The Left on Immigration

Everyone needs caffeine. Turin, November 2018

Immigration has been a wedge issue for nationalists and conservatives to exploit for decades. The left must own this issue and stake its own claim on common sense.

Progressives frequently talk as though they believe in open borders, but often without actually making the case for an open borders policy. But either we have open borders or we have some sort of immigration regime.

The latter means we’ll continue to rely on passports and border checks with the threat of deportation and a repressive apparatus backed by the armed force of the state. The move towards freedom of movement within the European Union has been a civilising project, but with serious limits. The restrictions just moved to the frontier with North Africa.

The radical left has played a defensive role when it comes to immigration. The focus has been on trying to combat popular myths and defend the rights of migrants. This was a noble aim that has proven necessary but insufficient.

The right has dominated the immigration debate and shaped the common sense assumptions behind it. As a result, we’re left arguing on the terms of our enemies and the battle against stigmatising the foreign has been compromised.

Corbyn, Sanders and Mélenchon have all taken positions on immigration outside the far-left’s calls for open borders. The pro-EU left likes to pretend this is a problem unique to far-left leaders, but the reality is that the European project only guarantees free movement for Europeans. The EU is quite happy to restrict black and brown migration.

The limits of this position and the lack of a positive vision has held back the left in its attempts to defend migrant rights. Attempts to engage in triangulation from the left to ‘manage’ immigration through restrictive measures will fail. Therefore, we have to stake out a strong case for open borders and redefine the terms of debate.

Nations Without Border Controls

One popular claim about immigration is that the reservoirs of migrant labour drive down wages and working conditions. The idea is that the precarious, low-wage job market we have in the UK and elsewhere in Europe is really down to migration. But the real factors are the weaknesses of working class institutions like trade unions.

Reducing legal immigration would not increase wages nor would it raise the number of jobs available. In fact, it would likely increase the amount of illegal immigration and the black market for migrant labour. So the precarious job market is partly maintained by migration controls, not by the flow of migrants itself.

If we had open borders and a strong labour movement, it would be possible for workers to get the pay and working conditions they need. Freedom of movement is part of an equal playing field, but it takes more to raise wages. The main point is to not raise barriers to the minimum wage and other crucial rights, and that’s what tight controls on immigration end up doing.

The fantasy is that the border can be closed air-tight and wages will be secure from outside forces. But without a programme for full employment, the jobs market can still be depressed by unemployment at home.

Wages can also be held down by new pools of cheap, if not free labour – internships, apprenticeships and so on. But no one would argue that the state needs to deport interns and apprentices to raise wages.

The truth is that the argument that you need to restrict immigration to protect wages and jobs has neoliberal assumptions. It was Milton Friedman who argued that the welfare state was incompatible with open borders. It’s no coincidence that big business now wants to turn workers against one another on this basis.

Social Democracy With Borders

Border controls have long been exercised as part of social democratic welfare states, though not in a consistent way. Indeed, the contemporary era of mass migration begins after World War Two when the great empires went into steep decline. This is definitely true in Britain and most other European countries.

New migration controls were raised over the next three decades, yet the need for migrant labour remained very real and the opening for fresh inflows of labour would expand and contract at different times. So the rise of new controls did not mean immigration stopped.

British citizenship was invented in 1948. Until that time, every person born in mainland Britain and in a British colony was a British subject. There was no formal difference between a British-born person and a colonial subject.

The asymmetry of rights and freedoms across the range of Her Majesty’s subjects was huge and concealed by this indistinct concept. This was not the last development in British nationality and Commonwealth citizenship. Changes would continue to be made up until the 1980s.

Indeed, there was officially freedom of movement within the British Empire. In reality, the migratory flows were constrained by other factors like the lack of affordable travel. Many countries lacked the infrastructure to make flights a popular means of transport.

This changed once it became easier to travel. So the British subjects could consider moving to the UK and many West Indians chose to seek out a better life in Britain, just as many South Asians would do as well. It may be that these mass migrations had not happened in the past because the British Empire kept this stock of colonial labour offshore.

In this case, we might understand the era of mass migration as the age when empires ended and colonial labour was brought onshore. Workers that would have been exploited in Trinidad and Barbados could now be exploited in Tottenham and Brixton.

Multicultural Compromise

The rise of the multicultural nation-state was the end result. However, it’s often talked about as if multiculturalism was imposed by liberal social engineers. It was actually a compromise after years of trying to restrict inflows of migrants and the emergence of newly settled communities.

By the 1990s, the transition had been made to a diverse society mainly out of a compromising acceptance of the growth of a settled migrant population into significant communities. Indian, African and Caribbean communities had made up 1% of the population in 1940. By 1990, this figure had risen to 6% and by 2010 these communities had grown to over 10%.

Yet popular perceptions of immigration would see the Black and Asian population as 30%. Likewise, the widespread belief is that the percentage of those foreign-born in the UK comes to 31%. What the 2011 census found is that the foreign-born populace had risen to 13% from 6% in 1971.

At the highest, the figure rises to 15%, if we take into account estimates of the number of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants living in Britain. The media has played its role in shaping such perceptions.

So the left has to fight back and not just play a defensive game if it wants to really change public opinion and create a world with free movement. It’s not enough to play a negative game. We need a positive vision of the world to come, too.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.