We cannot give ground to the racists but must defend free movement of people as one of the most basic of rights
The question of immigration, and whether immigration into this country needs to be restricted or not, is rising inexorably up the political agenda. The obvious reason for this is the EU referendum and looming Brexit.
But the hype about migration long preceded it. We should not forget that Cameron’s ‘deal’ to keep Britain in the EU was all about restricting the rights of EU migrants in this country. In fact the right wing press has obsessed about migrants and the threat they apparently pose to this country for years. This agenda is often then reflected by supposedly respectable media such as the BBC who then report on how everyone is ‘concerned’ about immigration.
None of this should surprise us. Every economic downturn has been accompanied by a rise in anti-migrant rhetoric. Suddenly it is discovered that unemployment is caused by foreigners taking native workers jobs.
Of course this is nonsense, the lack of work on each occasion has been caused by failed economic policies and firms sacking people.
Equally the pressure on public services is caused by cuts, the lack of housing by a failed housing policy.
But our rulers always wish to divert anger away from themselves and onto minorities they can easily scapegoat – and migrants, coming from other countries and often having a different religion or skin colour are easy targets.
Racism, always latent in our society, can also be stirred up without directly about race, because we all know which migrants are welcome and which aren’t.
The solution, they say, is immigration controls, the number of immigrants must be restricted, and the number already here reduced by depriving them of public services.
Sadly, too many in the labour movement and on the left seem to be buying into or conceding to this rhetoric. Some have always bought into anti-immigrant ideas. Others who should know better seem to feel that they have to be seen to be reflecting working class worries about immigration, or risk being accused of being out of touch and not ‘getting it’, an accusation continually thrown at those who oppose the hysteria.
But conceding ground to such scapegoating just encourages them. Restricting immigration will not improve wages, it never does: workers organizing to defend their interests will.
But immigration controls do not help workers do that. It hinders them. Encouraging the idea that it is foreigners driving down wages stops people uniting.
And racist ideas will be encouraged by racist immigration controls. And immigration controls are always racist. If some are to be admitted and others excluded, how do you decide? Rich white people usually win out over poor people of colour, the legacy of centuries of colonialism and racism. Even something as seemingly innocent as the current UK citizenship test does this. Over 95% of Americans, Canadians and Australians pass. Less than half of Bangladeshis, Turks and Iraqis do so.
And immigration controls have never stopped people migrating, it just produces an underclass with no rights who live in fear: the perfect group for employers to undercut wages.
The tide can be turned against the hysteria about migration. The real basis for a fight-back exists. In general, racism in our society has declined markedly over the last two generations, society is much more integrated. It is noticeable that fear of migration is highest where there are the fewest migrants.
Our rulers want to make Brexit all about migration and use it to stir up anti-immigrant feeling, but 84% of Remain voters, and 74% of Leave voters think that rights of EU migrants’ living here should be guaranteed. The scapegoaters aren’t getting it all their own way.
We must defend free movement of people as one of the most basic of rights. We cannot give ground to the racists.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.