Immigration Roundtable

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

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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First published: 30 April, 2010

Category: Migration, Politics, Racism

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10 Comments on "Immigration Roundtable"

By jimmy kerr, on 30 April 2010 - 22:27 |

Immigration, negative propaganda around immigration and unemployment are all necessary components of the capitalist system. Firstly we must keep benefits high enough to stop people from starving and rebelling against the system, but low enough to provide an incentive to work.
However, at the same time, capitalism requires a flexible reserve army of labour willing to work for subsistence wages when required, but with no recourse to benefits. The propaganda surrounding immigrants provides a useful pretext for protests against their presence when they system does not need them, ie in times of recession. If we remove any one of these components we stand a decent chance of changing this system for something less inefficient, more stable and less destructive. For me the easiest thing to remove within our political and economic framework must be low wages and so a decent minimum wage must be priority of any left wing political party

By David Wearing, on 02 May 2010 - 12:42 |

I’d like to address a few problems that I perceive with Jacob Mukherjee’s contribution.

To the extent that public resources and jobs are scarce for people at the bottom of the income scale, it plainly does not follow that the source of this problem is immigration. Progressives and the left recognise that the plight of the least well-off in society results from the strictly hierarchical nature of our economy, and the grossly unfair distribution of power and resources.

The suggestion that the left should be calling for discrimination in the job market and in the allocation of public housing, rather than wealth redistribution and economic intervention so that there is housing and employment for all who need it, is an extraordinary one. Equally strange is the charge that the left does not “come up with answers” to these questions of just social outcomes. Is the call for wealth redistribution to meet the needs of the least well off a secret part of left-wing philosophy? In any event, it is certainly not clear, in a country where the wealth of the richest 1,000 people is estimated to be fully one third of a trillion pounds, why immigrants on middle and lower incomes should be blamed for the problems of others in a similar situation.

Even if we forget this rather obvious and fundamental point about the distribution of wealth, there is something else wrong with this picture, namely the assumption that immigrants are a net drain on public resources and on jobs. This overlooks the fact that immigrants also pay taxes which fund public resources, and spend money in the economy which spurs economic activity and helps to create jobs. This is as true of immigrants as it is of any other member of society, unless one takes a certain, prejudiced view of the types of people who come to Britain from abroad. The assumption that immigrants are a net drain on society is an unpleasant and misguided one. It is the task of the left to challenge this view empirically.

One clear dividing line between the left and right is that the left believes that solutions to society’s problems can be found in demanding justice from those at the top (the wealthy and powerful), while the right prefers to blame those around and beneath them (benefit scroungers and immigrants). The demand for social justice in favour of one poor group at the expense of another, rather than at the expense of the wealthy is (a) not a demand for social justice at all, but for a different form of injustice, and (b) certainly does not fill a vacuum where ideas should be. Instead, it accepts and reinforces some extremely dangerous pre-existing assumptions.

Because the notion – the false notion – that immigrants are a net drain and a burden on people who could not possibly blame more deserving stratas of society for their problems, is a notion that has consequences for the immigrants themselves. It is they who, as refugees, are sent back to an uncertain fate in dangerous countries because one of the richest nations in the world sees them as a problem that it cannot possibly cope with. It is they who, when they seek refuge in Britain, are often treated with shocking cruelty, as the inmates of Yarl’s Wood, to take but one example, have experienced. It is they who are grotesquely maligned in the public discourse of the society they are trying to build their lives in. It is they who experience the stigmatisation that seeps into and distorts so many aspects of their lives. And it is they who are abused in the street and violently attacked by fascists (the physical defence of immigrants being the main purpose of the anti-fascist activism that Jacob expresses a dim view of).

No one would argue that the left couldn’t possibly communicate its ideas any better, or that it should not continually re-think its broad analysis and how that can be applied to the realities of an ever-changing world. But one basic principle continues to hold true: that people on middle and lower incomes of all nationalities, and of all backgrounds within nations, have common material, political and social interests, suffering as they all do from economic injustices perpetrated by the wealthy and the powerful. Forget this, and we’ll have little to say of much value on this or any other subject.

