Monday 6 January 2014

Immigration and Class Politics

Years of scaremongering by the press, successive governments and opportunist politicians have ensured immigration has become nothing more than a fetid, toxic swamp. Its rotten stink permeates politics as it competes to scapegoat and appear "tough" on people who come to live and work here. Basically, it's who can fall furthest, fastest into a bottomless pit of amorality and wilful ignorance. But, apparently, all they want is an open and honest debate about immigration *innocent face*.

I'm sure you don't need me to tell you Nigel Farage is talking bollocks on immigration, but he is. Farage's comments from the weekend show exactly what kind of "debate" he and his ilk have in mind. About how "full up" we are. The threat it poses to the "British way of life". How they're coming here for our jobs, our benefits, our social housing. And for too long Farage and the elites of all parties have been allowed to get away with it. Yet the right and the "common sense" it has inculcated is not invulnerable, it is not the cast-iron rightwing hot issue they think it is.

Intellectually, their scaremongering is easily exposed as such. Take Farage's comments. According to our "libertarian" who would deny liberty to workers born in other lands, old Enoch was right. He agreed that "the indigenous population found themselves made strangers in their own country, their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places, their homes and neighbourhoods changed beyond recognition" had come to pass. But far from a "net four million migrants" over the last four years causing social breakdown and disorder, remarkably most people have got on with their lives. But what the four million figure does most of all is provide a handy get out of jail free card. When jobs are getting cut up and shared out, when prices outstrip wages, when a miasma of economic insecurity permeates so-called growth, people like Farage point a sign post in their general direction and say "here's who to blame, these are the ones threatening your living standards".

It's not difficult to pooh pooh this idiocy. Yet much tougher to get the majority of people concerned about immigration to see it as scaremongering poppycock. However, people who do swallow it aren't stupid. They're not a mass of sheeple needing to be "woken up". The potency of the rhetoric lies in its speaking to insecurity. A similar sort of thing is going on with antipathy toward social security. It comes down to a deep-seated but amorphous sense of unfairness, an idea immigrants can "easily" put in for benefits and housing even though they haven't paid into the system. Or the idea employers are excluding local people in favour of East Europeans they bring in by the planeload. While these is zero evidence of the former, there's a bit knocking about for the latter. Long-term readers might also remember a strike at a certain oil refinery about the issue, and that it was dubbed and denounced by the clueless as "racist".

How then do you start detoxifying this issue? Is it forever the property of the right? It's actually a bit of a risk for UKIP, the Tories and the ragbag of fascists who've exploited it over the years. Orly? Yes, really. Its potency depends on addressing people as workers. That's right, class politics is officially dead and yet here we have a very negative manifestation of it. Of the right playing with it to some success. And because it has proven effective, might it be a good idea to try and respond to it on, um, class terms? Radical I know.

But I'm sure few ever expected Ed Miliband to come at it this way. Well, he has, and it's been in the offing for a while. So, worried that you or your kids are being excluded from jobs? Labour will prevent businesses from recruiting exclusively from overseas. Concerned your wages and conditions might be undercut? Time for heavy fines on minimum wage evasion, and prevention of taking agency workers on at lower than established rates. Mark Ferguson thinks this is a risky move. Far from it, it's the beginning of the kind of response the labour movement needs. It draws the sting from the issue and places blame for the race to the bottom not on those damaged by it but on employers who've raked massive profits hiding behind scapegoats of their making. Here the immigration debate moves onto grounds the right are far from comfortable competing on.

Finally, just finally, the realisation might be dawning on the opposition front bench that wallowing in the sewer with the Tories and UKIP will never win Labour any votes. But talking about it in class terms might and, who knows, start to unravel the vile hegemony over immigration the right have held for so long.


Phil said...

I think it's a genius move from Ed, and not for the first time. I don't know what his long-term strategy is, but when it comes to nudging the consensus leftwards, by matching socialist principle to tactical debating moves, he's an absolute master. A year from now Cameron could find that the language of political common sense isn't working as well for him as he thought it would.

Evan said...

