government Association report four years ago and ignores the reality that migrants have to wait at least a year to even apply for council housing and are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous landlords in the meantime. The myth, of course, is one that Cameron still finds politically convenient.

This myth is just one of nefarious fictions about immigration routinely propagated by the vile headline writers particularly of the Daily Mail and Express.

Unease on the left

Although these distortions are to be expected from such unashamed bastions of reaction, it is also the case that many on the British left accept and propagate them and generally feel uneasy about the whole topic of immigration. In many workplaces up and down the country, socialists will participate in conversations with like-minded colleagues that include statements such as ‘I’m not a racist but I do think we need immigration control.’ The necessity to smash these myths is more vital than ever, as Cameron embarks on his latest bout of anti-migrant scapegoating and Miliband fails to provide a robust rebuttal. For instance, the notion that there can ever be non-racist immigration control flies in the face of historical experience. Every significant measure by postwar British governments to limit immigration has ultimately being targeted at a particular ethnicity; from the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act that targeted black immigrants from the Caribbean to an identically named act in 1968 that was passed to thwart Kenyan Asians hoping to get to the UK.

More recently, of course, Cameron,the Tory right and Ukip have been scaremongering about the alleged necessity of legislating to avert the imminent arrival of 29 million Bulgarians and Rumanians when those two states accede to the EU next year.

Once again, this is spurious nonsense from right-wing politicians based on exaggerated claims and thinly-veiled racist profiling. Predictably, once the headlines had been grabbed, an actual investigation-commissioned by the Foreign Office-concluded:

‘Britain is unlikely to be the preferred destination for Bulgarians and Romanians and says those who do come are not planning to exploit the benefits system and public services. The researchers say it is not possible to put an accurate or reliable figure on how many people will come to Britain but adds that those who do move are far more likely to go to Spain, Italy and to a lesser extent Germany.’

We need more immigration

The two most pernicious misconceptions perpetuated by the anti-immigration viewpoint on the right are that Britain is already overcrowded and that migrants undermine wages and conditions. As radical geographer, Danny Dorling has pointed out, demographic factors mean the British economy actually needs more migrants in order to sustain itself into the twenty-first century:.

‘The UK fertility rate is declining in the medium term, which makes the Office for National Statistics predictions of high and sustained net immigration seem at least plausible. However, there is a real risk that declining fertility will create a ‘need’ for migration which will not be met. People in the UK need to understand the potential negative economic and social consequences of reduced migration levels and a declining population. Too little immigration may yet turn out to be a bigger problem for the UK than recent high levels of migration.’

The argument that increased migration costs jobs and undermines wages also flies in the face of historical evidence.

The worst period of unemployment and wage suppression in Britain was in the Great Depression of the 1930s when there was negligible immigration. The Caribbean and Asian migrants who came to Britain in the 1960s helped sustain the great postwar boom and contributed to rising wages in that decade.

Immigration creates the potential for undercutting wages and employment but whether it does depends on the organisation and strength of activists in the workplace.

Litmus test for the left

In the absence of a principled argument against immigration control from the Labour leadership it is the responsibility of all supporters of the People’s Assembly to spearhead the resistance to the latest coalition offensive. As austerity bites into living standards, it is grimly predictable that there will be no respite from the attempt by the ruling class to turn workers against each other. This can mean some difficult arguments in workplaces but the duty of socialists is to defend all victims of the system, especially the most oppressed.

Fighting austerity alongside workers of all backgrounds is the best way to undercut the right’s ideological offensive. There are encouraging signs that this process is already underway on the left. Movement Against Xenophobia is a recent imitative set up in response to the mounting tide of migrant scapegoating. Part of its mission statement declares:

We want to live in a civilized society where people, irrespective of background, are valued and treated with respect. We are migrants, descendants of migrants and ‘indigenous’ British people. We stand together for a diverse and inclusive society. We believe we can live together with dignity and peace, learning from each other’s differences and contributing to a better place for future generations to live in.

Since 1993, over 17 thousand migrants have perished trying to flee to Fortress Europe.

Anybody calling themselves a socialist has to fight to end this barbarism and the xenophobic attitudes that cause it.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters