SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Britain’s immigration controversy

TORY LEADER, Michael Howard, has claimed his first New Labour scalp with the resignation of immigration minister Beverley Hughes. The scandal that led to her resignation involved accusations that New Labour had knowingly allowed immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria to enter Britain on false papers as part of a ruse to lower the asylum figures.

For a while it seemed like the Tories would be able to use the issue to wreak further havoc for New Labour, with the press openly raising the prospect of the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, being forced to resign. It even appeared possible that Tony Blair would be drawn into the mess when rumours emerged that he was involved in agreeing a ‘visas for cuts in asylum numbers’ deal with the Romanian government.

A few weeks on, however, and a kind of fragile peace seems to reign on the issue. This is partly because news headlines are once more dominated by the disastrous occupation of Iraq. But it is also due to a shift in the attitude of the Tories who are, in reality, under many of the same pressures as New Labour. Tellingly, the Tory party has welcomed New Labour’s decision to lift the suspension of work-related visa applications from Romania and Bulgaria because, as the Tory agriculture spokesperson, John Whittingdale, explained, "soft fruit growers are desperate to obtain labour under the scheme in time for the harvest season".

Both New Labour and the Tories are trying to square the circle in an extremely hypocritical fashion. The number of people who work legally in Britain who were born abroad has increased from 1.8 million workers in 1995 to 2.6 million today. Net immigration to Britain is at its highest level for 150 years, a situation which has clear advantages for the British ruling class, in whose interests both parties operate.

Increased immigration offers big business an opportunity to compensate for an ageing population in Europe and, at the same time, to force wages down. In this sense, it is an extension of neo-liberal policies. Worldwide, capitalism has used the globalisation of the economy to increase profits. One aspect of this has been the moving of production abroad to countries where labour is cheaper. Now they want to try and globalise labour by encouraging cheaper labour to travel to richer countries and therefore to drive down wages in those countries.

This is particularly the case in those sectors that cannot be exported abroad. In Britain, migrant labour is most used in health care, education, cleaning, food manufacture, catering and hotels. As The Economist put it in its 2002 survey of migration: "The gap between labour’s rewards in the poor and the rich countries, even for something as menial as clearing tables, dwarfs the gap between the prices of traded goods from different parts of the world. The potential gains [to capitalist profits] from liberalising migration therefore dwarf those from removing barriers to world trade".

This process is concentrated in low-paid, casual workforces (such as fruit-pickers) but is also increasingly taking place in highly skilled jobs. Both New Labour and the Tories see it as necessary. Of course, the Tories’ support for New Labour’s underlying approach did not prevent them from trying to make political hay by attacking both the government’s policy and the clumsy way in which they have implemented it. In doing so, however, they were playing with fire. At the time of Hughes’s resignation, an opinion poll showed that 46% of people considered immigration to be one of the most important issues to the country, second only to the National Health Service. (YouGov survey, 3 April)

This mood was undoubtedly heightened by the Tory and tabloid frenzy that was whipped up on the issue. However, the policies that New Labour has pursued over their seven years in office created the necessary climate. Desperate to distract working people from crumbling public services, dramatically increased privatisation, and attacks on wages and conditions, the government has been prepared to play the ‘asylum card’ again and again. Increases in economic immigration have been combined with draconian attacks on the rights of asylum seekers, many of whom are fleeing terrible oppression.

In adopting such policies, New Labour has hoped to prevent the growth of the far-right, racist British National Party (BNP) and the recovery of the Tory Party. Instead, it has assisted both. After all, Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, has described Blunkett as the BNP’s ‘best recruiting sergeant’. In the coming European and local authority elections the BNP could make significant gains.

But while both the Tories and New Labour have shown themselves to be more than willing to foster racist and anti-asylum prejudices, they are worried about the consequences of those feelings going too far and having a destabilising effect on society. Potentially this could, and at a certain stage will, limit their capacity to act in the economic interests of British capitalism by encouraging increased immigration to Britain.

The arrival of new immigrants has always had the potential to create dangerous instability for the capitalists. The nation state is the basic unit of capitalist society, whilst at the same time being an obstacle to its development. Today, in the era of globalisation, the productive forces – industry, science and technique – have long outgrown their national base. Therefore, the capitalists strain hard against the limitations of the nation state.

However, they cannot more than partially surmount it. The big corporations are, almost without exception, still based in, and tied to, particular countries. They are reliant on the market and the political superstructure of their home nation. An intrinsic part of that political superstructure is a national consciousness which the capitalist class tap into in order, for example, to win support for their wars. However much they would like to, the capitalists cannot switch national consciousness on and off at will. Therefore, for example, British capitalism felt it had no choice but to limit immigration at the end of the 1960s, despite the economic advantages for them of speeding it up, because of their fear of the social instability that could result.

Today, it is clear that the Tories have temporarily halted their attacks on New Labour on the question of immigration because they are coming under direct pressure from sections of big business to do so. This is firstly for short-term economic reasons – having enough cheap labour to pick this season’s fruit! But in all likelihood it is also because of more general fears about increased instability. Of course, neither New Labour nor the Tories, will permanently abandon playing the ‘race’ or ‘asylum’ card. The Tories, in particular, will do so for short-term electoral gain. And both parties will be prepared to do it on a far larger scale than they have so far when they feel it is necessary to do so in order to cut across a united movement of the working class.

Socialists must defend the rights of asylum seekers and immigrants and link that directly to our programme to fight to improve the living conditions of working people as a whole, and to the struggle for socialism. In particular, we must fight for the trade unions to wage a serious struggle to unite immigrant and other workers in a fight against low pay.

Hannah Sell


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