The working class and the "immigration debate"

The Kaiser Chiefs: you can deport them

A critical response to an article about immigration in the Financial Times quoted favourably on a "pro-working class" website containing anti-immigrant misinformation and scaremongering.

I have been meaning to write more for a while, however often writing something from scratch I find I don't know where to start. Therefore instead I thought I would try to practice by analysing and critiquing other texts. I would appreciate feedback and comments on the article and my writing style.

The text below was one I noticed last year, and I was pointed to see it posted with favourable comment by a socialist (and libcom poster no less) on a socialist/"pro-working class" website, Meanwhile at the bar (which had involvement from people around and supportive of the Independent Working Class Association and Liberty & Solidarity, some of whose members and supporters have espoused similar views).

The article is Time for a debate on immigration by Martin Wolf in the Financial Times from 2009, and it was commented by the poster oisleep that it was "fairly decent", and you can read it online here. I thought about doing a more general post about the irrationality of workers supporting immigration controls overall, but for now I will limit myself to just addressing this set of arguments.

Wolf begins by responding to former Home Secretary Alan Johnson's admission that "the government [had] been “maladroit” in its handling of immigration" by describing this admission as "British understatement" and stating instead that in fact "it [was] dishonest: it … pursued a radical policy, with profound consequences, on weak grounds, without serious debate. That is why the British National Party is on BBC television."

He continues: "The government has been able to get away with its dishonesty because immigration is the “third rail” of politics. Few wish to discuss the topic openly. But some discussion is essential. Present policies have big implications. These should be evaluated and discussed openly. That is the democratic way."

This kind of sentiment often crops up in many of the myriad news articles in mass circulation newspapers, TV news reports, televised debates, etc: that the immigration issue is not discussed openly. This is clearly a contradiction in terms. Discussion of immigration is everywhere, in much greater proportion to its relevance even I would argue. Compare it with much more significant issues which really don't get "discussed openly" in the media, for example the billions of pounds in subsidies given by taxpayers to the pensions of the rich, the 20,000+ people in the UK every year who are killed by their work, etc.

Wolf then states a few initial "facts" about future projected population figures, namely that the UK population is predicted to increase from 60 million to 70 million by 2030 and that immigration is predicted to be a major contributor to this. It appears that the intention of these figures is to make them sound scarily large. However, I can well imagine Wolf's grandfather writing in Ye Olde Financial Times 100 years saying that the population was 30 million and could hit 40 million by 1950. Which of course it did1. But so what? Was the UK of 1950 a much more terrible place to live than 1910? Of course not.

In terms of population density, the UK is nowhere near the top of tables. Current population density is 650 people per square mile: well below Japan (836), Belgium (889), the Netherlands (1259) and utterly dwarfed by places like Hong Kong or Singapore (18,000+)2 - all places without social problems significantly worse than the UK.

Now, moving on we come to one huge assumption which is very significant in Wolf's view, and that of many other people but in fact is completely baseless:

The UK has a real income per head of about five times the world average. One must assume that the inflow, under unrestricted immigration, might be numbered in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions. The impact is not hard to imagine.

Now for a lot of people I think this is why people support immigration controls, because they actually think this would happen.

In fact most people are loath to leave their friends, their families and their whole lives behind to move countries. However, you don't just have to take my word from their concrete historical examples which demonstrate this is untrue.

For starters, for most of history immigration controls haven't existed. And despite the global North being so much richer than the global South, migration from Europe to Africa and the Americas since the 16th century has been double the migration into Europe from Africa.3 In fact, immigrants have been actively sought out and encouraged to come (or forced with slavery) to work in the North.

Another recent example of the abolition of border controls was when the USA allowed open migration from the Caribbean. Between 1950 and 1980, when borders were closed, only 0.6% of the Caribbean population moved to the US and England, despite the obvious economic attractions. If this figure were to be applied world wide now the figure would be about 24 million per year or a growth of about 2.4% in population of the industrialised countries - probably under the anticipated labour demand in several European countries.4

There is more than a whiff of Western arrogance in the idea that everyone would just love to come and live here, with our crappy weather and often even crappier job opportunities.

Wolf then discusses the bourgeois economic arguments around immigration. As communists, these don't interest us, as we recognise that the interests of workers do not coincide with the interests of the economy. So I will leave these and move on to the others.

