Immigration Roundtable

by Philippe Legrain, Richard Seymour, Frances Webber, Joe Cox, Spencer Fitzgibbon, Jacob Mukherjee and J. Bauthumley

New Left Project presents the second in a series of roundtable discussions on the upcoming general election, focusing on the issue of immigration.

First published: 30 April, 2010 | Category: Migration, Politics, Racism

This is the second roundtable discussion launched by New Left Project, as part of our efforts to promote debate and discussion across the left in the UK and beyond. The first roundtable, on the election more generally, can be read here. Below you will find seven mini-articles by writers and activists, in response to the following question:

Polls show strong public opposition to immigration, a trend that has coincided with a rise in support for the far-right, in Britain and across Europe. What responsibility do the mainstream parties bear for these developments, what role is immigration playing in the current election, and how should the left address the issue?

We hope to build upon this so that in the future we can have more discussions and debates in different formats, and including more perspectives from activists of different movements and parties. We hope you enjoy this discussion, however, and please do carry on the debate through the comments section.

Contributors to the discussion:

Philippe Legrain - journalist and author of Aftershock: Reshaping the World Economy After the Crisis
Richard Seymour - writer, blogger and author of The Liberal Defence of Murder
Jacob Mukherjee - blogger, teacher, trade union activist
Frances Webber - writer, immigration and human rights lawyer
Joe Cox - Campaigns Officer, Compass
Spencer Fitzgibbon - Spokesperson, Green Party
J. Bauthumley - member, Anarchist Federation

Philippe Legrain

Public opposition to immigration has a variety of causes – including fear of change, worries about jobs and public services, and, yes, racism and xenophobia. So too does the rise in support for far-right parties like the BNP – and the middle-class BNP-light, UKIP, whose extreme hostility to immigration is shocking, as posters such as these show here and here.

Rising immigration certainly plays a part in the rise of UKIP and the BNP, as does hatred of the EU. Another important factor is the increased legitimacy that xenophobic views enjoy. The Conservatives have gone from campaigning that "It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration" in 2005 to warning that Britain is full, giving political cover for those whose objection to immigrants very often is xenophobic. Gordon Brown’s "British jobs for British workers" has legitimised the National Front’s old slogan. In the first leaders’ debate it was shocking to hear a Labour prime minister ranting against immigration: "no to unskilled workers", "no to foreign chefs", "no to foreign carers" – how very progressive! – making David Cameron sound reasonable and UKIP and BNP less extreme.

Recent governments are also to blame for the third element of the rise in BNP support: unemployment, social exclusion, and a failure to invest in social housing. Even in the boom, many people were left behind; now that boom has turned to bust, the poor are bearing the brunt of the recession. Research by IPPR finds that political and socio-economic exclusion are key drivers of BNP support. The expenses scandal, and the belief that mainstream politicians are all equally corrupt, has made matters worse.

What to do? The good news is that there is much less racism than a generation ago; education and campaigning work. That fight needs to continue, and it needs to address xenophobia too. Anti-Polish prejudice isn’t more acceptable than anti-Pakistani prejudice. A big reason why there has been such an upsurge of anti-immigrant feeling is that Eastern Europeans have spread out across the country to parts which had previously hardly experienced immigration: once the initial shock has subsided and people have grown used to newcomers in their midst, feelings may settle down.

Second, politicians and others need to make a positive case for immigration – about how it enriches our economy, society and culture, and gives opportunities to people in poorer countries – instead of being defensive about it, or even hostile. At the same time, politicians need to address people’s concerns about jobs, public services and housing, without pandering to their misconceptions about the causes of those problems. Yes, high unemployment – and the fear of losing your job – is a huge problem, but immigrants are not taking all the jobs. Yes, investment in the NHS and schools has sometimes failed to keep pace with local needs, but immigrants more than pay their way, so the government, not immigrants, are to blame. Yes, there is a terrible shortage of social housing – because lots has been sold off and very little built – and the solution is to build more houses, not blame newcomers, most of whom are not entitled to social housing for five years. More broadly, we need to invest more in deprived communities and in making sure that everyone gets a good education and help in finding a job.

Last but not least, we need to unite to confront the BNP’s obnoxious views, expose its lies and submit it to ridicule, while undercutting its support, not by echoing its lines but by addressing the economic hardship, social exclusion and political disenchantment on which it feeds. 

