Britain: The spectre of immigration: myth or reality?

Although anti-immigration hysteria, racism and propaganda are nothing new to these shores, there is currently a particularly rabid hue-and-cry over immigration in Britain. It must be emphasised that this wave against immigration is artificially manufactured by the bourgeois media and parties. It is not a spontaneous reaction from below, and is currently fuelled in particular by the rise of UKIP, which in turn is a consequence of the bourgeoisie’s - and especially the Tory’s - insistence on banging the xenophobic drum for years now.

However, despite this, it cannot be denied that such rhetoric finds fertile ground in present-day Britain. To understand this, we must put this question into the specific context of capitalist society and the worsening problems of class-divided Britain. When we understand the real causes of anti-immigration moods, we can also understand the real solution to the root causes of the problem, which lie outside of immigration itself.

The myths and facts of immigration

There are so many myths about immigration that we would do well to begin by looking at some of the facts. The two most common negative ideas of immigrants contradict one another, a fact which in itself shows the incoherence and dishonesty of the anti-immigration agenda. These are the claims that immigrants steal jobs and that they come to Britain for ‘benefit tourism’ by going on the dole and claiming housing benefit. Both conflicting claims would, if true, increase unemployment in Britain (the former by forcing white British people into unemployment, the latter by being unemployed themselves). Both claims imply that immigration leads to overpopulation and puts severe strains on public services. Later in the article we will examine why these ‘arguments’ are false, and for the moment we will deal with the current facts. A slightly less common argument is that immigrants and ‘multiculturalism’ contribute to social alienation. UKIP makes all of these points.

For Marxists it is beside the point whether or not immigrants claim a lot of benefits or not. If it could be proven that they do (which it can’t, because they don’t), we would never side with those calling for a repression of immigrants. It must always be emphasised that the real burden in society is the bourgeoisie, the big business owners sitting on top of, at the latest estimate, £800bn of they won’t invest. It is private ownership of the means of production which confines millions to unemployment and a life on benefits. Those who are really dependent are the business owners who for years have been looting the state (privatisation) and relying on massive bailouts. It is because they refuse to invest and create decent jobs that it appears there is not enough to go around in Britain.

All the evidence from sources such as the Migration Observatory show that immigrants use substantially fewer public services than people born in the UK. A higher proportion of them work than do British citizens, and thus a higher proportion pay taxes. Taken together, this means that immigrants make a significant positive contribution to the state’s finances and are the opposite of a burden on British society.

Most immigrants are banned from social housing already, so it is not surprising that the severe shortage of social housing is in no way related to immigration, but to the privatisation of council housing under the destructive ‘Right to Buy’ scheme. Again, immigrants rent from councils and housing associations much less than do British citizens - less than 5% of council housing goes to foreign nationals.

The Migration Observatory has found that “migrants from a8 countries [i.e. new EU members such as Poland] made a positive contribution to the economy’s public finances in each fiscal year since 2004.”

More people leave the UK for job offers than vice-versa. And the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has found that there is no aggregate impact to employment/unemployment levels due to immigration. Thus, although they make a positive net contribution to the British economy, the state’s finances and public services, they are at the same time not guilty of ‘stealing jobs’. Capping immigration by making it more difficult for businesses in the UK to hire foreign nationals will in turn lead to lower emigration in later years anyway, as a large proportion of such immigrants leave after a few years. Indeed, contrary to what most people are led to believe, the average stay for an immigrant in the UK is 2-3 years.

One of the most stupid consequences of the government’s attack on immigration is its focus on students. Student immigrants make up the vast bulk of the net increase in immigration in recent years, and are the easiest to reduce. Indeed, since these policies were announced, there have been 21% fewer student visas handed out per year. But all opinion polls show that the public are not hostile to student immigrants, and rightly so, for they too make a positive economic contribution to Britain, exploited as they are by the universities. Preventing them from coming is a completely pointless exercise, since they are the least likely group of immigrants to settle. Any large scale cuts to student immigration will have its mirror effect in a similar cut to emigration from the UK, doing nothing to make Britain less crowded.

The hostility directed at asylum seekers is particularly misplaced and unjust. According to the Migration Observatory “asylum applications to the UK in 2011 were close to their lowest level in more than two decades (19,804), and were lower than the per-capita EU average. The UK limits asylum seekers’ access to the labour market and benefits to a degree that would make further economic measures to deter false claims difficult.”

