The labour movement cannot give any credence to the Tories' arguments and must ferociously oppose this anti-immigration clampdown says Kevin Ovenden
The answer to the Tories’ planned nasty immigration restrictions cannot be: we need a continuing supply of cheap labour to keep the economy going and to staff social care on zero hours contracts and, in effect, less than minimum wage.
That is the argument of the privateers, the farmers and large sections of business. It cannot possibly be the argument of the labour movement.
Nor can it be in any way to give credence to the propaganda by the Home Office and government that their policy will lead to a high wage, high skill economy.
It is the level of investment that is much more important in achieving those things. Britain has had a chronically low level of investment for a very long time. And Home Secretary Priti Patel is clear that any shortfalls in supply of labour can be made up from the “economically inactive” population in Britain.
But this is eight million pensioners, carers and students. Many in those categories are already doing paid work. Driving them into a greater relationship with the labour market is going to mean more lowering of the social wage and attacks such as universal credit, the hounding of disabled people and further attacks on pensions and pensioners.
The government claims that a tightened labour market among so-called unskilled workers (they are skilled) will lead to employers investing and paying higher wages.
Unfortunately, some liberal and centre-left figures have backhandedly endorsed the government’s claim in the course of rightly opposing its new immigration restrictions. So economist Danny Blanchflower says the Tory policy will lead to higher wages, which will lead to higher prices and inflation driven by a wage-price spiral. That’s his argument against it.
Leave aside the mistaken 1970s-style theory about what causes inflation, the critical thing that drives up wages is the organisation of labour. This is a crucial difference between workers and other economic inputs – steel, electricity, oil, etc do not organise themselves.
Whatever the immigration regime, employers are still going to look to suppressing wages and limiting workplace rights, notwithstanding niche areas of employment.
Some of the largest pay cuts in the decade after the 2008 crash were in the public sector. Wages fell in local government not out of some arithmetic consequence of migration from outside of Britain. They fell because they were cut by political decision and unions did not fight the assault.
The public sector is more densely unionised than the private and it is here that unions can make a strong impact in exposing the lie that Johnson’s government is introducing immigration restriction to increase workers’ pay and standard of living.
The immediate way to do that would be a 10 percent pay rise across the public sector, a living wage, scrapping anti-union laws and using the government’s purchasing power to drive up investment and to favour employers with better worker wellbeing.
The Tories want none of that. Instead, they deploy a false economic argument that by restricting the movement of working people they can get bosses to improve workers’ pay. If that were the true goal, why not make bosses do that directly? The socialist answer is indeed to move directly against the bosses.
Of course the major impact of the Tory policy is to press a divide deep into the working class on the basis of immigration status. It is to create new categories of migrant workers on visas, lacking the same rights as other workers and thus vulnerable to greater exploitation. Then that greater exploitation with fewer effective rights becomes the new norm for all.
That is a critical argument – divide and rule – that can be understood at a mass level and that cuts right into the Tory policy.
The labour movement cannot give any credence to the Tories’ arguments and must ferociously oppose this anti-immigration clampdown.
But to be effective that has to be on a class basis, marshalling socialist and anti-capitalist arguments – of which working class unity against racism and similar divisions is central. It cannot be on the basis of the National Farmers Union, the social care cutthroat companies, the Federation of Small Businessmen, Starbucks, Amazon or what have you.
It has to be connected with real struggle and organisation that shows that union and worker organisation, in the workplace and outside, are what improves pay and living standards for working people. That means not just in words but in practice extending union and class organisation and fighting for newly arrived workers to have exactly the same employment and citizenship rights as everyone else.
The labour movement has faced a choice at various moments in history over alliance with the capitalist state or not in seeking to improve workers conditions. Alliance with the state, be it over colonial expansion or greater immigration restriction, has not brought advances for working people but has severely weakened the key force that can: an independent, internationalist and militant working class movement.
(Here – rhetoric about the privileges of “native” workers is wrong and counterproductive. It is telling millions of workers in Britain that the Johnson government is right and they will be better off by keeping other workers out.)
There are enormous contradictions and absurdities in the Tory policy. They will lead to all sorts of clashes – including between parts of business and the government, within the government and so on.
The radical left needs its own independent position in opposing the Tory policy and exploiting those contradictions in the months and years ahead.
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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