Philippe Legrain is the author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them. His new book, Aftershock: Reshaping the World Economy After the Crisis, is out on May 6th and is being launched at LSE on May 10th.

Richard Seymour

The panic over immigration has roots in New Labour policy and rhetoric. In the 1990s, the main focus of anti-immigrant sentiment was asylum seekers. This was an animus whipped up by the Tories in order to justify barring refugees. While Britain’s racist immigration laws had brought primary migration from the New Commonwealth to a near standstill, they didn’t apply to refugees. Michael Howard therefore conducted a virulent media campaign suggesting that those seeking asylum were not genuine refugees: they were mostly economic migrants or, in his terms, "bogus" - thus they could either be deported under existing legislation or targeted by new legislation. It was a language that caught on in the media. New Labour opposed the Tories on this issue in opposition. They pointed out that the legislation being passed was racist, and was likely to have a negative impact on perfectly legitimate black and Asian Britons. But once in office, they performed a volte-face. They began to spew out bile about Travellers and Roma gypsies. They constructed a system of detention camps for asylum seekers, and forced them to live on vouchers worth approximately £37 a week. Aping the Tories, they stigmatised asylum seekers as scroungers exploiting excessive British benificence.

Then, in response to riots in northern cities, pitting Asian youths against police and white racists, they started to demonise the children and grandchildren of immigrants for supposedly failing to integrate. The Cantle report blamed Asians for "self-segregating" - a perverse judgment when local councils, often Labour councils, had practised de facto segregation in housing and education policies for years. David Blunkett took the cue to demand that Asians speak English in their homes. He proposed a ‘Britishness test’ for immigrants. With increasing tempo after 9/11 and especially after the invasion of Iraq, the government began to coerce Muslims into accepting some specious version of "British values", consistently implying that they were an aberrant group at odds with said values. They attacked the "multicultural" settlement, on the grounds that some cultures were incompatible with Britishness. The arguments they, and New Labour-friendly intellectuals, propounded were a carbon copy of the ‘new racism’ pioneered by Enoch Powell and the New Right. 

The upshot was that immigration, from having been a minor issue in 1997, soared to the top of the political agenda. The BNP increased its vote 2000% in the last decade, and saw its membership rise to over 10,000. Racism toward immigrants could cost Labour control of Barking council, and potentially give the BNP its first parliamentary seat.  It can certainly help the Tories win in ‘marginal’ constituencies. Some on the left have responded by trying to promote a ‘progressive’ version of patriotism, or by conceding ‘legitimate’ concerns to BNP voters. This is pandering, and it has only fuelled the fascists’ growth. The Left has to mobilise the anti-fascist vote; tackle racism head-on, including the ‘culturalist’ racism promoted by liberal Islamophobes; organise workers so that they can take on their real enemies; and rebuild the shattered Left in the working class cores abandoned by Labour.

Richard Seymour is the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder and the forthcoming The Meaning of David Cameron. An activist with the Socialist Workers Party, he writes the popular political blog Lenin’s Tomb.

Jacob Mukherjee

Why has immigration become such a big issue in Britain today? It’s impossible to give a simple answer to this question, but that hasn’t stopped some on the Left trying. We’re told that racism is used as a divide-and-rule strategy by a devious Ruling Class and exploited by unscrupulous politicians. Comforting as this explanation may be, it isn’t even half of the story.

Anti-immigrant sentiment in this country is deep-rooted, has developed organically and is part of a long term hardening of attitudes on “race” among a significant section of the population. In Routes of Racism, Roger Hewitt tracks the development of racist discourses in white working class communities in the 1970s and 80s. People who felt their economic interests and cultural identities were under attack seized on municipal anti-racism and “political correctness” as manifestations of unfairness and middle class hypocrisy. Now familiar concepts like “immigrants jumping the housing queue” and people “coming over here, taking our jobs” were born. Crude biological racism was largely displaced by a racism couched in terms of social and economic grievances.

Opportunistic newspaper editors were happy to co-opt, encourage and exploit the new racism. Political parties and movements with long traditions of racism and fascism were also well placed to capitalise. Since the mid 90s, the BNP have emerged as the most successful of these groups.

