The recent election of a Conservative government, with one of the most openly racist Prime Ministers and Cabinet in living memory, the victory of an openly xenophobic and anti-immigrant Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, and the rise of racist and xenophobic movements in Britain and throughout the world, have all raised questions as to how the working class movement should respond to what appears to be growing support within the working class for restrictions on immigration.

Britain remains a country where racism continues to play a crucial role in politics. Its relative prosperity is a direct result of imperialism and colonialization, where the resources of the global south were plundered, and racist ideas were created to justify and perpetrate this imperialism. The xenophobic Brexit movement was a right wing, populist campaign which used anti-immigrant racism, and exploited nostalgia for Britain’s “glory days” (when it was an empire), in order to gain popular support. As a populist campaign, Brexit adapted its arguments depending on the class interests of its audience. for working class people it was about jobs, ‘changing communities’ and pressure on services; for middle class people who were the backbone of the vote it was simple little-Englander chauvinism, hostility to Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities, to “liberal” cosmopolitanism, and to modern society generally.

The defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in December 2019 has pushed this issue, more than ever, to the top of the agenda in the workers’ movement. There are voices both within and outside the Labour Party that unless people’s “concerns” regarding immigration are addressed by the left, they will continue to see their interests aligned with right wing populists such as Johnson and Farage. The Labour Party and the left, so the argument goes, is dominated by politically correct, “London-centric” liberals, out of touch with the “ordinary” working class in the North and the Midlands, who feel that their economic interests are threatened by immigrants.

Opponents of immigration argue that immigrants are a source of cheap labour, as due to the relatively low wages in their home countries. They are willing to do the same work for less pay than their “indigenous” British counterparts. This means that “indigenous” workers must accept low pay, or else be replaced by immigrant workers. This leads to an overall drop in pay for all workers, a greater level of exploitation. Some also point to where in certain industries, companies specifically hire workers from other countries, purposely recruiting in countries where labour is cheaper to undercut the British workforce. Another argument is that an influx of immigrants puts a “strain” on public services, as a growth in population means that resources in, for example, the NHS or social services, are spent on immigrants rather than others.

These arguments, advanced by the Conservative Party, the far right and the Tory press, certainly has gained purchase among many working class people (along with other, more obviously racist ideas). So much so, in fact, that it is reflected within the working class movement itself. At best, some leading figures and organisations within the movement argue that, while these arguments may be racist or untrue, they will need to be reflected back to working class people who believe them in order for them to vote for Labour in future elections. At worst, many have in fact swallowed the narrative whole. And believe that immigration should in fact be restricted to benefit “indigenous” working class people. For example, speaking just before the election, Len McCluskey, the leader of Britain’s largest Union, Unite, said: “It’s wrong in my view to have any greater free movement of labour unless you get stricter labour market regulation.” He also spoke against freedom of movement in his own campaign for leader of Unite, saying in 2016 when addressing the issue of immigration that, “workers have always done best when the labour supply is controlled and communities are stable”. This reference to “stable” communities comes with the obvious, racist, suggestion that the inclusion of workers of different nationalities or backgrounds is somehow “destabilising”.

The adoption by sections of the trade union movement, including some trade union leaders, of anti-immigrant rhetoric highlights the difference between a sectional, trade unionist approach to immigrant workers, and a socialist, internationalist perspective. The former assumes the continuation of a working class divided by race and nationality, where workers compete with each other for limited gains within the capitalist system. The latter assumes a unity of interests of all workers in opposition to the capitalist class, and the abolition of the capitalist system.

In fact, despite wide acceptance of the argument that immigration to Britain has lowered wages, this is contradicted by research. The London School of Economics in 2016 found that those areas with high immigration did not experience a greater fall in available jobs or levels of pay than those areas with lower immigration. The only group whose wages and job prospects were apparently affected by immigration was other recent immigrants. Along with other similar studies, they found that what is often perceived as a lowering of living standards due to immigration was in fact the effect of the 2008 financial crash and subsequent austerity during which real wages fell by ten per cent.  

