Immigration restrictions are at the very centre of the Brexit agenda. On top of this, the Tory government is intensifying attacks on international students, immigrants and refugees.
It is trying to raise the stakes and see how far it can go. And so far, unfortunately, the strongest opposition to the Tory policies has come from capitalist interests who want to avoid any restrictions which might hinder the pursuit of profit.
The post-Brexit debate has rather seen a rightward shift in left wing debates on migration. Even some Jeremy Corbyn supporters have decided to interpret the Brexit vote as a racist and anti-immigration vote, and to adapt to it.
After the referendum Unite general secretary Len McCluskey embraced the idea of immigration restrictions from the EU. Paul Mason has written that he is glad it has become acceptable to say, “You are right to worry about migration.”
Corbyn has so far refused to say that migration is the problem, blaming exploitative practices of the bosses instead. But the question of migration restrictions has become increasingly divisive within the Labour Party. Labour right wingers like Rachel Reeves soon forgot about their pro-remain stand and started demanding that the Labour Party drops its support for freedom of movement for EU workers.
Even Clive Lewis, a Corbyn supporter and self-proclaimed “proud socialist”, declared to the Guardian that freedom of movement is responsible for the worsening of labour and living standards in the UK. He joined Guardian columnist Owen Jones in arguing that Labour has to champion English nationalism to win the votes of British workers.
This helps explain why the Labour response has been so weak, and why the Labour Party has not organised any significant mobilisations against the Tory government’s racist proposals.
At trade union level the situation is not much better. Some trade unions, such as the University and College Union (UCU) and Unison, are taking some initiatives against racism and to defend the right to remain of EU citizens, but have not addressed the question of freedom of movement.
At the last Class conference McCluskey argued that freedom of movement is the price for keeping access to the single market, yet after the Brexit referendum Unite only organised a highly symbolic “wear red day” against racism. In the summer the TUC signed a joint statement with the EU TUC defending freedom of movement post-Brexit, but this has not led to grassroots mobilisation.
Defending freedom of movement should be a priority for the labour movement and is crucial to fighting racism. Any restrictions on freedom of movement, and our right to work without discrimination based on nationality, will put increasing pressure on workers from the EU. This will worsen their conditions, and so put competitive pressure on all workers and weaken our unions in every sector.
Immigration restrictions are not aimed at protecting the interests of “native born” workers — quite the contrary. And they will likely trigger greater restrictions on non-EU workers. Institutional racism and immigration restrictions will reinforce the existing downward spiral of competition in pay and working conditions, at the risk of further fuelling popular racism.
But things don’t have to go this way. There is a huge potential for mobilisation within British society — most obviously with the 2 million EU workers who are now seeing their conditions under threat. Mobilisation from below can have an impact on union leaders and the Brexit debate.
That’s why we in the UCU have launched the Campaign to Defend Freedom of Movement across Europe post-Brexit. We seek to involve workers from other unions to build a wider campaign for:
» freedom of movement and opposition to points-based immigration schemes
» up-front guarantee for existing EU/European Economic Area citizens in the UK to stay
» immediate removal of international students from net migration targets
» full recognition of workers’ rights throughout EU withdrawal negotiations.
Organising a broad campaign for freedom of movement will help demystify the idea that worsening working conditions depend on immigration, and is therefore crucial for opposing increasing racism and racist hate crimes. That’s why we believe that the defence of freedom of movement should be at the centre of the trade union and labour response.