Wolf now acknowledges that the sheer number of people is not an issue, despite having presented the scaremongering figures earlier, stating that England is not "full up", and that 700 million people could fit here with a population density similar to London. However he is basically arguing against an increase in population - stating that "the impact of accommodating a population increase of 10 million, equal to seven Birminghams, would be substantial". However, when he continues he unveils the real problem: "This is particularly true in a country unwilling to expand the housing stock or invest in infrastructure."

The issue of shortage of housing is completely separate. There is already a housing shortage and widespread homelessness, and there always has been, regardless of the population. This is due to housing being constructed largely for profit than for need. It is not profitable to build housing for people who can't afford it! And of course scarcity of housing is vital for the profitability of house building as it pushes prices up.

Even if there were no immigration, the population will still rise. Of course building housing for 10 million people can't be done overnight, but housing for 60 million people went up okay, and other countries obviously have much higher populations - so this is a complete red herring.

Next we get to a really key point in the article, which actually displays his prejudice more than anything else, and makes it particularly concerning that a socialist would consider this article "fairly decent". He states that "diversity brings social benefits. But it also brings costs. These costs arise from declining trust and erosion of a sense of shared values."

These are just assertions. Wolf does not explain even what he means by "trust", or any evidence that it is "declining" and certainly not any evidence that "diversity" has any effect on it at all. As for a sense of shared values, these don't necessarily have anything to do with nationality. I certainly don't have many shared values with white British Tories or racists, or fans of The Kaiser Chiefs, but that doesn't mean that I think we should change the law so that we can boot them out of the country (apart from The Kaiser Chiefs fans).

Wolf then tries to give this clearly prejudiced view a liberal veneer by stating that "such costs are likely to be particularly high when immigrants congregate in communities that reject some values of the wider community, not least over the role of women in society" and "it is not unreasonable to feel concern over such rifts. I certainly do."

Again, no evidence is presented to back up these assertions. As I said above I know plenty of white English people whom I don't consider I have "shared values" with (and I'm sure they'd feel the same about me), and plenty of white English people have dodgy views on women, gays, etc. But that doesn't mean that I don't think I shouldn't share the same geographical space with them. Because really, what difference does it make what nationality or ethnicity of people you live around? We have the choice to freely associate with whomever we please, so we can surround ourselves (as most of us do) with people with whom we do share values, and it's great that we have the opportunity to do so with people from different backgrounds, from different countries and different ethnicities. Imposing restrictions on migration not only restricts our possibilities of socialising and communicating with people from other areas, but it also risks international backlash against British citizens living elsewhere. Your average British emigrant may not share many values with many people in their new country, but they still have the freedom to live there.

In conclusion, while that article may have been written in reasonable language, really it just presents assertion as fact in order to argue for immigration controls - which pretty much is the mass media approach to migration as a whole. What is a real shame in this instance is that this media bombardment is so overwhelming that a fair few self-declared anarchists and socialists, who would normally be more critical, are falling for it and actively supporting anti-working class policies.

Nationalism of any sort has no place in the workers' movement. By accepting the government and the media's line in any way that other workers are the problem, it sets us against one another and reduces the possibility of us uniting to fight together around the real problems which we face: shortage of housing, low wages, job losses and crumbling public services. The slogan is "workers of the world unite!", not "workers of the world unite! Unless you're a foreigner".

Posted By

Apr 13 2011 12:43


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Sep 10 2015 07:44

‘I just don't find it necessary to deny evidence that within the capitalist system immigration drives down the poorest workers wages and costs the taxpayer billions, which affects workers in the form of access to housing, NHS costs, inflating the budget meaning job losses and cuts.

I can still support immigration without pretending it has no negative affects within the current system for the poorest of us.’

I don’t agree with your framing immigration as a problem for the indigenous working class, and if you find certain government statistics convincing, well that’s your problem.

I do take issue with your belief that the government will willingly redistribute funds to the benefit of the working class. Taxes are raised to maintain the system and this sometimes takes the form of a bribe to buy off opposition.

Though you claim sympathy with the aims of libcom, you always slip into a terminology of them - the alien workers, and us - the poorest home grown workers. You are basically a nationalist though you cannot see it.