There is also little evidence to suggest that immigration controls to prevent the access of non- British workers to “British jobs” would raise standards for British workers overall. The function of such systems is to create a hyper-exploited pool of labour which goes even further in undercutting “indigenous” workers. Rather than stopping economic immigration, it instead reduces the rights of immigrant workers. Work visas, for example, where your “right” to live in the UK would be tied to your employment, will serve to ensure immigrant workers will have less rights at work. If the loss of their job could also lead to the loss of their right to remain in the country, these workers are much less likely to stand up to their bosses, more likely to accept a reduction in pay, terms and conditions, less likely to oppose abusive practices, less likely to organise. This is even more the case when it comes to “illegal” immigrants. Employers who exploit such workers do so knowing that if they assert themselves, they could be at risk of deportation or detainment. These workers will often work “off the books” and their employment will therefore be completely unregulated.

Quite obviously, an enlarged pool of workers employed on work visas, or here illegally, will lead to both the hyper-exploitation of immigrant workers, and an increased danger of the very undercutting of “indigenous” workers which opponents of immigration warn of. If, instead, all immigrant workers were afforded the same rights and protections as all other workers, and higher wages and greater conditions were granted for all, then such a threat would not exist. This is, of course, currently not the case. The capitalist employers, and their party in Britain, the Conservatives, would rather have a pool of hyper-exploited labour they can use to drive down the wages, terms and conditions of all workers. And also, just as importantly, divide the working class against itself by providing a scapegoat in immigrant workers for others to blame for their own poor pay and conditions, or lack of employment altogether. While workers in some industries would certainly benefit from measures that prevent the bosses from hiring workers from overseas to undercut their own pay, the obvious solution would be to enforce a higher rate of pay for all workers in those industries, and so make such efforts by the bosses redundant.

Immigration tends to be concentrated in the most exploited, insecure, and lowest paid sectors of the workforce, for example in agriculture or the service industry. The recruitment of migrants does not produce these conditions: there are plenty of examples within these sectors where immigrant workers remain the minority, and the level of exploitation is not reduced. Restrictions on immigration would not change these conditions, only the organisation of these industries by unions could do so. The union movement’s record in organising the most exploited, unskilled sections of the working class, in these industries, is patchy at best.

Furthermore, there is no proof that immigration leads to a “strain” on public services, and it will in fact have a net positive effect. Immigrants tend to be younger on average, and, as the main motivation for immigration is employment, more likely to be in work. They are net contributors, paying more in taxes than they extract in public services.

Naturally, what is needed is for the working class movement – the Labour Party, the trade unions and the left – to argue for, and mobilise for, a raising of conditions for all workers, not for the reduction of them for a minority, which would, in reality, lead to a “race to the bottom”. This, along with a drive to organise migrant workers and for solidarity between immigrant and non-immigrant workers, would ensure that the working class was not divided along racial and national lines, and would lead to a raising of standards for all. This is, unfortunately, not what has happened. Instead, for a long time, the Labour Party has tailed the right wing press in immigrant bashing and outright racism, the highpoint being Gordon Brown’s “British Jobs for British Workers” speech – a fascist slogan, unfortunately taken up during the anti-immigrant strikes of construction workers in 2009. The Labour Party under Ed Miliband famously produced “Controls on Immigration” mugs. Corbyn’s election as leader led many on the left to hope that the Labour Party’s approach to immigration would change. It is true that that the kind of open anti-immigrant racism experienced in the New Labour years has been dropped, but the party’s policies towards immigration remained, at best, equivocal, with, for example, Labour promising that freedom of movement from European Union countries would be ended in any Brexit deal they would have made. This promise to end freedom of movement was the first (and arguably only clear) response Labour had to the EU referendum, where it clearly identified the link between the Brexit vote and anti-immigrant racism, and capitulated to it.

The trade union standpoint

Furthermore, as noted above, some trade union leaders have continued to push for anti-immigration policies within the Labour Party. This is a result of the limitations of the trade union bureaucracy and how it functions under capitalism. The role of the trade unions is to fight for and defend the interests of their members within the existing capitalist system. Trade union leaders see their role as solely to ensure a better deal for the workers they represent, while leaving the economic and social system fundamentally unaltered. In fact, they often fear that too drastic a change to the status quo may put at risk any limited gains they may have made. In this, they generally express the reformist outlook of the majority of their members, who are mostly concerned with making short term, incremental gains, and defending what limited gains they may have achieved through trade union representation. This conservative outlook can be reflected in the form of sectionalism, whereby union leaders in a particular sector of industry may defend what they see as the narrow interests of the workers they represent over those of the working class as a whole. This attitude is displayed, for example, in how some trade union leaders oppose measures to combat climate change, arguing that such measures would damage the interests of those workers employed in fossil fuel industries. This approach can also be seen in the debate around immigration. Rather than fighting to raise the standards of all workers, whatever their nationality, they limit themselves to defending what they see as their own members’ rights.

