Intervening in the national immigration conversation

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A number of recent reports and surveys have contradicted the assumption that Brexit Britain is overwhelmingly racist and anti-migrant. However, writes Brian Richardson, there is still a long way to go to counter the racist ideas pumped out from above and enacted on the streets.

Mainstream politicians and pundits frequently lament the lack of a supposedly “grown up debate” about the impact of immigration in Britain. Such claims are usually followed by the suggestion that the reason for this is because the media is dominated by a cosmopolitan elite who are worried about causing offence to “ethnic minorities” and whose comfortable lifestyles protect them from any negative effects.

It is certainly true that there is not an informed debate, but far from avoiding the topic, newspapers such as the Sun, Mail and Daily Express, are utterly obsessed with the subject. Meanwhile, no election is complete without competing candidates proclaiming how much tougher they will be than their opponents when it comes to controlling immigration.

The real life impact of this rotten rhetoric is tangible and toxic. It was this that was translated into government policy in the shape of the 2014 Immigration Act that has ensnared Caribbean migrants. According to campaigners such as Patrick Vernon, one of the most high profile victims of the Windrush scandal, Sarah O’Connor, a 51 year UK resident who was classified as an illegal migrant, remained traumatised right up to the point of her death at the age of 57 in September. Elsewhere, after resigning from government, Boris Johnson’s “letterboxes and bank robbers” denunciation of Muslim women was a barefaced appeal to the racist right and incitement to the cowards who attack women wearing veils.

We should be in no doubt about the impact of such scapegoating. It was reported last month that police recorded hate crimes had increased by 17 percent to 94,098 in the year to March. Apparently race was the motivating factor in 76 percent of these incidents while religion accounted for 9 percent. Such alarming statistics should persuade any responsible politician to pause for thought, but all that matters to Johnson is his naked prime ministerial ambitions.

Demands from below

Crime figures invariably come with the caveat that any increase is primarily the result of improvements in the way that the police record them. This may be true and is the result of demands from below for greater accountability, but there can also be little doubt that issues such as the EU referendum and retaliation to terror attacks have contributed to a significant spike.

And therein lies a significant point. Coming hard on the heels of the 2014 EU election and the 2015 general election, both of which were dominated by arguments about immigration, the referendum revealed politicians on both sides who were utterly obsessed with proving how much more determined they were than their opponents to “take back control of our borders”.

Stand Up to Racism (SUTR) stood out against such scapegoating, hosting a “Keep Racism out of the Referendum” meeting in London and has consistently argued since then that the rights of EU workers based in Britain should be protected.

It is interesting to note that a number of the points SUTR raised about the positive impact of immigration have been confirmed by a recent report into current patterns of European Economic Area (EEA) immigration published by the Migrant Advisory Committee (MAC). For example, the report concluded that “migrants have no or little impact on the overall employment and unemployment outcomes of the UK born workforce.”

It goes on to indicate that: “In terms of wages the existing evidence and the analysis we present…suggests that migration is not the major determinate of wages of UK born workers. We found some evidence suggesting lower skilled workers face a negative impact while higher skilled workers benefit, however the magnitude of the impacts are generally small.”

On the question of “productivity, innovation and training” it is suggested that the impact of EU immigration is generally positive. EEA migrants pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits and “EEA migrants contribute much more to the health service and the provision of social care in financial resources and through work than they consume in services.”

These assertions highlight the fact that politicians dice with danger when they play the race card. Immigration clearly benefits huge sections of British capitalism. Indeed, an economy with an ageing population and comparatively low birth rate is hugely dependent on migrant workers. Objectively therefore it makes sense for bourgeois politicians to encourage and lead an informed debate about immigration.

This does not guarantee electoral success however particularly when politicians have little to offer except false promises and ongoing austerity.

Socialists reject such a rigid characterisation. We believe that workers ideas can and do change. Specifically, racism is not hard wired into the DNA of white people. Rather it has material roots which have to be constantly reinforced by the ruling class and opportunist politicians. Even then, workers do not automatically swallow this propaganda.

A separate report which was also published this autumn highlights this. The National Conversation on Immigration was produced by British Future and Hope Note Hate and is styled as “the biggest ever public consultation on immigration and integration”. It involved over 130 meetings in 60 different locations over a 15 month period. In addition there was an open online survey and targeted research carried out by pollsters ICM. As such, it is arguably a more interesting report than the MAC one as it is based upon a more thoroughgoing debate and discussion among and between ordinary working class people.