By Paul Harris, on 02 May 2010 - 21:31 |

“This report demonstrates that education and social cohesion repel any far-right advances. Therefore the challenge is to reduce insecurity and build social cohesion.”

Except Putnam shows ethnic and cultural diversity damages cohesion. Why fight a fire that doesn’t need to be light? The report was problematic anyway, its methodology flawed.

By Jacob Mukherjee, on 02 May 2010 - 22:43 |

David, thanks for your comments. 400 words is not a lot with which to cover a complex subject, so apologies if I haven’t always been clear. I do feel, though, that you’ve either misunderstood or misrepresented some of my points. I’m pleased that I now have the opportunity to expand on some of the things I wrote.

1) I didn’t say the “source of this problem [scarce resources] is immigration.” Please read my article again and correct me if I am wrong. I was not asked to write about the causes of social problems. If I had been, immigration would not have been very high on my list. But can immigration (which tends disproportionally to be into working class areas) exacerbate existing social problems? Well, surely the answer should be that it can do - depending on how it is managed.

Immigration brings many benefits. One of these is to employers, who can increase profits by employing cheaper immigrant labour under terrible conditions (often taking advantage of the fact that another country has provided and paid for the training). There is also a benefit to British society as a whole in the form of increased cultural diversity.

It is not racist, however, to point out that there are also potential problems. Newham in East London has very high levels of social deprivation. It has also had relatively high levels of immigration since the 1950s. This leads to pressure on already scarce resources and increased competition for jobs (therefore downward pressure on wages). Of course, this is only true for those migrants who seek employment and rely on state services. Some who arrive do not enter the job markets, since they are self employed, and are sufficiently affluent to avoid reliance on the state. But most are not in this position, and their arrival can (in certain circumstances) exacerbate already pressing social problems. If we accept that this is the case, the question is what we do about it.

2) Yes, we should call for massive wealth redistribution and this should be a vital part of any left wing programme. But, given the current balance of political forces in the UK, this is a fairly distant aspiration. Should we (the Left) respond to working class people who (rightly or wrongly) express the (sadly common) view that immigrants are “taking jobs and houses” by saying “the problem is the unjust distribution of wealth – we would radically alter social relations in Britain, addressing your concerns”? Well, we would want to state this as part of our long term vision for changing society, but we’d be advised to come up with some shorter term steps if we wanted to be taken seriously.

I’ve hinted at two short term measures – giving newly created jobs to long term unemployed people and giving council housing to people already living in the area. I hope the benefits of the former are obvious. Of course, newly created jobs would have to be well paid and under reasonable conditions in order to tempt long term unemployed people to apply. The latter suggestion, on housing, would help to reverse the break up of urban working class communities, where young people are often forced to move out of the area to find a place to live.

Beyond these measures, we should call for increased resources for council housing, state intervention to create jobs, strengthening of workers’ rights and abolition of the anti-union laws. Without these more radical steps, problems of scarce resources, unemployment etc will remain. But these are all measures that require a powerful working class, progressive movement to enact. If we want to win these reforms, we have to first come up with more immediately achievable solutions to immediate problems.

3) I don’t “express a dim view” of anti-fascism. I express a dim view (actually, a very negative view) of the kind of “anti-fascism” that seeks to direct support away from the BNP and towards the “respectable mainstream”.

Do you really think that the activities of Searchlight, UAF etc. contribute to the “physical defence of immigrants”? Please explain how. Surely the best way to defend immigrants is to combat the rise of the far right. As I said in my piece, I feel that the kind of anti-fascist campaigns I’ve mentioned fail to do this, and may have begun to do the opposite.

4) I wholeheartedly agree with your last paragraph, but I’m not sure why you felt it necessary to write it. Perhaps it was of your concern that I was “blaming” immigration / immigrants for social problems. But, as I’ve said, I wasn’t.

