The Politics of Immigration

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Brian Richardson examines the battle lines being drawn around immigration. We also publish an extract from the updated pamphlet Immigration: The Myths Spread to Divide Us that puts the case for opposition to all immigration controls.

The next general election is still two years away, but the battle lines are already being drawn. In a series of carefully planned announcements, the mainstream parties have all made it crystal clear that immigration will be at the top of the political agenda. The 2015 election looks set to herald the most racist campaign in a long time.

Just before the Easter break deputy prime minister Nick Clegg announced that the Liberal Democrats had been wrong to propose an amnesty for "illegal immigrants" in the 2010 election and that, instead, they would require some entrants to post financial bonds in order to guarantee that they left when their visas ran out.

The following week he was trumped by his boss David Cameron. In a heavily trailed speech Cameron made a number of declarations aimed at "ending the something for nothing society". First, he announced there would be a crackdown on the payment of Job Seekers Allowance to European Union migrants: "The clue is in the title," he remarked sarcastically. Second, he stated that his government was determined to put an end to "health tourism" by non-British nationals. Again his witty remark was that we have a "National Health Service, not an International Health Service". Finally he announced that there would be new guidance to prevent foreign nationals gaining easy access to social housing.

In making the speech, Cameron stated that his intention was to engage in a "sensible debate" which too often politicians are afraid of having for fear of upsetting people. Of course politicians should feel free to discuss immigration, but it is arrant nonsense to suggest that they have fought shy of doing so in the past. Time after time when it comes to elections we have seen politicians reach for the race card.

Dog whistles
In 1997 for example, the then Tory election strategist Andrew Lansley, now leader of the House of Commons, advised prime minister John Major that "immigration as an issue played well at the last election and still has the capacity to hurt our opponents". It didn't help too much as the government slumped to a crushing defeat. The Tories were still at it in 2001. This was the first election to be held after the publication of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report. It therefore represented a key opportunity for all parliamentary candidates to display their commitment to race equality. Instead a hue and cry was raised by Tory candidates who objected to signing a moderately drafted pledge drawn up by the Commission for Racial Equality not to discuss race issues in inflammatory terms.

The then Tory leader William Hague signed the "Compact", but refused to be "gagged" or to condemn local parties that circulated blatantly racist and offensive material.

At the following election in 2005 a new phrase, "dog whistling", entered the political language. It referred to a phenomenon whereby a coded message was issued, the meaning of which may not have been immediately clear to those people to whom it had been delivered. This didn't matter, however, as the message was not aimed at them. Instead its purpose was to catch the attention of people on the periphery. This was what lay behind Tory leader Michael Howard's decision to commission a set of billboard posters which posed the provocative question, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" followed by, "It's not racist to impose limits on immigration." The aim was to attract voters who might otherwise opt for the Nazi British National Party which, at that time, was making serious electoral advances.

The Liberal Democrats have rarely exercised any sort of power or influence and, consequently, their record has invariably gone unnoticed. Those of us with long memories will recall, however, that when the Lib Dems controlled Tower Hamlets council in the early 1990s, they operated an utterly racist housing policy which legitimised and emboldened the Nazi BNP. It was no surprise therefore that it was there, in Millwall, that the BNP made their first electoral breakthrough. Now that the Lib Dems are a discredited junior coalition party they are clearly showing their willingness to grub in the gutter alongside the Tories.

Backpedalling
Moreover, the intervention of Cameron in particular was not intended to enlighten and inform. The bosses magazine the Economist characterised his performance as "wooden" and suggested that he "stumbled, almost as if his argument didn't interest him". More importantly, within hours of its delivery, the Tories were backpedalling as Cameron's claims were checked against the actual facts. The Economist itself noted that "immigrants are not a drag on Britain's welfare state. Most make few claims on it." Meanwhile, the claim that health tourism costs the UK taxpayer £200 million appears to have been plucked out of thin air.

Cameron couldn't be bothered to get his facts right because the facts don't matter. As with Michael Howard before him what really matters is the mood music, the atmosphere that the scapegoating creates.

The catalyst for Cameron and Clegg's interventions is easily identified: the UK Independence Party. Ukip is clearly setting the political agenda with its rancid scaremongering particularly about the prospect of Bulgarians and Romanians "flooding" in when border controls are lifted in 2014. It is little wonder that the racist English Defence League is endorsing Ukip in this year's local elections.