This approach, of course, can only lead to an increase in racism in the working class and a deepening of divisions. When it is not just right wing political leaders and the Tory press who argue that immigration is detrimental to workers’ interests, but their own trade union leaders, hostility to immigrant workers will only grow.

Those sections of the left and the trade union movement capitulating to anti-immigrant racism and nationalism are not doing so because of some inherent racism in them as individuals. In fact, many trade union leaders are, in many respects, great advocates of anti-racism as a principle. Their capitulation is a direct result of accepting the logic of capitalism, and seeing their role as being to limit the damage it does to the, often small, group of workers they represent. Trade union leaders in Western capitalist countries can often view the interests of “their” workers as being in competition with others for jobs and conditions. They will see their relative privilege as something to be defended but not see the benefits of fighting for a raising of standards for all.

The capitalist system is based upon a hierarchy, whereby some workers are held in a greater level of exploitation than others – women being more exploited than men, black workers more than white workers, workers in semi-colonial countries more exploited than those in advanced industrial ones. The trade unions in Western countries often organise a minority of workers, who due to their relative privilege may see their interests at odds with others, and see the unions’ role as being to defend those interests against competition. Many of the gains made by the working class in imperialist countries such as Britain have been a direct result of concessions granted by capitalists, which could be afforded because of the benefits of imperialism. In order to ensure a stable workforce at home, a section of the British working class could be “bought off” using the super-profits gained by imperialism. This process has created a dynamic whereby British workers expect a greater level of privilege than workers elsewhere in the world, and white workers expect a greater level of privilege than their black and ethnic minority counterparts. These demands are translated into a trade union response which sees its role as being to represent the narrow interests of this minority over those of others. With the economic crisis, and the capitalists’ increased unwillingness to grant such concessions, racism and chauvinism has been a common response.

The outlook of the trade union bureaucracy is further narrowed because their positon of privilege, relative to the workers they represent, is dependent, as they see it, upon mediating between their members and the employer. From this perspective, their role is to ensure the continuation of the union and, specifically, the apparatus that maintains their own positions, by focussing on preserving the narrow interests of one layer of workers, rather than the working class as a whole. This relationship, between a layer of relatively privileged workers and the trade union bureaucracy that represents its interests within the nationalist, racist capitalist system, can ultimately lead to a narrow, conservative outlook.

The socialist standpoint

The need to struggle for even the smallest gains within the capitalist system means that workers will organise in the workplace to make demands that will alleviate their exploitation. This does not, however, automatically lead to workers recognising the collective interests of the working class as a whole. This can lead to a sectional trade union outlook, where workers will see their own interests in completion with those of other workers.

Ultimately, divisions within the working class will always exist while capitalism forces workers to compete with one another. These divisions will often be expressed along racial or national lines. The trade union leaders and the Labour Party which is the expression of the economic struggle in the political arena, accept the inevitability of this system, will fight within such parameters. They exist within the national economy, and thus are nationalist from the point of view of British workers. The combination of limiting their approach to narrow, economic gains within the capitalist system; the need to gain votes for the Labour Party by pandering to even the most reactionary elements of the working, and the middle, class; and the influence of nationalism, leads them to be vulnerable to a racist outlook towards immigrant workers.

However, while the capitalists, the press and their politicians want to keep us divided, the process of exploitation at the same time unites us, across borders and artificial divisions. Our joint experience of exploitation lays the groundwork for the global working class solidarity needed to overthrow this unjust, exploitative system and replace it with one which is in every way better. We must reject all attempts to divide us, which requires us to express full, unconditional solidarity with all workers wherever they are from and wherever they are; and demand that our leaders do the same. Socialists don’t start from the standpoint of what is in the interest (real or perceived) of this or that section of workers but from the standpoint of the working class as a whole, not just in Britain, but in the world.