Refugees Welcome Demo, London, September 2016. Photo: Jim Aindow Refugees Welcome Demo, London, September 2016. Photo: Jim Aindow

The left must be uncompromising in asserting some fundamental arguments against immigration controls, racism and austerity, argues Kevin Ovenden

Unite leader Len McCluskey said in his speech to the Labour Party conference: “I believe that the question of free movement of labour is a question not only in the UK but in Europe. No one talks of countries where migrant labour come from being denuded of skills.”

He did so in the context of explicitly supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to concede to calls from the right wing and soft left of the Parliamentary Labour Party for further immigration restriction into Britain, something which is now set to be a central dividing line in British politics. 

McCluskey said that Corbyn’s call for collective bargaining rights, a minimum wage of £10 and hour and stronger union organisation addressed the issue of bosses super-exploiting many migrant workers.

At the same time, the British labour movement does have many examples of how this argument about immigration into Britain or other advanced countries coming at the expense of poorer ones has a very slippery history.

In the 1960s the Labour Party and trade union movement gave in to right wing demands for more immigration controls. There were figures on the right of the movement who used the argument about robbing poorer countries consciously as cover for that capitulation. Unlike leaders such as McCluskey today, they had up to that point shown little interest in opposing the way that colonialism and imperialism impoverished large parts of the world, forcing people to uproot.

Theirs was a very cynical argument to obscure their real position of “keep them out” and sometimes to gloss their own racist prejudices about black and brown newcomers to Britain.

From others at the time who were not racist, and even anti-racist, the argument was put more with the motivation of seeking to evade the difficult job of opposing head on the anti-immigration agitation. That meant having to deal with racist and anti-immigrant ideas among trade unionists and working class people.

It meant being prepared to fight within the membership you represented against all reactionary ideas, rather than just seeking to reflect the balance of averaged opinion and restricting your fight to taking on only what most people would regard as extreme and unacceptable racism.

We can see this argument deployed in that kind of way today in the European labour movement, even on parts of the radical left. Jean-Luc Melenchon in France tends towards this tactic of evasion in much of what he says about immigration and refugees. So do some figures in Die Linke in Germany. And it has for many years been common across the radical left in Greece, even as it fought successive austerity governments.

How should the anti-capitalist left respond? First we must recognise that the direct argument against the anti-immigration brigade cannot be evaded, avoided, “reframed” or otherwise dealt with through apparently presentational techniques. It has to be met head on.

This requires being uncompromising in asserting some fundamental arguments:

1) Migrants do not lower wages. Bosses lower wages.

2) It is the Tory government which has cut welfare, health and education spending. Migrant workers pay through taxes for those services just as much as anyone else. Often their education has been paid for out of taxation in the countries they came from. So they bring their capacity to work and their skills to a society which has not had to contribute to developing them in the first place.

3) It is immigration control, with all the repressive apparatuses of the state, not immigration which creates conditions for the employers and the Tories to attack all workers. Special work permits, removing the rights of some workers (new arrivals) to access welfare and legal protections and so on are the kinds of things which make them more vulnerable to greater exploitation.

If you were brought up in Hartlepool and you move to get a job in Leeds, you are not lowering the level of wages in Leeds. But if in Leeds you are not granted the same rights as those who were brought up there, because you have come from Hartlepool, then bosses in Leeds are in a stronger position to exploit you all the more. This is especially so if you have hanging over your head the threat of deportation to Hartlepool if you step out of line in Leeds.

4) Without trade union and labour movement organisation bosses and the governments which serve them would have a totally free hand to exploit people. Workers organising together at work, in communities and in radical movements for change can fight against that. Dividing workers is crucial to the rich preventing us from doing so.

Immigration controls serve the rich in two ways. First, they are used to create a category of workers who can be more exploited – and that is then used to increase the exploitation and robbery of working people as a whole.

Second, they depend on and further reinforce the idea that working people do not share a common interest with one another. They spread the pernicious idea that you have more in common with someone like the boss of Sports Direct because you were both born in Britain than you do with the people being exploited by him no matter where they came from – whether from Hartlepool or Hungary.

Racism is not just a weapon used by the capitalist class. But it is, indeed, a weapon used by the capitalist class. Lots of people who reject racist prejudice still fall for the idea that their lives would be improved by stopping immigration. It is not necessarily racist to think that. But immigration controls are both themselves racist and always produce more racism, which serves the interests of the rich and powerful.

