Global free movement. Photo: Jonathan Mcintosh Global free movement. Photo: Jonathan Mcintosh

Immigration is too important an issue to be debated on the terms set by Fortress Europe or the Tories, argues Lindsey German 

The question of migration remains one of the biggest in politics today. Often discussed in Britain through the prism of Brexit, it is obviously a much wider question affecting large sections of the world’s population, and raising hugely important questions for socialists everywhere. 

I start from the assumption that I am opposed to immigration controls. This is a minority position even on the Left but it is the dominant positions of those on the far left. The argument is often put simply that if capital can move where it wants, why shouldn’t labour? I would add two other factors: it should be a human right to move freely if that is the desire of a person. I would be outraged if I could not move to a country of my choice for whatever reason, and I don’t blame anyone else for feeling the same. In addition, most studies show that migration to a particular country decreases when there is a slump or recession and increases when there is a boom and jobs are expanding; studies also show that migrants tend to contribute more to societies they move to than what they take out. So there is a general process of regulation which works without the need for states, border controls, immigration laws etc etc. 

The argument is usually put these days in terms of the free movement of labour, following from the EU terminology. I have no objection to this but feel it can be misleading so let me make it clear from the outset: I support migration from anywhere, and abhor the Fortress Europe ideology which allows free movement within Europe but prohibits it from outside those borders. 

Whatever happens with Brexit, we know that the issue of immigration isn’t going to go away. It is at the centre of modern capitalism and while it can be disrupted by wars (as well as caused by them), natural disasters, economic crisis and of course draconian laws and repression, it will continue. It is fuelled by neoliberal capitalism and the deep regional and class inequalities it creates. 

If migration is created by capitalism so too is the reaction against it. For most of human history, there have been no such thing as immigration controls. That didn’t mean people were free to move: most had no possibility of travelling any distance, often they were subject to systems of slavery or serfdom. In settled agricultural societies people tended to live close to the land and more often than not stayed close to the area they had been born and grown up in. 

Capitalism destroyed that relationship with the land for millions of people, forcibly driving them off the land (in Britain through enclosures of the commons and the Highland clearances in Scotland which replaced humans with sheep.) People had no choice but to move in order to earn a livelihood and sometimes this involved crossing borders and seas. 

Britain and immigration 

Britain was the first industrial capitalist society, born in the violence of enclosures and employing men, women and children to work in prison like mills and factories. Workers crossed the country to find such employment, especially the young and fit. They also came from other countries including the Netherlands, France and of course Ireland. Usually, they worked in the hardest conditions, with some of the worst housing and conditions. Britain was also for political and economic reasons something of a haven for dissenters from abroad in the decades after the revolution. These included, of course, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who were exiled from their native Germany after the failed revolutions of 1848. 

Throughout the 19th century there was no restriction on immigration to Britain and by the end of the 19th there were, as well as large Irish populations, major Jewish areas in some big cities made up of people fleeing persecution from Russia and Eastern Europe. It was only in 1905 that the Aliens Act was passed, following a period of anti-Jewish agitation by the far right British Brotherhood. The Jews remained the target of racists throughout of the 1930s (and incredibly even after the Second World War).

However, with labour shortages and a booming economy by the late 1940s, immigration was encouraged again. Commonwealth citizens were able to travel freely to Britain and many did so from India and Pakistan and from the Caribbean. This only changed in the 1960s with growing agitation and racism about these migrants, and also doom laden predictions about the arrival of East African Asians who had British passports from newly independent African countries such as Malawi, Uganda and Kenya. A series of immigration laws were then passed, and these have continued, all of them tending to discriminate against black and Asian migrants and taking a much more relaxed view about white immigrants from Australia or South Africa. 

This is because immigration controls were never about the ‘problems’ of too many people living in Britain but about racism. They were aimed at poor, black or brown people living in often horrendous housing conditions and doing usually low paid and low-value jobs. The racism against them was whipped up in precisely the poorest areas with the aim of turning people of different races against each other, in order to keep them poor. So it continues today. 

Immigration today and the Left 

At present migration from the rest of the EU is allowed freely into the UK, but is severely restricted from outside. Despite this many people from parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America try to get to Britain. If they are rich they have no problem. It is perfectly legal and easy to migrate to Britain if you can prove that you are wealthy. Otherwise, they are subject to draconian and unfair restrictions on their rights, to persecution and criminal sanction, all for the right to come and work usually in unfavourable conditions.  

The criminalisation of so much migration and the very high levels of state intervention in migration questions are at unprecedented levels in Britain today. Landlords, university authorities, school teachers, all have to augment the roles of the already sizeable army of immigration officers, detention centre guards and police in a systematic oppression of a very considerable section of the population. Such surveillance not only creates a divided and more racist society, it also helps to reinforce conditions where migrants have to accept the worst work conditions, housing, and sometimes illegal treatment for fear of exposure to the authorities. 