The question I was asked to address was about a) the reasons for the rise in immigration as a hot political issue, b) the role of the main parties in this and c) the response the Left should take. You seem to object mainly to my answer to c), in which case – what do you think the Left should do? I’m not being facetious; it’s a genuine question.

By David Wearing, on 03 May 2010 - 08:30 |

Jacob - to respond to your three points

1/ Yes, your position was obviously that immigration was “a” not “the” source of the problem of scarce resources. Happy to accept that correction. It doesn’t have a bearing on my argument in any event.

You say

“Immigration brings many benefits. One of these is to employers, who can increase profits by employing cheaper immigrant labour under terrible conditions (often taking advantage of the fact that another country has provided and paid for the training). There is also a benefit to British society as a whole in the form of increased cultural diversity.”

This is an incomplete view of the economic role that immigrants play in society, and it avoids the argument I made. So to repeat: through taxation, consumer spending, and other economic activity on the part of migrants (working and middle class), immigration may increase or at least not decrease the national wealth overall, and therefore the amount of money that is available to the government to fund public services and to the public and private sector to create jobs. We’ll come back to wealth allocation/distribution in a moment.

You mention the role immigration plays in depressing wages (which ignores the broader context mentioned above). But even if we accept this narrow focus, the economics needs to be thought through a bit better. One of the reasons migrant labour is cheaper is that the draconian anti-immigrant regime put in place by successive governments either forces such people into the black economy or at least alienates them from social structures that could help them push for better wages, and thus change their effect on the labour market. Ostracision from society (again, in no small part due to the anti-immigrant consensus) leaves migrants without support networks like trade unions and generally unaware of or unable to enforce their rights in the workplace.

It follows then that the best way to counter any downward pressure on wages from migration would be to welcome migrants into society and socialise them as quickly as possible (rather than to alienate them further through the discriminatory measures that you advocate). The left doesn’t need to wait for government to do this. There’s great potential for it to be a grassroots task where unions in particular can play a proactive role.

2/ You say

“Should we (the Left) respond to working class people who (rightly or wrongly) express the (sadly common) view that immigrants are “taking jobs and houses” by saying “the problem is the unjust distribution of wealth – we would radically alter social relations in Britain, addressing your concerns”? Well, we would want to state this as part of our long term vision for changing society, but we’d be advised to come up with some shorter term steps if we wanted to be taken seriously.”

This is a straw man. Even within the neoliberal framework it is possible to make marginal changes to the distribution of wealth whose effect, while small overall, is life-changing for those individuals to whom it means the difference between having a job, or not, or between levels of social benefits on which they depend. Within the general capitalist framework, even a mildly social-democratic government could transform the lives of many thousands of people at the bottom of the social ladder through marginal wealth re-distribution, while leaving the overall structure of social relations more or less intact.

The left can push for changes like these in the immediate term, build on whatever victories can be achieved, and drive this incremental process in a direction that leads to more substantive structural changes to society in the medium and longer term. That’s the pragmatic, serious approach that the left can take. The discrimination that you advocate in social policy and employment will be profoundly unhelpful in this respect, not least because it will encourage division amongst working people whose cooperation is essential to any progressive political movement, and also because it will encourage a move in political focus away from the real cause of these social problems.

The discrimination you advocate will also reinforce the anti-immigrant sentiment which has the consequences set out in my penultimate paragraph (the purpose of which should have been reasonably obvious). That addresses your point 4. There is also a moral argument against discrimination, which is fairly self-evident, and which the dubious notion that the suggested discrimination is “immediately achievable” does little to counter.

3/ You “express a dim view (actually, a very negative view) of the kind of “anti-fascism” that seeks to direct support away from the BNP and towards the “respectable mainstream””. I’m not aware of anyone who does that, but accept that this may be due to ignorance on my part. My belief was that anti-fascism, as far as voting goes, seeks merely to divert electoral support away from fascists, with no particular emphasis on it going towards the three main parties after that.