The Left’s response has had two elements. One the one hand, we are reassured that the imminent creation of a mass workers’ party will offer a progressive, radical solution to those who currently vote BNP. Meanwhile, most Left groups have enthusiastically joined the mainstream parties in depoliticised “anti-fascist” campaigns that try to isolate the BNP and “deny them the respectability they crave”. These campaigns have now become counter-productive. It is too late to stop people taking the BNP seriously, and urging people to vote for one of the “respectable” parties merely reinforces the perception of the BNP as radical outsiders.

If the Left is serious about creating a progressive alternative to the BNP, it must address the social grievances that underpin racist sentiments. This does not mean condoning racism, but nor does it mean self righteous statements of support for open borders and condemnations of “the Nazi BNP.”

In embattled working class areas, should we leave it to the far Right to advocate giving housing priority to people (of whatever colour) already living in the area? Is it racist to demand that jobs on construction sites be set aside for unemployed local residents? The Left has ducked these issues for too long, allowing the BNP to claim ownership of them. If we want to enter the mainstream, we must come up with our own answers – and soon.

Jacob Mukherjee was co-writer of the blog Left Luggage and is a teacher and trade union activist

Frances Webber

The mainstream parties bear some responsibility for the rise of the far Right. While claiming to be anti-racist and condemning the BNP, they all work from the premise that immigration is a Problem and migrants fundamentally undesirable.

Labour ministers work to bring the ‘Problem’ under control - e-borders and biometrics keep more and more people out, deterrent measures force down numbers of asylum seekers, fewer economic migrants can take ‘British’ jobs, tests for citizenship keep out ‘undeserving’ candidates who don’t endorse ‘British’ values, and more and more ‘illegals’, foreign ‘criminals’ and bogus asylum seekers are detained and deported. However hard Labour works, the Tories claim there are illegal immigrants everywhere and immigration is not under control at all. The Lib Dems hedge and wriggle, but the talk is still all about control. If any of the parties talk positively about migrants, it’s solely in terms of the benefit to the economy. The election manifestos basically propose variations on the same theme.

What none of the parties do is to talk about the immigrants in human terms - refugees who have obtained sanctuary in Britain (and those who have not, who have been returned to death, torture or war); families who have reunited in Britain (and those who have been separated by immigration policies), children rescued from traffickers (or not, or detained).  

The Left was historically built on internationalism, and it should come naturally in a globalised age - but it doesn’t. We are very myopic about migration. But people do respond to perceived unfairness, and those with personal experience of the way migrants are treated respond with humanity. If voters were made aware of the links between the global mobility of money and corporate power, and the desperation driving people to emigrate to the rich world - the destruction of lives and livelihoods, the land expropriations, the resource wars and all the other effects of unregulated global capitalism on the poor world; if they were aware of the odysseys undergone by migrants to get here, putting in perspective the volcanic ash saga; and if they were made aware of the way migrants are treated when they get here - disrespected, disbelieved, detained, rendered destitute - voters would respond with outrage and compassion.

Frances Webber is an immigration and human rights lawyer. She is on the management council of the Institute of Race Relations, but writes here in a personal capacity.

Joe Cox

Immigration is a huge issue on the doorstep- even my most left wing comrades are constantly tested when they are told how immigration has undermined someone’s community, public service, job etc. Yet I get the impression from talking to voters that 99 times out of 100 when people talk about immigration they are really talking about something else. The reason I say this is because whenever immigration comes up on the doorstep I ask why immigration is a problem. The next answer is almost always because they are taking houses, they are ruining public services, they are causing unemployment or as one voter has told me – immigrants are given free tv’s! All these accusations are entirely false, so why the widespread fear of immigration?

I think it comes down to one thing mainly; that is insecurity. This is born out by a recent IPPR report entitled “Alienation not immigration fuelling BNP support”. This report demonstrates that education and social cohesion repel any far-right advances. Therefore the challenge is to reduce insecurity and build social cohesion.

Free markets will not provide either of these. The market does not supply good affordable housing by itself, the market when left unchecked will drive down wages. We need strong social democratic interventions to supply affordable housing for the 5 million people who need them. We need a living wage and a better work-life balance. The most active in civil society tend to be the middle classes because they have the time. You cannot build a strong community with people who are over-worked and underpaid. Stronger communities would be able to deal with shifting migration patterns much more easily.

