Tories resorting to xenophobia
It’s difficult to imagine an election campaign less imaginative and effective than the one the Conservative Party has been waging. Conversely, Labour’s campaign has been both convincing and compelling. Even in the eyes of many Labour MPs, Jeremy Corbyn was “unelectable and undesirable” just a couple of months ago, and yet, with just a few days to go until polling day, Labour are closing the gap on the Tories. When the election was announced, the YouGov poll had the Conservatives on 44 percent to Labour’s 23 percent. The most recent YouGov poll (at the time of writing), has the Conservatives on 42 percent and Labour on 38 percent, and there’s a very real chance that Theresa May will lose her majority. The days of Corbyn’s unelectability are well and truly over, to such a degree that even the Guardian has temporarily put its Blairism on the shelf and come out in support of Labour.
In a state of shock, the right-wing press and Tory campaign managers are pulling out all the stops to demonise Jeremy Corbyn and prove that he doesn’t care about the British people: he met with the IRA to try and push forward the peace process in Ireland; he has consistently voiced his reluctance to kill millions of people with nuclear weapons; he is “a pacifist relic of the 1970s, in hock to the trade unions”; and his shadow Home Secretary seems to perfectly well understand that Britain is systemically racist. Worst of all, he is not fanatically anti-immigrant, which apparently means he doesn’t want to protect British jobs and services.
The charge on immigration has been led by Rupert Murdoch’s flagship tabloid, The Sun. Corbyn is accused of “plotting to allow thousands of unskilled migrants to enter Britain.” Even worse, he has been outed for having made a speech in 2013 in which he described a racist anti-immigration crackdown as, well, racist. Shockingly for some, it seems that “Mr Corbyn has no intention of reducing the current sky high levels of immigration”.
Thankfully the reliably strong and steady Theresa May is here to save the day: “I want to ensure we are controlling migration, because too-high uncontrolled migration puts pressure on our public services, but it also lowers wages at the lower end of the income scale. I want to ensure we control migration. Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party want uncontrolled migration.”
On this basis, the Tory election manifesto pledges to reduce net immigration to under 100,000 a year. A Conservative government will “work to reduce asylum claims” rather than doing the right thing and accepting more refugees; it will increase the minimum earnings required for a family member visa; and it will raise the Immigration Health Surcharge for foreigners using the NHS from £200 to £600.
By contrast, Labour “will not offer false promises on immigration targets or sow division by scapegoating migrants because we know where that leads.” The Labour manifesto (which clearly represents a compromise between the central leadership – particularly Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn, both longstanding campaigners for immigrant rights – and more right-wing elements) calls for “fair rules and reasonable management of migration”, without setting any target. The manifesto commits a Labour government to getting rid of the family member minimum income visa threshold, and to reinstating the Migrant Impact Fund. It promises that “Labour will not scapegoat migrants nor blame them for economic failures.”
Is immigration bad for Britain?
That immigration has “shattered social solidarity, driven down living standards, fuelled job insecurity and imposed a completely intolerable burden on the civic infrastructure” has become received opinion for a large part of the British population. This is hardly surprising, given that it’s a viewpoint constantly reinforced by the media and politicians. However, it’s worthwhile taking a more serious look into whether it’s actually true.
Does immigration drive down wages? Inasmuch as there’s a simple answer to this question, it’s “no”. Diane Abbott puts it well: “Immigrants in and of themselves do not cause low wages. Predatory employers, deregulated labour markets and weakened trade unions – they cause low wages.”
At the most simplistic level of analysis, it’s obviously true that an increased workforce can have the effect of reducing wages through the usual action of supply and demand – higher supply of labour leads to reduced price of labour (wages). However, immigration also changes that balance in a different direction, by widening the market for the product of labour (goods and services), thereby increasing labour demand. Economists are almost unanimously agreed that this positive effect far outweighs any negative effect. Alex Tabarrok, professor of economics at George Mason University, writes: “Immigration unleashes economic forces that raise real wages throughout an economy. New immigrants possess skills different from those of their hosts, and these differences enable workers in both groups to better exploit their special talents and leverage their comparative advantages. The effect is to improve the welfare of newcomers and natives alike.”
The overall effect of immigration is to increase wages and create jobs. Giovanni Peri, labour economics expert at the University of California, argues that the average US worker earns around $5,000 more than they would have done were it not for the immigration to the US since 1990. “As young immigrants with low schooling levels take manually intensive construction jobs, the construction companies that employ them have opportunities to expand. This increases the demand for construction supervisors, coordinators, designers, and so on. Those are occupations with greater communication intensity and are typically staffed by US-born workers who have moved away from manual construction jobs. This complementary task specialisation typically pushes US-born workers toward better-paying jobs, enhances the efficiency of production, and creates jobs.”
At the individual level, there are no doubt cases where an immigrant labourer is willing to work for a lower wage than their British counterpart and thereby deprives the latter of a job, but these cases are relatively rare, and the solution is to demand decent wages and conditions for all workers. In general, where wages go down and jobs disappear, this is a function not of immigration but of casualisation, economic deregulation, de-industrialisation, ruthless profiteering, mechanisation and other macroeconomic factors.