Asylum seekers are denied access to social housing of their choice - they are forced to take ‘hard to let’ properties - in other words, the worst housing in Britain. Housing for asylum seekers is about to be privatised to the notorious G4S amongst others! The Refugee Integration and Employment Service has just been entirely cut. This means that some of the most vulnerable people in the UK will be effectively prevented from restarting their traumatised lives and making a contribution to the economy.

To make matters worse, those asylum seekers who are unable to find work (a large number despite the fact that many of them are highly qualified people), are already denied a civilised existence. There is a separate benefits system for asylum seekers which, if they are ‘lucky’ enough to be accepted onto, pays a paltry £36.62 a week to live off. They are treated like prisoners in the UK by the UK Border Authority (UKBA) in detention centres. Years of vicious media coverage has turned them into social pariahs, and has enabled the infliction of undoubtedly countless unreported abuses on them. It is the duty of the labour movement to defend these weakest victims of capitalism against the bourgeois state.

A few statistics will serve to show where responsibility lies for the wide-scale acceptance of such blatant lies about immigration. In 2011, three-quarters of people viewed immigration as a ‘big problem’, yet only one-quarter viewed it as a problem in their local area. In a recent YouGov poll, 79% stated that the economy was the most important issue facing the public, and immigration came second, with 49% of people citing it as one of the most important issues. However, to the question of what issue affects you and your family the most, 67% answered ‘the economy’, but only 14% answered ‘immigration’, behind health, pensions, tax, and family life.

Other studies have shown that fears of immigration are inversely proportional to the actual number of immigrants in that area. This not only shows the huge role of the press in distorting opinion, but also the class basis for anti-immigrant sentiment - wealthier rural areas in the South East have the highest hostility to immigrants.

In other words, when people draw conclusions from their own lives and interests, immigration is not a decisive question for them, whatever their opinions on the matter. The source of the confusion people have about immigration is evidently the bourgeois media and parties - in another poll, 69% of people listed TV as a main source of information on immigration and asylum, 44% listed the newspapers, and only 16% said personal experience.

There are countless ‘paper tiger’ reactionary trends with apparently widespread support in society. Middle-class ‘lefts’ refer to these with self-satisfaction as evidence of the right-wing stupidity of the masses. But they never take the time to really analyse the source of these opinions and the strength of their hold over working class people. Apparently 60% of the population supports capital punishment (though no one ever checks this statistic), however workers do not join pro-capital punishment organisations and go on mass demonstrations for it.

Similarly, the rightwing like to disseminate statistics that prove mass ‘support’ for austerity, but they never bother to subject this to analysis. What those statistics show is merely recognition that the state deficit is a huge problem, which it clearly is. That doesn’t mean austerity is its solution. That is why other polls also show that most people view austerity as massively unfair and going too far. When the Taxpayers’ Alliance organised a pro-austerity demonstration, they could muster about 200 people. When the TUC organised its anti-austerity demonstration, up to a million people came out. Such reactionary trends have no real support in society, but are propped up by the apologists of capitalism. History shows that when workers move, it is not for reactionary issues like racism, but against war, poverty and austerity.

In the case of UKIP, it has emerged that a Greek tycoon’s recent £10,000 donation to the party is enough to represent ⅕ of all cash donations over the past year! The supposedly unstoppable party is experiencing a cash crisis and is appealing to millionaire businessmen such as the above (they couldn’t care less if the cash comes from British or Greek business!) for money.

These statistics should also be given a class breakdown - but the pollsters rarely do that. All statistics must be taken with a pinch of salt, because they aggregate society, which is not a mass of mere individuals but is composed of classes with different interests and viewpoints. As socialists, we are interested in winning over the working class to socialist revolution. We are reconciled to not winning the bourgeoisie and upper layers of the middle-class, although even some will come over. Thus when they say that this or that percentage supports a war or attacks on immigrants, we have to ask which section of society this is comes from.

Contrary to the popular myth that anti-immigrant prejudices emanate from the working class, the proportion of Conservative supporters who regard immigration as a major issue is almost double that of Labour. It also turns out that in earlier elections only 7% of UKIP supporters have previously voted Labour, while 60% previously voted Conservative. Thus the social basis for anti-immigrant views and political movements is much more the middle and upper class than the working class. Moreover, the latter’s support for such politics, to the extent that it exists, is largely passive. As the Economist of 11th May pointed out, the evidence shows that immigration is not a vote winner at all.