How do Searchlight, UAF etc. contribute to the physical defence of immigrants? Most obviously by raising awareness of the fact that the BNP, far from being merely a party with objectionable views, is also a party with strong links to racist violence. It has a membership with a history of racist violence, and racist attacks are known to rise wherever the BNP makes electoral gains. This violent aspect of their nature is something rarely stressed in mainstream political debate, but it is central to any serious objection to the rise of the BNP. While the violent nature of the party itself is insufficiently understood it is vital that groups such as Searchlight and the UAF are working vigilantly to bring this to people’s attention. In addition, this work can also have a beneficial effect in countering the social-alienation of immigrants whose economic consequences were discussed above.

“what do you think the Left should do? I’m not being facetious; it’s a genuine question.”

Its a question which I answered in my first comment, and this second comment provides some further elaboration. Perhaps we can put aside this notion of a vacuum of ideas on the left where immigration is concerned, since the real issue is plainly your disagreement with ideas that exist, and which are well known.

By Jacob Mukherjee, on 03 May 2010 - 13:44 |

David, sorry for the long post:

1) Your points about the economic activity of migrants having a net positive impact on overall wealth are similar to those used by the CBI. They are accurate in the sense that anyone who comes to the country to work rather than claim unemployment benefits “contributes” more than they “take.”

My main point, as you acknowledge, was more about the impact of immigration on the *distribution* of wealth. A report from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee in 2007/8 found that “immigration has had a small negative impact on the lowest-paid workers in the UK, and a small positive impact on the earnings of higher-paid workers.” The report also points out people from ethnic minorities are part of the group affected negatively.

I fully agree that measures to “socialise” immigrants such as trade union recruitment might mitigate some of the downward pressure on wages associated with immigration. However, I think wages and conditions will continue to be undermined for as long as there is significant immigration. After all, the main competitive advantage that newly arrived workers have over those resident here is their willingness to accept inferior pay and conditions. Immigrant workers in certain occupations are always likely to accept the minimum offer made by employers, leading to a race to the bottom and making it hard for other workers to demand anything higher.

Just to underline the point again, this doesn’t mean that immigration is the *cause* of low wages and poor conditions. We can attribute that to low regulation, anti-union laws and other neoliberal measures. (Of course, neoliberals like Digby Jones tend to be in favour of high levels of immigration.)

2) You are right that “mildly social democratic reform” could transform the lives of working people in the UK, but even this mild reform depends on the ability of an organised working class movement to push for it. The question is: how do we build a movement that can win these reforms?

The first step must be to convince working class people that we take their concerns seriously and can propose achievable solutions. If people see positive results on issues of immediate concern, they are more likely to put their faith in progressive solutions to “bigger problems” such as the distribution of resources, the running of public services etc. If we are seen to ignore or give insufficient attention to people’s immediate concerns, we shouldn’t be surprised if they continue to regard us as irrelevant.

At the moment, immigration comes out as one of the top three concerns expressed by voters. Prior to the recession, it occasionally came second or even first. As I wrote in my article, concerns about immigration are most often expressed in terms of social grievances. In your first response to my article, you suggested that the Left’s answer to these concerns was to propose wealth redistribution. You didn’t flesh this out much in your next post, but again hinted at “incremental” and “marginal” reforms.
Lets imagine that we are canvassing in a working class area on behalf of some newly formed Left group. We meet a working class person who has lived in the area for some time. (She might be white, black, Asian or from another background – I don’t think it matters.) She is unemployed and on the waiting list for council housing, and tells us he believes that immigrants are getting jobs and houses ahead of her.

What would be her reaction if we said that our solution to this problem was wealth redistribution, or one of the incremental reforms you hinted at, such as a more progressive tax system? She might well support such measures, but would she feel satisfied that they addressed her problem directly, or that they constituted an immediately achievable solution? How would she react if we told her that her concerns were misplaced, and that immigrants make a positive contribution? I think she would feel that we were ducking the issue.