Yet this is only half of the problem. The other is the driver of immigration – businesses want low paid, flexible labour. People also want cheap goods and services. In the future the need to move away from a credit-fuelled, low wage economy to a high skilled, more productive one is paramount

Joe Cox is Campaigns Organiser for the left-wing pressure group Compass.

Spencer Fitzgibbon

The current debate around immigration only serves to highlight even further the reality that Labour, Tories and Lib Dems are essentially offering voters more of the same - and that the Green Party are the only real alternative for anyone interested in a more progressive society.  All the other parties are making free with the word ‘fair’ during their general election campaigns, yet using immigration as a litmus test highlights just how superficial the commitment is to any kind of coherent social justice agenda. Just as on public service cuts, they jostle to see who can most impress the right wing media by promising to keep people out of Britain, rather than genuinely addressing the reasons why people migrate and the migratory role played by our foreign and trade policies, for example.

More than half the world’s population live on two dollars a day. To paraphrase Gary Young who put it so eloquently earlier this week in a Guardian piece, if you build a 10 foot fence and put food on one side, the hungry will build an eleven foot ladder. Nowhere in the immigration debate do we see proper recognition of the fact that it is economic inequality that drives the vast majority of migration - except from the Green Party.

I want to debunk once and for all the myth that people cannot access decent housing, for example, because of high levels of immigration. There is not enough high quality social housing because the govt has failed to invest sufficiently - and it is cowardly to use the immigration debate as a way of masking this fact. The same principle  applies when it comes to jobs.

This is not to deny the experiences of the many people living in Britain today without work or a decent home. But we fail them just as much as we fail the immigrant communities that contribute so much to our culture and our economy by refusing to face up to the underlying problems.  The far right is taking advantage of the lack of a proper honest debate on immigration. By failing to live up to their promises on fairness, the big 3 political parties are letting it happen. The Greens want a very different approach - a system that is fair and consistent, does not break up families, upholds the right to sanctuary and judges each case on its merits. A system that does not detain children and protects the large numbers of people living in the UK whose status is not defined. And above all we want immigration policies that are set in a context of tackling the poverty and inequality that prompt people to take the huge and daunting step of leaving their homes and familes to come to Britain.

Spencer Fitzgibbon is a Spokesperson for the Green Party.

J. Bauthumley

It’s hard to say whether the anti-immigrant stance of the mainstream parties is driven by a desire to please the tabloid media (and its readers), fear of being outflanked by their rivals, or a genuine hatred of migrants, but it’s clear that none of them have any interest in challenging the brutal way that migrants are currently treated by the British state. Whoever wins this election, we can expect to see a continuation of the inhumane policies that trigged the hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood detention centre and led to the recent suicide of a family of three people in Glasgow. None of the mainstream political parties offer any genuine opposition to the extreme-right views of groups such as the BNP. It makes little sense to expect those who are carrying out horrific repression against immigrants  
right now, to meaningfully oppose the people who dream of being able to attack immigrants one day.

Focusing on small, marginalised fascist groups like the BNP, however, does not address the issue as to how we challenge anti-immigrant prejudice widespread throughout the rest of British society. It would be counter-productive to write all these people off as Nazis. Many British workers fear immigrant labour to be a threat to their own living standards. They are also not going to be won over by abstract arguments concerning individuals’ rights or freedom of movement. Employers do frequently take advantage of the more temporary nature of jobs that migrant workers take on, migrant workers can also often be bullied into working in worse conditions than most British workers would accept and they can be threatened with deportation when they try to organise. Our increasingly liberalised labour market also encourages short term contracts, for workers to be mobile, to be flexible and continually self-improving. Migrant labour fits this model well (although almost all workers are now being expected to sing to this tune).

We need to make the case that the only way to stop immigrant labour becoming a threat is to take united action against our common enemy – the bosses. Only through united, direct action, demanding better wages and conditions and calling exploitative employers to account are we going to strengthen the position of British workers. This isn’t going to be easy, it’s going to be very hard, but the other options - to abandon our internationalist principles and support the state in its attacks on other working-class people, or to write off everyone who sees immigration as a threat - are no options at all.

J. Bauthumley is a member of the Anarchist Federation.

Front image via Left Foot Forward.

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