What the above mentioned discrepancy in perceptions of immigration shows is that workers will not be motivated over immigration, but on economic and class questions, because those are in line with their life experience and class interests. Thus the labour movement and Labour Party should ignore all the froth in the press and from their bourgeois advisers about the need to pander to racism, and concentrate on showing a militant lead against austerity and capitalism.

Why is anti-immigration sentiment cultivated by the bourgeoisie?

Generally speaking, the bourgeoisie is in favour of immigration. This is because capitalism, in its perpetual drive for profits and markets, has become a global system. We live in a global economy, with an international division of labour. We are all dependent on one another’s labour. The working class, really, is not neatly divided into ‘British’, ‘Polish’ and ‘Chinese’, but is one class. Certainly the international bourgeoisie sees it like that. They want to be able to move their capital across international borders freely, to find the maximum return on their capital.

But the bourgeoisie has never been able to rule in its own name. The Tories, for instance, can never run an election campaign honestly. They must constantly hide the fact that they are in favour of increasing the wealth and power of the top 1%, and to hell with everyone else. Thus the bourgeoisie has in every country cultivated a long tradition of reactionary prejudices such as racism, dividing and ruling the working (and middle) class. In the fog and confusion of such diversions, they are able to get what they want. It allows (to a limited extent) the white British ruling class to generate a false sense of solidarity from the white working class, for the colour of their skin is just about the only thing the two have in common.

Racism and xenophobic fears of immigrants are not naturally occurring phenomena, but products of capitalist society, with all its anarchy and insecurity. However these prejudices often appear as ‘natural’ or inherent because they have been cultivated by the British ruling class for so long. From the days of the British empire there has been a tradition of pulling the white British working class into the capitalists’ influence by encouraging the view that they are, as white Britons, naturally superior, more civilised etc. The latest example is the cynical use of the ‘grooming scandal’ in Rochdale, where Muslim men preyed on young girls for sex. We were told that this is down to the backwards culture of Islam, which Muslims have to face up to. However, extremely similar recent cases involving white men completely failed to make the news.

Throughout the past century (and more) there is a constant theme of xenophobia being pushed by sections of the ruling class, from anti-semitism in the East End in the 20s and 30s, to Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’, and the Ugandan Asians of the early 1970s to today’s UKIP.

This often vague notion of British superiority and fear of foreign takeover has thus developed deep psychological roots, providing a ready-to-hand mainstream prejudice for party’s like UKIP to whip up. Precisely because capitalism requires immigration to facilitate its thirst for cheap labour, it is a constant issue, and thus an extremely profitable one to exploit.

However, there are also economic advantages for the capitalists in promoting racism. Capital wants to be able to move freely, from border to border. But it preys upon labour, and like any other predator, it wants to be able to catch its prey easily. Thus controls on the free-movement of labour can be to its benefit. This can be seen very clearly in China, where the Hukou system of household registration is used oppress the migrant section of the workforce. Denying them rights and turning migrants into social pariahs enables the capitalists to hold down their wages.

In Britain, the taboo of illegal immigration, the denial of state provided English lessons and racist ostracisation from mainstream society all serve to massively restrict immigrant workers’ ability to organise. They are super-exploited and therefore generate super-profits for the ruling class. This also enables the ruling class to undercut the gains the British labour movement has made over the past century, through a sort of localised outsourcing.

It is the duty of the trade unions and their party, the Labour Party, to launch a campaign to unionise oppressed immigrant labour, thereby integrating them into the rest of the working class and struggling to raise their wages and conditions to equal those of British workers. Such a development would be in the interests of all workers in the UK, for a united working class would be economically and politically much stronger. There is a wealth of untapped militancy amongst immigrant workers and second generation minorities. Such a trade union led campaign, linked to the a socialist political programme of transforming society and ending capitalism, would mobilise millions of workers of all backgrounds. It is when workers fight side by side for a common cause that mutual hostility and the weight of repression are finally lifted.

UKIP’s ‘success’ is the failure of the British ruling class

Britain consistently shows more hostility towards immigration than equivalent European countries, probably in part because it is an island, a fact which encourages xenophobia. However the main cause is the failure of the British ruling class to invest in production as they have laid waste to huge sections of industrial Britain in favour of short term financial profit.