In this situation, I would certainly explain my view that her problems are largely due to the economic policies pursued by successive governments, the weakness and timidity of organised labour, and other “macro” factors. But I think she would also want specific assurances that we would take action to remedy her housing problems and her unemployment.

You call the action I propose “discrimination”, which is a very loaded word. In the legal sense this means treating someone differently because of their race, gender, sexual orientation etc. That is not what I am proposing.

Councils across the country have all kinds of criteria for deciding who should be given priority for housing. Families, for instance, are generally given priority over single people. Many councils already give priority to people who have been on the waiting list for a long time. This would not favour newly arrived immigrants, or anyone else newly in need of housing, but is it right to call it “discrimination”? What I am proposing is giving extra priority “points” to those who have lived in the area with parents or friends for many years, often in crowded conditions, and who cannot afford to rent or buy privately. (There may be as many as five million people nationally in this situation.) Newly arrived immigrants, as well as internal migrants from other parts of the UK, would not be favoured by this system, but is it right to call it “discrimination”?

In employment, as well, the case for giving priority to certain candidates is well established. Many public and private bodies have a duty to employ representative numbers of black and Asian people, and to make a special effort to employ disabled people. It is not hard to conceive that an additional duty – to employ a representative number of long-term unemployed local residents. When the Government announced its Olympic bid, it promised that new jobs in and around Stratford would go towards tackling local unemployment problems. Was it “discriminatory” to do so? (As it happens, the Government has been criticised for failing to deliver this pledge.)

In order to be fair, these measures should go along aside a massive expansion of housing provision and state-aided job opportunities, and I would want no part of any group that offered anything else.

The case of political asylum seekers is in a different category, and there are slightly different moral duties and political concerns. I would echo the IWCA’s call for:
•  The allocation of political refugees to areas that can most easily accommodate them.
•  Consultation with local communities regarding new arrivals.
•  Appropriate financial compensation from government to local authorities.
•  Additional government grants to facilitate integration.
•  Extra housing provision to take account of any extra demands on housing stock.
•  The safeguarding of tenants’ positions on existing housing lists.
•  The right to work or study for political refugees while their claims for citizenship are being processed
Is any of this unfair or discriminatory?

3) Directing support towards mainstream parties is exactly what UAF, Searchlight etc. do. I won’t say more on this, here, but suggest you read the following articles:

I certainly agree that combating the social alienation of immigrants (in other words, accelerating integration) is a key priority for anyone interested in increasing harmony between different groups and reducing discrimination. Where we disagree is on how to do this. The campaigns of Searchlight, UAF do very little to alter the views on immigration or race of any potential BNP voters. Their declared strategy is to “maximise the anti-fascist vote” – i.e. get those who are not likely to vote BNP to support one of the main parties (generally Labour). What we must do is connect with those alienated from the mainstream parties and the Left, who are sympathetic to the BNP and its politics.

Your point about my “disagreement with ideas that exist, and which are well known” is confusing. As I’ve said a number of times, I agree that large scale social and economic changes are ultimately needed to address racism and hostility to immigrants. What I’ve tried to do is add some further suggestions, which I think are vital in the short term if we are to have a hope of addressing the bigger issues any time soon.

By David Wearing, on 05 May 2010 - 14:24 |

Jacob – I have to say, I remain baffled by this notion that modest wealth-redistribution to address these social grievances is some remote prospect which, if we advocate it, will cost us credibility amongst ordinary people concerned about the impact of immigration (not least since you advocate many of the measures I am talking about yourself). What is remote and not “immediately achievable” about demands for a living wage, or for adequate social housing for those who require it? Why would ordinary people see such demands as lacking credibility? You actually advocate these measures yourself, so plainly you can see that there is nothing abstract or “macro” about them

Such demands are the focus of successfully large-scale campaigning right now. Take Citizens UK, for example ( ). Here you have a broad-based movement with thousands of participants drawn from trades unions, community groups and religious organisations, demanding affordable housing and a living wage, as well as the sort of regularisation of migrant labour that I talked about, and an end to child detention. Evidently these mostly working class people do not see the demands I have described as remote. Evidently (since their collective demands are arrived at through a democratic process) they see such measures as addressing their immediate concerns. Evidently they do not believe that such things require as a pre-requisite a radical change in social relations or “the imminent creation of a mass workers’ party”. And evidently these demands lie some distance from the political position of the CBI.