And what about public services? Is immigration placing an intolerable burden on the housing, education, health and benefits systems? Again, the answer is no. “There is now a fairly large body of research on the fiscal impact of immigration, all of which says roughly the same thing: immigrants are generally net contributors to the British economy, paying more into the system in taxes than they take out by accessing public services… In 2009 the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) at University College London found that migrants from the A8 countries of central and eastern Europe who joined the EU in 2004 were 60 per cent less likely than native-born Brits to claim benefits, and 58 per cent less likely to live in council housing.”
Public services are suffering because they receive insufficient investment, not because of excessive demand from people born outside the UK. Incidentally, if there were greater investment in services, there would also be more jobs – good, socially useful, dignified ones at that.
Philippe Legrain contributes another argument which is more subtle but equally important: the diversity of skills, opinions, traditions and needs that immigrants bring is a significant contributor to economic growth.
It is precisely because newcomers are different that they are so beneficial, since their differences tend to complement local needs and conditions. They may have skills that not enough Britons have, like medical training or fluency in Mandarin. They may have contacts that open opportunities for trade and investment as the centre of gravity of the global economy shifts east and south. They may be more willing to do gruelling jobs that most British people with higher living standards, education levels or aspirations spurn, like picking strawberries or caring for the elderly. They may simply be young and hard-working, a huge bonus for an ageing society with a shrinking local workforce and increasing numbers of pensioners to pay for. Having moved once, they tend to be more willing to move again, enabling the job market to cope better with change. And their diverse perspectives and experiences help provoke new ideas, while their dynamism tends to make them more entrepreneurial than most.
In advanced economies like Britain’s, sustained rises in living standards come from finding new and better ways of doing things and deploying them across the economy… Innovation mostly emerges from creative collisions between people – and two heads are only better than one if they think differently. A growing volume of research shows that groups with a diverse range of perspectives can solve problems – such as developing new medicines, designing computer games and providing original management advice – better and faster than like-minded experts…
Thus immigrants make the economy more dynamic – and far from putting unbearable pressure on jobs, public services and housing, they help improve the locals’ lot. Newcomers create jobs as well as filling them – when they spend their wages and in complementary lines of work. Polish builders create jobs for British architects, supervisors and suppliers of building materials. Overall, migrants tend to boost local wages, precisely because of those complementarities. Falling real wages in recent years are due to the crisis, not immigration.
As Richard Osborne puts it in his book Up The British, “Immigration and refugees can quite conceivably be seen as the motor of cultural and intellectual energy in the British experience over the centuries”.
In summary, immigration is profoundly valuable for British society, and to significantly reduce it would be to commit economic suicide. Even the Economist, hardly a bastion of progressive political opinion, notes that, according to calculations by the government’s fiscal watchdog, reducing annual net migration to 100,000 (as per the Tory manifesto pledge) would increase public debt by the mid-2060s. “Taking back control comes with a whopping bill.”
The only way forward is to reject all forms of racism and xenophobia
It’s hardly surprising that anti-immigrant views are so widespread: media and governments in the capitalist countries have been systematically scapegoating immigrants for decades, and now the economic crisis has people fighting over scraps. That’s how xenophobia has become ‘populist’. The mainstream media consistently exaggerates the extent and the negative effects of immigration. Gary Younge points out that “three-quarters of Britons think immigration should be reduced. That’s hardly surprising. They think migrants comprise 31% of the UK’s population; the actual number is 13%. If you think something’s twice the size it really is, you’re bound to find it frightening.”
The purpose of this scapegoating and scaremongering is obvious enough: to distract people from the real reasons that things are getting worse. Karl Marx, analysing the “immigrant problem” in England around 150 years ago, painted a very vidid – and eerily familiar – picture:
Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the ‘poor whites’ to the Negroes in the former slave states of the USA. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.
This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.
Racism and xenophobia create division, and division prevents the working class from waging effective class struggle – at a time when the ruling class is waging that class struggle relentlessly. As Tom O’Leary points out, “in the OECD economies the proportion of workers in part-time employment has risen from 5.4% in 1960 to over 20% in 2015. Union densities were 35.6% in 1975 and had fallen to less than half that, just 16.7% by 2014. It is not workers outside the advanced industrialised countries who have lowered wages in the G20 countries. It is the capitalist class in the G20 which has robbed workers of a greater proportion of the value they create”.
A Labour government will undoubtedly be a boost for all workers; it will demand more tax from the wealthy and invest it in public services, job creation and infrastructure. It can also be relied upon to be less awful than the Tories on the question of immigration. However, the Labour Party is still an arena for the fight against racism and xenophobia, as many of its high-profile MPs (including Tom Watson and Yvette Cooper) have joined the idiotic chorus demanding stricter immigration controls.
We should be struggling wholeheartedly against ruthless exploitation, against deregulation, against an economy that is absurdly skewed in favour of finance capital, against zero-hour contracts, against unemployment, against tax-dodging, for investment, for a living wage, for council housing, for more funding to the health and education services, against every form of oppression faced on a daily basis by workers. Division along the lines of race, religion or nationality weakens that struggle, and that is precisely its utility to the capitalist class. Without unity, we are consigned to a state of permanent defeat.