More nuanced

Moreover the debate is more nuanced than that which prevails online and in the media which tends to be dominated by those whose position is entrenched. The authors of the report suggest that by contrast with the loud voices of online zealots, “In most instances the citizen’s panel discussions were pragmatic, constructive and decent. These conversations gave participants space to challenge one another and to find consensus in a constructive way. Participants often had strong opinions about immigration but once these were aired, they listened to others and sometimes came to a different point of view.”

It concludes that: “In contrast to the polarised and online immigration debate, most people are ‘balancers’ — seeing both the gains that immigration has brought to Britain’s economy and cultural life and also the pressures that it can place on public services like schools and the NHS, and on housing and integration.”

Reports such as these can be useful in helping us to expose and challenge the myths that are spread about immigration. They also highlight the fact that the majority of ordinary people have a positive view about immigration. ICM’s survey for the National Conversation indicated that 63 percent of respondents felt that migrant workers support the economy by doing jobs that British workers do not want to do. Meanwhile, 65 percent agreed that migrant workers bring valuable skills to the economy and public services such as the NHS.

But it is both necessary and possible to go much further. The “balancing” the Conversation refers to is reflected by the fact that when asked to give a score of 1-10 to indicate whether migration had had a positive impact on the UK including in their local community, the average input was 5.7. This is quite literally a positive outcome and one which should give socialists confidence to think that we champion immigration and integration but also challenge the contradictions in people’s heads.

If migrant workers are making a positive contribution to public services then the argument that they are putting pressure on those same services becomes unsustainable. It creates the opportunity for us to argue that the real reason for cuts, low pay and the ever increasing cost of housing costs is austerity and the greed of the ruling class.

The MAC report was commissioned by the then home secretary Amber Rudd with the aim of assisting in designing a new post Brexit immigration system. As such, its principal aim is to help make immigration work for the very same bosses by regulating entry depending upon what skills migrants can contribute to boost the economy.

We should reject such cynical treatment as a point of principle. Capital is free to roam the world in search of profit but when working people, the creators of all that wealth migrate in order to seek a better life they are demonised, discriminated against and discarded if this doesn’t suit the bosses’ needs or the agenda of opportunist politicians.

Those of us whose ancestors were invited to help the “Mother Country” recover from the ravages of the Second World War are seething at the way in which after a lifetime of service and struggle they fell victim to Theresa May’s determination to create a “hostile atmosphere for illegal migrants”.

Outpouring of sympathy

The outpouring of sympathy for the Windrush Generation also shows that it is possible to win arguments about migration. Crucially, the experience of working class people living, learning, working alongside and struggling together can help to break down racism and teach people who the real enemy is.

I was reminded of this on a number of occasions in October at events organised to mark Black History Month. At a school in East London I spent a morning alongside a number of others “celebrating black achievement” with a succession of engaged and inquisitive Year 7-11 classes. The following day Camden Unison’s Black Workers Group in partnership with the council hosted a joyous evening of discussion, performance and music.

On a broader scale, I was also reminded when reading Benjamin Zephaniah’s recently published and incredibly frank autobiography. In it he discusses how he graduated from a life of serious crime to become politically engaged; a transformation that is evident in his written and spoken work as one of our most celebrated dub poets.

In a chapter entitled “Solidarity” he refers to an occasion during the great 1984-85 miners’ strike when he was abused while performing at a benefit in Nottingham. The bigotry was brought to an abrupt end when one miner jumped on stage “delivered a diatribe against racism and [pointed out] that [Zephaniah] was the person who the previous week had sent them a donation of £1,500…from an African Caribbean association.”

Zephaniah goes on to say: “The miners’ strike changed white men’s attitudes to black people; it changed men’s attitudes to women, and women’s attitudes to men.”

Throughout history during great revolutionary episodes, ordinary people have shown their capacity to throw off the “muck of ages”; the rotten ideas that the ruling class use to divide and conquer. Alas, for far too long, the level of struggle has been pitifully low. There are no clever shortcuts to the painstaking task of building working class combativity however and therefore while arguing against racism and for the maximum unity and solidarity at every opportunity, we must also build the struggle for a completely different world.