These are arguments which the militantly anti-racist left has made for two generations in Britain. Of course, the patterns of migration and of the labour market change. But they remain fundamentally the same. So do the arguments. They need to be developed and filled out with all of the evidence and experience of today.

But they do need to be made. And it is only because these arguments were made and have been acted upon over the last 50 years that we are in the position we are in now to defeat another wave of anti-immigration agitation from another Tory government, its backers and the racist right.

Our free movement and freedom versus theirs

What of the point Len McCluskey makes, as part of trying to oppose the Tories and the racists, not aiming to endorse them?

The point speaks to a real and ugly truth. The population of Latvia, a recent member of the European Union, has declined by a sixth over the last 15 to 20 years thanks to free market economic shock therapy. People, especially the young, have had to leave to find work elsewhere.

The number of teachers in Latvia has fallen by more than a sixth. It is down by nearly a quarter. So there are fewer teachers in Latvia per pupil than there were 20 years ago. No socialist can ignore the calamity that means for working class children and parents in Latvia.

In Greece about a quarter of a million people under the age of 30 have left the country in the crisis years. They include doctors, nurses and health workers made redundant with the closure of hospitals and health services.

Officially, one in six people in Greece have no access to healthcare. The real figure is probably one in five. That is because the immigration controls imposed to serve the rich and powerful mean that there are large numbers of people in Greece who do not have official residency permits. They are both more likely to be super-exploited and cannot access the services that citizens can.

Some of those health workers are now working in the British National Health Service. They are among the tens of thousands of migrants, and hundreds of thousands from families of one time immigrants, who keep it going. The NHS gets the work of a Greek-trained doctor, but people in Greece paid for the training.

It is not so very different for so-called unskilled workers, like the Gambian-born Spanish labourers who were killed two months ago in a horrific industrial accident at a scrapyard in Birmingham. All the resources to bring them up, provide them milk as infants and give them the skills and capacity to work for a highly exploitative boss in Britain were borne by people in Gambia.

Greece needs more doctors and nurses. Gambia needs more employment. But the answer to these problems is not to stop people moving from one country to another. It is to stop big business robbing one country or another and exploiting working people everywhere. In Ireland it means stopping Apple from making profits everywhere but shifting its accounts so that it pays due taxes on them nowhere.

Stopping a Greek-trained psychotherapist coming to work in the British NHS will not improve mental health provision in Greece. Banning Gambian workers from working in Birmingham will not improve the living standards of a single family in its capital, Banjul. And allowing them to be stigmatised as “migrants” will make it easier for bosses to skimp on health and safety standards to the detriment of all workers, just like those at the Didcot power station who suffered a similar fatal incident a few months before the Gambians in Birmingham.

To do that requires confronting big business and the capitalist class which exploits people the world over. It means in Britain demanding an end to the debt bondage imposed upon working people in Greece by the European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF. It means opposing the wars, the expansion of Nato and the nuclear missile madness, not going along with them.

But that struggle is weakened and can never happen if any concession is made to one of the principal weapons that big business and the Tory government use to prevent radical opposition – racism and the idea that if we side with them to control the movement of other working people then somehow we will be better off.

And this is their policy even when they talk in the bureaucratic language of the EU through terms such as “free movement of labour”. What do they mean? They do not mean that working people are truly free from all the pressures and powers of those who run the system. They mean that people should be free to be exploited. Freed from any control over their lives and “free” to move – but only under the strictest conditions. Free to fill fluctuating demand in the economy in one place or another. But equally free to drown in the Mediterranean because they come from the wrong place. Above all “free” from the rights and capacities to organise with others to resist their exploitation.

“Free movement” is one of those buzzwords. We on the left should break down what it means. The “issues with free movement” for the labour movement are not that it allows too much, but that it is not free enough.

Neoliberalism and the labour movement

Three decades ago the economic devastation wrought by Margaret Thatcher hit famously a town in England called Corby. The steel industry which dominated the town shut. It was devastated. Many young people, and those older who could, left. Many of them were from families who had come to Corby from Scotland, when an earlier wave of capitalist economic destruction had forced people to move down south.