Decades of decline have generated a profound alienation in parts of the country. This is well known. Britain has experienced more de-industrialisation than any other developed country. In particular, secure and well paid jobs have become a thing of the past for millions, and there is an acute shortage of affordable housing. It is therefore hardly surprising that many working class people feel hostile towards immigration. In such an insecure society, prone to the anarchy of financial crises, the idea that immigration adds to or even causes social insecurity, undermines British workers and strains already struggling social services, is thus a seductive argument for many workers.

Although as we have seen immigrants actually are a bonus to the economy and public services, and potentially strengthen the working class politically, it cannot be denied that immigration takes place in capitalism in a particularly anarchic and unplanned manner. As with all other things in capitalism, the working class (both immigrant and native) is never consulted on such matters or given any control over the areas in which they live, nor the quality of jobs. Thus immigration is one in a long list of issues which display the profound alienation in modern society. Of course it is not because of immigration that people feel alienated from the places in which they live, it is thanks to the anarchy of capitalism. It must also be emphasised that the main victims of the problems of immigration are immigrants themselves.

As socialists, we are in favour of the free movement of labour, because it strengthens the working class internationally, and curbs on immigration are used to divide workers amongst themselves, thus weakening them. However we also understand the appeal that UKIP has over a minority of workers, which is thanks to the bourgeois-liberal character of the politicians under whose watch immigration has soared. If reflects the failure of reformism and the reformists generally, who have capitulated to the market. There is rightfully a deep reservoir of hatred for the kind of ‘neo-liberal’ politicians that have ruled Britain in the past few decades. Under their watch the standard of living in Britain has risen only 4% over the past 10 years (the figure is negative for workers), whereas after WWII it tripled every 10 years. It was recently revealed that disposable income in Britain has fallen faster than in all comparable developed countries. The welcome rejection of Blairism and the Tories amongst the working class has unfortunately been channelled to some extent into UKIP.

UKIP’s policies are not the reason for their success. Rather it is their image as an anti-establishment alternative and their pandering to racist prejudices. On their website, their whole programme is under ‘policy review’. The Times has calculated that their policies, to the extent they even have them, have a £120bn fiscal hole!

Their economic policies, which are carefully hidden from the majority of voters, are extremely reactionary. Amongst other things, they stand for a flat income tax rate of 31% - meaning that multi-billionaires (if they paid any tax!) would pay the same proportion of tax as those earning £11,500 a year (the start rate for tax for UKIP). They want to cut 2 million public sector jobs, and openly begin the process of NHS privatisation.

The reality is that as soon as UKIP came close to winning power - a prospect which thankfully is very unlikely - they would immediately lose whatever basis they had gained in the working class through posing as ‘anti-establishment’, when workers realise the danger of such a government. Already there is a steady stream of extreme reactionary drivel - racist, sexist, homophobic - emerging from new UKIP councillors, which will alienate workers. If they ever do get into power, they will be rapidly exposed and quickly become the most hated party since Thatcher’s Tories.

The fact that the ‘problem’ of immigration under capitalism can never be resolved, is both a blessing and a curse for the ruling class. It means they can constantly play the race card. But it also means that each party that promises to attack immigrant rights so that British workers can get more jobs and housing, must always fail and lose its support, since workers are not really interested in attacking immigrants but in getting decent jobs and housing. Capitalism cannot provide these things, least of all could a UKIP government!

It follows that the Labour Party must boldly take up the mantle of the ‘protest party’ - but one with a real, socialist solution to the crisis of capitalism. Nigel Farage is to some extent liked because he seems devoid of the bland, inhuman and phony style of the leaders of the three main parties. He seems to speak his mind and is combative. The working class needs combative leaders now more than ever. The Labour Party leadership must step up to the task and campaign on a bold, clear and uncompromising socialist programme. They must confidently take up the issues of employment, austerity, housing and public services with socialist policies of nationalisation of the monopolies that are the real cause of unemployment and alienation. That would cut the ground from underneath UKIP and sweep Labour to power in a landslide victory.

The illusion of ‘overpopulation’

The refrain of UKIP and other demagogues is always the Malthusian argument that “we’re not racist, we just recognise that this is a small, overcrowded island with limited resources. We can’t take any more immigrants.”

The ‘proof’ that we’re overcrowded is presumably that Britain has a lot of unemployment, a lack of social housing and strained public services. I say presumably, since such politicians never give any real argument or evidence for overpopulation, it is merely asserted.