The best antidote to the division caused by anti-immigrant sentiment is the mobilisation of communities around common interests.  What the work of Citizens UK does is to bind together social justice issues affecting migrants with those affecting working people as a whole. The discrimination you advocate, by contrast, will exascerbate social division (joining the major parties in) pandering to distorted and exaggerated notions of intra-community competing interests peddled by the right-wing media and the fascist right.

You say discrimination is a loaded term. Maybe, but it does at least have the redeeming feature of accurately describing what you propose. Placing people at the back of the queue for jobs and housing on the basis not of need (the needs of economic migrants are often acute), or of ability, or to counteract prior discrimination as is the aim of affirmitive action, but on the basis of where applicants come from, is straightforward discrimination. It is morally suspect in and of itself, and more so because of its consequences. Being directly tied to the immigration issue, such measures will only reinforce and grant further respectibility to the divisive untruths of anti-immigrant sentiment being peddled by the far-right. This places us on very dangerous ground. The false perception of immigration needs to be countered head on in the interests not only of social cohesion, but of the social and economic well-being, and the physical safety, of immigrants in particular.

I will leave this discussion there, but finish by quoting in full a very good letter published by the Guardian today, from leading Trade Unionists, activists, academics and NGO workers. This, to my mind, is the correct stance for the left to take on immigration, in political debate in general and on the doorstep in particular. (The Gary Younge article linked to below is also worth reading)


In this election the BNP and Migration Watch have been allowed to distort the truth and set the terms of debate on immigration. It is, as Gary Younge pointed out (Comment, 26 April
), time for the truth about immigration to be told.

Britain has benefited in every way from migrants. Migrant labour is a major contributor to the NHS and transport systems. Migrant workers pay a greater percentage of taxes than those born here and use public services less. Without them we’d find our offices, schools and hospitals filthy and our strawberries and lettuce rotting in the fields.

Low wages are a product of deregulated industries and non-unionised workers, not of immigration. When immigration minister Meg Hillier ignores the Home Office’s own research on migration and seeks to undermine the BNP in Dagenham by boasting of a deportation every eight minutes and the introduction of identity cards for migrants, it is clear that we are living in dangerous times.

The continued peddling of the myth of migrants as being responsible for stresses on hospitals, schools, jobs and wages can only lead to a rise in the BNP’s influence and more racist attacks. We call for an end to the scapegoating of migrants and for the creation of a movement to take back the debate on immigration from the fascists and bust through the racist lies.