This process is a completely cynical one: those responsible for it know full well that it will not stop or deter immigration, precisely because people will always try to migrate to places where they are able to earn more and live more comfortably or safely. So as migration has become more criminalised or restricted in legal terms, so it has continued to increase. The whole nature of neoliberal capitalism both creates the conditions for migration and depends on migrant labour for its smooth running. 

At the same time that its official ideology may accept some levels of migration, its media and its political right use migration as a major political weapon of divide and rule. There is acceptable ‘controlled’ migration (of skilled, often white migrants from for example other parts of the EU) but then there is unacceptable ‘uncontrolled’ or ‘illegal’ migration (Mexicans to the U.S., Africans to Europe). 

The trade unions have historically played a mixed role in their attitudes to migrant workers, sometimes opposing their entry into the workforce, at other times recognising the need to organise migrants not least to prevent the undercutting of indigenous workers’ wages and conditions. The source of much conflict in the 19th-century workforce was over such processes (then often through the introduction of Irish workers into the workforce – which was often the origin of religion conflict in areas such as central Scotland and Lancashire.)

When Karl Marx helped to found the International Working Men’s Association (the First International) in 1864 it was at least partly with the express aim of preventing workers from different countries from acting to undercut wages and conditions across borders. Then, as now, this was a central question. Marx estimated that by 1870, shortly after the end of the U.S. Civil war, half a million Europeans a year were migrating to the U.S. in search of a better life. 

His argument was that workers should unite to defend their common interests against the employers who were increasingly operating across borders. They had to form organisations, overcome differences of language and culture, and jointly enforce decent wages and conditions for everyone. 

This is a pertinent question today, when high levels of migration in Britain are commonly connected with the significant fall in wages and worsening conditions which have afflicted millions of British workers. It is often argued that such migration has led to these falls. Various arguments have been put forward, from straightforward restriction on migration to schemes such as migrants signing up to unions before getting jobs, or preventing agencies from advertising in Central Europe. This has become an argument within Labour, with Jeremy Corbyn under criticism for talking about the problems of migrant workers replacing British workers. Corbyn has a good record on supporting migrants and continues to do so but he is clearly under pressure from those to the right who want to restrict immigration, supposedly in response to widespread views of Labour voters.

Corbyn should, and I hope will, resist the arguments that the problem lies with migrants in terms of workers’ conditions. This is looking at the argument the wrong way round. The responsibility for worsening conditions lies with employers, who have deliberately carried out policies to increase levels of exploitation in work, while at the same time acting to weaken workers organisations such as trade unions which have helped to stop these levels of exploitation. The employers use new pools of labour to increase their profits, and partly this is done through migration. 

I don’t think we should take the attitude this is not happening. While people quite rightly say that it is the right of people to live and love across borders, in fact, most people move country in order to work. They often do so in conditions that are unfavourable to them and often do so reluctantly.  The posted workers’ directive under the EU rules allows undercutting of wages by workers from other countries and it seems to me no one on the Left supports that. 

Historically, employers have tried to lower wages by bringing in new groups of workers and historically this action by the employers has had to be fought. The use of such reserves of labour (as Marx also pointed out) often has the effect of lowering wages overall. That is why the employers are always looking for such new reserves. 

Perhaps the biggest labour reserve in modern times has been the drawing in of married women and mothers to the labour market. This actually has had the effect of lowering wages – two wages are now needed to cover the costs of reproduction of working class households rather this the one wage of 50 or 60 years ago. There is much less evidence that migration has had the same effect, although it may have done in specific industries. 

But the crucial question is how the Left responds to this politically. Few would argue today that’s married women should not work. Instead, the argument is how can women overcome the gender pay gap, how can they deal with the many problems at work caused by their role as mothers, how can they be fully part of campaigning unions? 

The response of the Left today cannot be to reject the role of migrants at work, or to blame migrants for their own conditions. Instead, it should be to argue how we overcome divisions at work, how do we fight for full equality, how do we prevent racism from dividing us? 

Today, as in Marx’s time, international solidarity is essential. Making concessions to right wing arguments, of accepting, for example, the view of some Blairites that there should be regional immigration controls, or that migrants are to blame for low wages, simply deals with the wrong enemy. Nor should we see the pro capitalist single market as the price we have to pay for free movement. Many of those advocating the single market would be prepared to abandon free movement if they could, and they certainly have no commitment to free movement from outside the EU. Many of those who support the single market do so for the best of reasons, because they don’t want restrictions on migration. In fact, he single market has led to an increase in neoliberal policies which damage all workers, and has coincided with the vile policies of Fortress Europe aimed at keeping out those from the developing world. In contrast, a Corbyn government outside the EU u could have whatever immigration policy it wanted. And what a great development it would be to have one which welcomed migrants from across the world.  

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

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