Lindsey German on the manipulation of social division and Boris’ common touch
You can always be certain that the Tories will not let an election go by without focussing on immigration. They have turned the issue into a political football in this country for more than half a century now and the whole motivation of some politicians is to ensure that this continues. Look at Priti Patel’s claims that Labour’s policies would lead to a ‘surge’ of immigration – and note the language used, like ‘swamped’.
Labour should see it as elementary that it stands up for the rights of migrants and that it champions the right of those from other countries to live here if they choose. The resolution passed at Labour’s conference in September did just this – at least for EU citizens, and talked about extending that right to others.
This is now up for debate about whether it should be included in Labour’s manifesto, to be decided this weekend. It looks likely that a pledge for free movement of EU migrants will not be included in the manifesto, not least because there is an argument about whether this will put people off voting Labour. Unite leader Len McCluskey has argued, wrongly in my view, that it goes too far and does not address the concerns of many working class people about the impact of immigration.
It may be true that many working class people are concerned about immigration (although polling shows a decline in those worried about immigration since 2016), but that raises the question of whether these concerns are justified. Or whether they are concerns which have been accentuated – and sometimes created – by a discourse in British society which starts from the assertion that immigration is a ‘problem’ and that it has to be curtailed to solve the ‘problem’?
In fact, the opposite is true. Immigration has been of huge benefit to this country and will continue to be essential in the years ahead, given the ageing of the British population and the needs of society. Immigrants have played massive roles in key parts of British industry, helped to sustain the NHS, drive our buses, dig our roads, clean our offices. The wealth extracted from those workers over the decades is incalculable.
How does the real contribution of immigrants get turned into its opposite? Through a process of scapegoating and division which deliberately tries to turn those workers already living here (often themselves as result of immigration) against those who are new.
Since the financial crash of 2008, this tactic has been used repeatedly to divide and rule, and to suggest that the real problems people face – the housing crisis, shortage of school places, the rationing of NHS services, worsening pay and conditions – are the fault of migrants, rather than the fault of those who bailed out the bankers at our expense. It is a tactic beloved of the Tories and their allies in the press, who blame migrants for all these problems, and who extend their criticisms to black and Asian people as a whole.
The consequences of all this are levels of scapegoating and racism about immigration which are very high, and which Labour – with some honourable exceptions – has done too little to challenge. While Tony Blair pays lip service to anti-racism, he also helped create the neoliberal free market conditions which have worsened working conditions for all workers in Britain. Ed Miliband allowed the production of anti-immigration Labour mugs. These weren’t challenging the myths about racism but pandering to them.
We should always remember this isn’t mainly about numbers and statistics – it’s about racism. Rich white people find it much easier to get into Britain than poor, especially ethnic minority, people. And anti-immigration policy is one of the mainstays of present-day racism.
The consequences for many migrants are dire. At best, they will suffer racism on a regular basis, and find themselves in some of the worst jobs, accommodation and schools. At worst they will be victims of the ‘hostile environment’, face deportation, and sometimes be illegal – a status which opens them up to huge dangers and to some of the worst forms of exploitation.
None of this needs to happen. Migration occurs when people can find a more prosperous and often less dangerous life by moving. Because of climate change, wars, and low levels of development in many countries, migration tends to be to the richer countries. They should be able to do so without being criminalised, financially penalised or subject to worse working conditions than other groups of workers.
Shortages of resources are real – but the reason is not migration, it is the deliberate political decision to implement austerity, just as low wages are the result of neoliberal policies. Greedy landlords and rotten employers should be tackled by government, not used as an excuse to blame migrants.
Labour should take this argument head on. There needs to be a debate about immigration which talks about what it involves, why people come here, what difficulties they face and why they are not the problem. The Tories are in the gutter over race – look at the instances of Islamophobia now being exposed. Labour only damages itself when it goes down the same road.
Not such a good campaigner
The popular view among those who want Boris Johnson to win is that he’s a good campaigner. I have always disputed this. And judging from his reception in the flooded areas of Yorkshire and in the west country, lots of people agree. He strikes you as someone who doesn’t want to be there, who finds ordinary people a tedious bore and who reeks of his entitled and privileged background. And we’ve got another month of this!
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn gets heckled by one lone Glasgow religious bigot and this is regarded as significant. It really isn’t
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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