Reframing the Immigration Debate

By Cathy Cole

The political divisions over immigration reflect a fundamental clash of interests between sections of the capitalist class in Britain (and, indeed, globally).

Business interests – especially those that rely on easy availability of low-paid, largely unskilled manual labour employed on casual terms – such as agriculture, food production/catering and sections of construction – saw huge advantages in a much more open labour market transcending national boundaries.    For them, an increase in the number of migrant workers coming into the country make a positive difference to their profits. This fraction was dominant when Tony Blair decided to voluntarily waive any transitional controls to the right of citizens from (former Communist) EU accession countries to exercise “free movement” – which saw levels of net migration rise.

In contrast, stands the growing populist far right, supported by other sections of business which argue that Britain needs an instrumental approach to the issue – taking in only the workers the economy needs, especially those whose skills are especially marketable, and deterring those deemed superfluous.   This section is represented by the likes of Priti Patel and Nigel Farage, who advocated a “points-based”, Australian style approach.

This  framing of the debate poses the choice in binary terms – either let the market decide and throw the doors wide open, or get tougher on immigrants and kick out the foreigners we don’t consider useful to our needs.  

The Tory approach designed by David Cameron and Theresa May was an attempt to fudge these two contradictory approaches.     Britain’s membership of the EU meant that freedom of movement across the continent was essentially protected in law, whilst the resulting inability to cap numbers arriving led to increasing pressure to deter and exclude those from outside the European Economic Area.    This gave rise to the “hostile environment” where the state was deliberately punitive and harsh in its treatment of migrants, but also questioning the residency entitlements of settled immigrant communities, as seen in the Windrush scandal, and the “go home” vans driven through ethnically diverse communities.

Labour supporters have been rightly outraged by this approach, and by the narrative which would explain the parlous state of the economy and public services on too many foreigners rather than a decade of vicious austerity measures designed to benefit the wealthiest in society.     

But does it therefore mean that we should back those arguing for an entirely deregulated immigration policy as part of the flip-side of the total freedom demanded by capital in a neoliberal society?  Is the choice restricted to either “getting tougher” on migrants, or an approach which sees increasing migration flows as always and instrisically to be welcomed, with anyone questioning this as ipso facto racist?   The current binary framing prevents a whole series of vital questions from being posed.     

Is the economic “bottom line” the only criteria around which an alternative immigration policy might be designed?  Does the absence of regulation in a market society really mean “freedom”, or should the structural reasons forcing migrants into desperate need (economic inequality, war, climate impacts etc) be addressed with greater urgency?   Could the economy and society be democratically planned to ensure that migration can take place with fairness, justice, compassion and dignity? How can we ensure that migration is made possible on terms which benefit Labour rather than Capital?    

Len McCluskey was howled down for questioning the inviolability of EU “freedom of movement” (sic).  But perhaps we need less shrill sloganising – on both sides – and a more open, considered debate about how we can arrive at a system which is both fairer and has greater popular legitimacy than the present arrangements?