A good post, Phil. People might be interested in this post/paper that I wrote on Labour and the issue of immigration since 2010:

The conclusion, in particular, might be resonant:

"Undue focus has been placed upon the issue of ‘race’ and immigration by Labour Party figures, both in the 2010 election campaign and the following discussion as to why Labour lost the election. The issue of immigration has been identified by some within Labour as a perceived area of weakness, compared with the Conservatives, and also an issue that can be exploited to win back the ‘white working class’ to the Party… This is an unwise strategy and does not address the reasons why Labour has lost so many of its supporters. Firstly, immigration was not the major concern for voters at the 2010 election, with the primary issue amongst voters being the dire economic situation in Britain. Secondly, Labour’s actual record on immigration and ‘race relations’ over its 13 years in power had been in practice quite discriminatory and ‘tough’ on certain migrant groups, but this had not drawn support towards the Party, but had seen the rise of groups on the far right, who were able to capitalise on increasing anti-immigrationist sentiment. Thirdly, although the Labour’s record on immigration and ‘race’ was quite deplorable, its composition, outlook and traditions prevent it from competing seriously on this issue with the Conservatives, who are able to shift much further to the right on the issue and can always make Labour look weak on it. Lastly, while trying to win supporters from the Conservatives and the right with a mixture of neo-liberalism, social populism and racism, Labour has left its guard down concerning other sections of society who have traditionally support Labour, with many potential voters to other parties, such as the Lib Dems (before the coalition), the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. The answer for the moment seems to be that Labour should not be focussing on issues of immigration, but mounting a serious anti-cuts campaign and addressing socio-economic issues."

Ben Cobley said...

England is now the most crowded piece of land in Europe (except tiny Malta), property prices have got way out of hand in the most popular areas and we are struggling to meet surging demand for school places (up 40% in my area) and healthcare. The fact that some people don't want to acknowledge that these factors might constitute a problem is in itself worrying and is making the problem even worse.

Julian Ware-Lane said...

I have long argued on the doorstep that it is the neutering of trade unions and the allowing of a race to the bottom for wages that has allowed employers to chase cheap labour. No wonder the CBI is so pro-immigration. I am pro-immigration too, but not for reasons of profit – I like multiculturalism.

My industry (IT) has seen many jobs outsourced to India, Russia, etc, not because they do a better job (often the reverse) but because the bean counters are only interested in the bottom line. You cannot blame employees as such, they are merely responding to the environment they find themselves in. This is where Governments have to step in. Well done Mr Miliband.

Next, let’s tackle tax havens.

Speedy said...

What's your point exactly? Labour stoked up racism and antipathy against immigrants by their open-door policy and implicit desire to "rub the right's nose in diversity", while denying it in public - no wonder people are angry!

Labour poisoned the immigration debate by suppressing discussion and tarring anyone who tried to raise it as a racist or (need we be reminded) bigot.

And Labour never understood it because they were constitutionally incapable of doing so - run by middle classes who did not derive their sense of identity from their country or culture (which they continue to sneer at in private, almost as an act of faith) but from universal values, and who never experienced the real impact of having to compete for low level jobs, see wages suppressed, and of course all that tiresome talk of housing lists they will never, ever have to be on. Surely those benefit junky chavs should just get orf their asses and make way for people who really deserve it!

To most Labour policy makers immigration = cheap cleaners, cheerful staff in Pret a Manger, and interesting new restaurants. They literally lived in a world apart from working class Britons, of all colours, who, let's face it, they had never forgiven for voting for Thatcher. Labour lost the working class, and after all those years of Tory rule it seems somewhat less than coincidental that the first thing they should do when they got in was try to replace it.

Chris said...

According to official estimates England rank 51 in the world density league table. Not exactly near the top!

North Korea ranks 65, I have long suspected that the far right hold them up as the guiding light!

It hardly needs saying (to those with half a brain anyway) that the factors behind rising property prices and supply not meeting demand for healthcare and education are complex and that immigration has little to do with it.

I suspect that people like Ben are little interested in those other factors though. So it is pointless going into it any further.

Anonymous said...

I have to take issue with a few things speedy is saying:

firstly, the assumption that racist people don't have homes, and are on the housing waiting list. I suspect most racists have a mortgage.

Secondly, yes there is a layer in society who positively welcome cheap labour because the service economy works for them, i.e. middle class professionals. There is some debate among Marxists over where the capitalist sells his surplus product in order to generate surplus value. It is these unproductive people, teachers, bankers, lawyers etc etc. But, speedy is wrong to link this to immigration. He should be pointing out that the Tories austerity policies are creating the very low wage economy that this unproductive sector of highly paid workers thrive on.

Speedy said...


Firstly, i take it you are taking the piss on point 1?

Secondly, I am familiar with the Shock Doctrine thank you, but that does not excuse Labour their reckless policies which created the conditions for this to happen.