Jerry Bartlett, World executive board member, Education International

Julian Bild. IAS

Christine Blower General Secretary, NUT

Bob Crow, General Secretary RMT

Rita Chadha-Bolt, RAMFEL

Sasha Callaghan, UCU

Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary NUT

Donna Covey

Jeremy Dear, General Secretary NUJ

Elane Heffernan Hands Off My Workmate

Professor Jane Hardy

Chris Keates General Secretary NASUWT

Tony Kearns, Deputy General Secretary CWU

John Leech MP

Mark Serwotka, General Secretary PCS

Marissa Begonia, Justice for Domestic Workers

Greg Brown, UCL Living Wage Campaign

Dr Rhetta Moran, RAPAR

Max Edwards, ManchesterRefugee Support Network

Professor Sonia Mckay

Professor Phil Marfleet

Dr Ben Rogaly

Dr Nicola Montagna

Artie Birtill

Donna Simpson

Elenore Kofman

Audrey Guichen,

Mick Gilgunn, Islingon TUC

Eve Turner, Ealing TUC

Jon Morgan, Croydon TUC

J Morgan Keighley, TUC

Sandy Nicoll

Ian Allinson, EC UNITE

Pat Boyle, Chair UNITE, 16/47 branch

Paul Brandon, UNITE rep Holloway bus garage

Professor Alex Callinicos

John Storey, EC UNITE

Mohammed Taj, EC UNITE

Pat Oliver, EC UNITE

Tom Cashman, EC UNITE

Elizabeth Malone, EC UNITE

Dave Williams, EC UNITE

Ray Morell, London& Eastern Regional EC UNITE

Dr Rhetta Moran, RAPAR

Max Edwards, Manchesterrefugee Support Network

Jessica Fenn TSSA

Stgeve Hedley, RMT, LondonRegion

Oliver New, RMT

George Binette

Nick Grant NUT NEC

Ann Lemon NUT NEC

Chris Blakey NUT NEC

Sean Vernell NEC, UCU

John McLoughlin

By Jonathan Maunder, on 06 May 2010 - 14:55 |

I very much agree with David’s points in this debate. I wanted also to defend Unite Against Fascism.

The point of UAF is not to advocate a programme of radical social change or to advocate a vote for a particular party. Rather it has a very specific, but important, remit.
It is about the political realities which come with the rise of fascist organisations which cannot be ducked.

1. If the BNP or the English Defence League organise a protest or rally in your area you have a clear and immediate choice - do you mobilise the anti-fascist majority to oppose them or not? If they are not confronted the reality is that they will grow in strength and confidence, posing a real threat to Black and Asian people on the streets, and indeed anyone they want to intimidate.

2. Does it matter if tomorrow if there is a BNP victory in Barking and Dagenham (either in the parliamentary or council elections) or a Labour victory? Surely no left winger in their right mind would think it did’nt. If so again the options are very clear, do you mobilise the anti-fascist vote or not?

In both cases UAF provides the vehicle through which to organise.

Of course there are many issues which are’nt within UAF’s remit - re-building working class confidence and organisation, and the wider left. I would argue strongly that it is possible, and necessary, to both engage in the kind anti-fascist activity of UAF, and re-build working class strength and militancy.

By Jonathan Maunder, on 06 May 2010 - 16:45 |

Just to clarify the wording in my last paragraph, UAF itself activity can of course play a part in building working class confidence. I meant rather that the broader class issues are not going to be deal with through an organisation like UAF which organises on the specific issue of opposition to the BNP and other fascists.

By Jacob, on 08 May 2010 - 14:40 |

David, you haven’t engaged with many of the points I made in my earlier post. Your argument appears to be the Left should do more of the same; mine is that it’s approach to issues around immigration has been disastrous and indicates its removal from the concerns of working class people.

You advocate a similar argument “on the doorstep” to that expressed in the letter you quoted. If people express concerns about immigration, we should say “Britain has benefited in every way from migrants”, and that the real problems are elsewhere? This would be a suicidal approach, for reasons I’ve explained fully.

My proposals are “discriminatory”? If we explain to people in working class communities that proposals to give long term unemployed people priority in the job market are wrong (even racist), we will continue to be irrelevant and unable to have any real influence on social policy. We’ll get the same result if we object to policies that try to ensure that local people should have access to housing near where they grew up.

UK Citzens are a group I’ve had some contact with. They are an NGO who seek to train “community leaders” to negotiate with those in power. They have done some great work, but they are not a prototype for those on the Left. Rather, our aim should be to put forward an analysis that speaks to the way ordinary people see the world, but offers radical and progressive solutions.

Jon, I suggest that you take a look at the article I linked to in my last post - they address some of the points you raise.

I feel this discussion had run it’s course and I can’t further clarify my position, so I won’t be checking back here for further comments or posting anything further myself. Besides, I doubt anyone is checking the comments on an article that’s no longer on the front page.

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