Marx decisively answered Malthus’ arguments about overpopulation 146 years ago in the pages of Capital. Politicians who make seductive ‘arguments’ about Britain being overcrowded and immigrants causing unemployment never take the time to ask what any of these things really are. They take for grant all the existing social relations and everything that goes with it - a market economy, commodity exchange and money, unemployment and the struggle of each against all, and of course immigration itself. Why immigration happens, and why our capitalist society drives immigration without being able to provide the necessary jobs and housing to accompany it, is never asked by these people.

Capitalism works on the basis of divorcing the mass of the population from control and ownership of the means of production, the means by which we all live. We have to sell our ability to work to those who do control them. Marx explained that capitalism always requires a layer of workers to be ostracised from the means of production - unemployed. It is an inevitable consequence of the booms and slumps that come with the whole system. The booms that suddenly take place, either across the whole economy or in one particular section, could not happen if there were not an existing pool of unemployed labour to be taken up. This ‘industrial reserve army’ of unemployed is utilised by the capitalist class on a global basis - as one country expands and pays higher wages, ‘spare’ labour power from less fortunate countries is pulled in. When the boom ends, we are left with ‘surplus population’.

Moreover, as capitalism develops the economy, the amount of ‘constant capital’ - productive machinery - per worker, constantly increases. Labour saving machinery is introduced, throwing people out of working and increasing the ratio of technology to worker. This means that there are two sources of mass unemployment in capitalism - crises of overproduction (such as we have been experiencing since 2008) and the mechanisation of production. It is a unique feature of capitalism that more labour saving technology, rather than leading to more time off for everyone, leads to excessive overwork for some and enforced idleness for others.

The following image charts ‘capacity utilisation’ in Britain over the past five years.

capacityutilisationclick to enlarge

This shows that over the past five years the normal utilisation of the country’s productive forces has been only about 60%! That is, production, wealth and employment could be increased by another two-thirds without any extra investment having to take place! This proves beyond all doubt that we are not ‘overcrowded’, and that it is the social system of capitalism which is responsible for mass unemployment and homelessness. Immigration has nothing to do with it.

A social system which was able to utilise and develop productivity would have no problem whatsoever absorbing an enlarged population, since as Engels explains the key to humanity’s success is the fact that each person produces far more than they consume thanks to technology,

“The [bourgeois] economist’s “demand” is not the real demand; his “consumption” is an artificial consumption. For the [bourgeois] economist, only that person really demands, only that person is a real consumer, who has an equivalent to offer for what he receives. But if it is a fact that every adult produces more than he himself can consume, that children are like trees which give superabundant returns on the outlays invested in them – and these certainly are facts, are they not? – then it must be assumed that each worker ought to be able to produce far more than he needs and that the community, therefore, ought to be very glad to provide him with everything he needs; one must consider a large family to be a very welcome gift for the community. But the [bourgeois] economist, with his crude outlook, knows no other equivalent than that which is paid to him in tangible ready cash.”

It is capitalism, and capitalism alone, that does not know what to do with the abundant human and technological resources at our disposal. Under a planned economy, which is only realisable by expropriating the productive resources monopolised by big business, and putting them at the hands of society as a whole, the whole population could find work, since ‘demand’ would not be restricted by the unnecessary poverty of the masses, as it is under capitalism. Genuine need and the given level of technology would drive the economy. If advances in technology did make some tasks redundant, instead of unemployment and rising social tensions, we would have more free time for all.

Without putting society and its resources under the genuine, democratic control of humanity (i.e. socialism), we are at the mercy of blind, inhuman forces like the market. In these circumstances, all talk of population control and severe immigration caps from the likes of UKIP will only ever amount to allowing capital to use the enhanced repressive capacities of the state to better further its dictatorship.

In Britain we now have the legacy of generations of immigration. Immigration is right at the heart of the British working class. We have a long and proud tradition of class solidarity across national lines. There is a vast reservoir of untapped militancy in the immigrant population, and in the children of working class immigrants in Britain. With a Blairite leadership in the Labour movement, this huge political potential threatens to go wasted, and criminally allows UKIP and others an opportunity to instead isolate them from the white-British working class population.

The fact that capitalism has built a global economy and cosmopolitan working classes such as in Britain, where the working class has direct family links to workers all over the world, is the basis for the downfall of this system, and with it all the miserable, narrow, dehumanised racism we must suffer under capitalism. But we need a conscious socialist leadership of the Labour movement with the guts and far-sightedness to realise this incredible potential.