Socialist Review readers will recall that, in the Eastleigh by-election to replace the disgraced Lib Dem Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne, Ukip won 27.8 percent of the vote, beating the Tories into third place. It's a fair bet that, had Ukip leader Nigel Farage been prepared to forgo his £200,000 MEP's salary and lavish expenses, he would probably have won the seat.

What of the Labour Party? One would hope that the people's party would stand up against such scapegoating. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the truth is rather different. Arguably Labour's Ed Miliband was the first leader to show his hand. Long before Huhne's demise triggered the by-election, he had made several speeches apologising for the immigration policy of the last Labour government.

Brown and the bigot
His political calculation is exactly the same as that of Cameron and Clegg. Seared into his memory will be the media mauling that his predecessor Gordon Brown received after calling the Rochdale pensioner Gillian Duffy a bigot following a lively exchange during the 2010 election campaign. In other words, it is an electoral calculation rather than political principle that shapes Miliband's thinking.

It is worth reflecting upon the policy about which Miliband is now so apologetic. In so doing we should remind ourselves that, before he even became an MP and leader of his party, Miliband was one of Gordon Brown's key advisers - someone paid to know his boss's mind. As a fiercely secretive Chancellor of the Exchequer, Brown was arguably the most powerful domestic politician for over a decade, the architect of New Labour's economic strategy. More than any other government minister he was responsible for opening the UK labour market up to potentially millions of workers when a group of former Soviet Bloc countries known as the Accession 8 ("A8") joined the European Union in 2004. Brown's reason for opening the borders was not any principled commitment to workers' freedom. Rather it was based upon his assessment of the needs of British capitalism. In short, he was alarmed at the extent of Britain's industrial decline and increasingly concerned about restoring the country's economic status.

He had identified a number of fundamental problems. First, Britain had an ageing population with too many people moving towards retirement when they would be economically inactive and in need of support from those still in work. Second, the remaining UK born workforce was too small and lacked the necessary skills. Finally there were too few children in school to pick up the slack in the foreseeable future. Brown's solution therefore was to open the borders as soon as possible. Those were the reasons why there were no restrictions on workers from the A8 countries arriving in 2004.

By the time he finally drove Tony Blair out of 10 Downing Street and seized the premiership, Brown was desperate to show he was not simply "Scottish" but "British" and was increasingly draping himself in the Union flag. Thus, in his very first speech as prime minister he promised that he would fight to secure "British jobs for British workers". The naked opportunism of these words was shameful. His opportunism returned to haunt him in 2009 when oil refinery workers protesting against their replacement by foreign workers struck and justified their actions by quoting his own words back to him. Unfortunately for politicians, this example highlights the fact that the electoral interests that encourage them to play the race card do not necessarily dovetail neatly with those of their paymasters in the boardrooms. The primary concern of businesses is to make money and to this end they seek out the best available supply of labour to exploit. If foreign workers are more plentiful, skilled and cheap then these are the workers they will opt to employ.

Pandering to xenophobes
It was no surprise therefore that the Economist attacked not simply the delivery but also the content of Cameron's speech. Its headline comment was "A bad day for foreign scroungers but a worse one for David Cameron as the prime minister panders to the xenophobes". In pure economic terms immigrants make a positive contribution, not least because the state has been spared the considerable expense of educating and training them. Political leaders know this and that is precisely why the shrill talk deployed at elections is invariably at odds with the policies they actually implement when in office. That, in turn, is why it is so easy for the bigots of the BNP and Ukip to expose the hypocrisy of the mainstream parties.

It is true that immigration frequently tops the list of voters' concerns in opinion polls. Commentators such as David Goodhart are quick to jump on this and express concerns about the effect that immigration has upon "social cohesion". Clearly, tensions can and do exist, particularly in times of scarcity and cuts, but any observation of the playgrounds, workplaces and social centres of any town or city will show that racism is by no means natural or automatic.

Far from such prejudice and bigotry coming from the bottom to be countered by policies aimed at ensuring cohesion, racism comes from the top. It is one of the primary means by which the bosses seek to divide the working class, the easier to rule over all. It is fomented by the gutter press - witness the frequency with which the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express run anti-immigrant scare stories.

Workers' ideas don't simply come from the papers, however. They are also shaped by their own experiences and, crucially, change when they become engaged in struggle. There are major battles to come in which it will be incumbent upon socialists to build the maximum unity and to argue that workers of all backgrounds in this country and abroad face the same enemy and are our brothers and sisters in arms.

A longer version of this article is available online. Go to www.socialistreview.org.uk