Nobody said in the 1930s that stopping people moving from Clydeside to Northamptonshire was the way to protect jobs and improve the lives of working people in England. And nobody said in the 1980s that stopping people moving from Corby to London was necessary because “London is too full”. At the same time, nobody except the Thatcherites welcomed that perverse “freedom” which made the bosses free to close down industries as they wished and to uproot communities.

There was no answer for the labour movement in calling for the movement of workers to be limited. The answer lay in uniting working people against the ravages of big business. The labour movement failed sufficiently to do that. But that remains the only answer today, whether we are talking about people moving from pauperised smaller cities and towns in the north of England to get work elsewhere in the country, or from Poland or fleeing war in Syria or the effects of climate change in the Sahel region of Africa.

The labour movement is in a potentially strong position to make these arguments, thanks in part to the battles waged by anti-racists against previous waves of anti-immigration agitation.

That requires two things. First, an iron-hard determination not to concede to the anti-immigration arguments. Second, a sustained, collective effort to find all manner of means to put our arguments throughout the working class movement and to root them in the experience of working class people and the realities of austerity Britain. That means finding the best ways to put the case, not clever means to evade the argument.

The biggest problem we face is not so much that there is confusion in parts of the labour movement over this question, or even that those who are more at home with the CBI than with the trade unions are now pushing an anti-immigration line.

It is that not enough of the movement of the left, now more considerable than at any time in 40 years in Britain, is putting these arguments. And that means that chances to change the whole balance of the debate are at risk of being lost.

Five black migrant workers in Britain’s second city were killed in just one industrial accident two months ago. Few people would be indifferent to the crushing by falling metal of five men at work and the impact on their bereaved families who have lost their breadwinners. But how many people know about this? How many union branches have raised this and the deaths of three men, who were not black migrant workers, in similar circumstances at Didcot Power station to make the point and win the case?

A month ago a Polish factory worker in Harlow in Essex was beaten to death in what police believe to be a racially motivated attack. The Metropolitan police have said that the spike in racist attacks following the Brexit vote was principally directed at Eastern European people. It may be subsiding now – we shall see next month with the publication of the extensive figures of the British Crime Survey.

There was a heartfelt response from people in Harlow to the murder. The same also following anti-Polish attacks in Leeds and other cities. How many in Britain know the name Arkadiusz Jóźwik? More important even than the precise formulations our unions and the Labour MPs come up with is this question: what has been done to rally the majority of working people who whatever their confusions about immigration in general are sickened by racist murders like this?

There are nearly a million Polish workers in Britain. They are largely not in unions and are reporting the ugly results of racist agitation which is always churned up by the anti-immigration bandwagon. What efforts are being made in their direction?

The Trade Union Congress highlighted two months ago the outrage that Theresa May’s government is refusing to guarantee the rights of EU migrant workers who are already in Britain. She has adopted the position of using them as a bargaining token, hoping to utilise their fears to squeeze governments such as the Polish and the Hungarian in the Brexit negotiations.

Theresa May did not budge. What has been done since? This is an issue over which we, not the hardened anti-immigrationists and racists,  have majority support. Some 84 percent of people in Britain say that the rights of EU nationals already in the country must be guaranteed. There is little difference between those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain in the EU referendum on this question – 74 percent of Leave voters agree to the rights of EU migrants in Britain.

They are working across the economy and many in areas which have a considerable union presence, such as the NHS, transport and education. Is anything being done to secure their rights, which their fellow workers support, and thus both inflict a defeat on the Tories and the racists and also create a better climate for dispelling wider anti-immigrant and racist myths?

These are the pressing questions now. And there exist the potential means to answer them. There are half a million members of the British Labour Party. Most of them joined to support Jeremy Corbyn in the last 16 months and most are at least sympathetic to his refusal to join the anti-immigration bandwagon.

There are about 20,000 Labour Party members now organised in the left wing Momentum group. That is a very considerable increase upon the numbers of organised socialists in Britain whether in or outside the Labour Party.

There are more who are organised through the structures of the trade union movement. There is great scope and need for debate and learning from one another about how best to put the arguments over immigration. But we will not win those arguments by discussing how to put the arguments.

We will win them only by actually putting the case and taking action over the increasing number of instances where the barbarity of what the anti-immigrationists stand for becomes clear even to people who fall for some of what they are saying.

The answer to how to put the argument against the anti-immigration brigade lies in taking them on, not finding ways to avoid doing so. Taking them on in word and deed.

It is time for all the left of the labour movement to act.

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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