Stop Blaming Migrants

Rachel Shabi

What miserable terrain we’re stuck in, post-Brexit vote, as the free trade v. free movement argument is endlessly discussed. Round and round we go, warning that leaving the single market and slapping more controls – we already have plenty – on immigration would harm the economy, but insisting that the public wants one, or both, or neither; who really knows?

As far as we can tell from polling, there is support both for remaining in the single market and for controls on immigration. We know that we can’t have free trade without free movement, because the EU keeps telling us so, even as ministers pretend that we can. More polling shows the public evenly split as to which is more important – controlling migration or free trade with the EU.

The Conservatives, who made unfulfillable promises about reducing net migration, are now saying that people who worry about immigration are having their concerns dismissed by a patronising, wealthy elite. The centre-left meanwhile fears that Labour strongholds will swing to the right unless the party promises to tackle free movement. Some Labour MPs have gone as far as claiming that immigration could cause racism or lead to riots. Apart from the victim-blaming, and the clearing of political ground for the populist right to build on, the claim doesn’t even make sense: there is less racism in more diverse parts of Britain.

But the idea persists that it would be undemocratic not to hear the demands to ‘control migration’ that were apparently written into every cross on every leave ballot. It would be elitist to privilege trade over migration controls – we’d be listening to the bankers and not the British people if we did that. It isn’t enough to honour the democratic vote to leave the EU; we have to honour it in a migrant-bashing, economy-stunting manner, for it to count at all.

To resist such a position isn’t to deny Westminster’s decades of neglecting the grinding hardship experienced across swaths of Britain: stagnating wages, insecure work, spiralling costs, a chronic lack of affordable housing, unbearable strain on the NHS. But if a politician says that any of these problems is caused by too much immigration, then they are lying. Migrants pay more in tax than they take in benefits and have little effect, either up or down, on wages. Study after study has shown that migrants don’t strain the housing market or public services.

The Conservatives know all this – they admitted as much. When David Cameron, ahead of the EU referendum, tried to negotiate a better deal on migration, his team could not find any ‘hard evidence’ that current levels of migration are adversely affecting communities in Britain. But in the face of these facts, what’s a Europhobic Tory to do? Admit that the hardship is caused not by migration but by deliberate government policy? Better find a scapegoat instead.

This is the challenge facing the progressive left. Now more than ever, it’s the job of the left to trust that the majority of the population is not racist, and move away from the notion that more immigration controls are necessary, possible or desirable. The progressive response to a populist right-wing surge is to take away their fuel – fight to alleviate the economic pain it thrives on, and reject the division it creates. When the new Ukip leader says he wants to replace Labour and make his party 'the patriotic voice of working people', the progressive line is to redirect the blame away from migrants and onto political decisions, to focus on fighting poverty and creating secure jobs, not to patronise people by suggesting everything can be made better with a bit of 'patriotism'. It's a hard line to take and will be met with ridicule and attack. But that's to be expected. That's what challenging a dominant political narrative looks like.

But if the left doesn’t hold a line, it enables the surge of nativist nationalism by conceding ground, allowing the debate to shift ever rightwards. Fo we really want to find out where it all ends? Do we really want to see how far right we can go?


  • 29 November 2016 at 5:52pm
    Keith Johnson Wellington NZ says:
    Theresa May has made it clear that in her opinion "If you believe you're a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere" - a challenging statement for those of us who believe in taking a wider view.

    But Theresa's mentor, Jean Gottman, who was a Professor of Geography at Oxford when she studied there in the 1970s wrote that 'he understood territory not simply in moments of crisis as something to be gained or defended, but as a routine element within politics', adding: ‘somewhat enigmatically that in his understanding territory was 'a psychosomatic device'.

    By which I take it that a Sense of Homeland or Significant Territory is a condition of the relative well-being of some or all of its constituent ethnic groups [both within or outside its borders] ‘caused or aggravated by a mental factor such as internal conflict or stress’.

    Now this may or may not be profound but it sets us thinking again about how far many of our current discontents concerning globalization, immigration and trans-national governance are symptoms of the growing ennui, anomie and alienation associated with modern urban life.

    And if we mean to tackle these concerns in the light of the inexorable pressures surrounding economic growth, international trade, migration and collaboration that are exacerbated by resource depletion, climate change and global over-population, we could do worse than return to Tom Paine:

    “When it can be said by any country in the world, my poor are happy, neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them, my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars, the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive, the rational world is my friend because I am the friend of happiness”.

    If you [and those who surround you and share your space] are unhappy, it matters little whether the world is your country or you are merely a citizen of somewhere.

    As for BREXIT Theresa, we should perhaps remember the observation made by Theresa's saintly namesake:

    'More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones'.

  • 30 November 2016 at 1:01am
    Phil Edwards says:
    As it happens I gave a lecture on right-wing populism this afternoon. When I got to the section on nativism the lecture nearly ground to a halt - I'd prepared some stuff about beliefs in 'cultural homogeneity' and fears of 'ethnic competition' for jobs and resources, but in the event I found it almost impossible to deliver without breaking frame and saying "obviously this is based on racism".

    I think we - from the Labour Party to the BBC - have been far too indulgent of this kind of thinking for far too long. (Just today Stephen Kinnock opined that Labour should recognise that 'people have concerns about immigration', a sentiment about as helpful as it's original.) All the concerns about "cultural homogeneity" and "ethnic competition" and "neighbourhoods changed out of all recognition" and "all the new jobs going to migrants" - these aren't political positions, they're just euphemisms.

    • 1 December 2016 at 12:40pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Phil Edwards
      Surely the NHS and the welfare state are succesful examples of nativism?

      The entire concept of citizenship is exclusionary and discriminatory.

  • 30 November 2016 at 4:43pm
    S.J says:
    But there is also a case to say that the free movement of people is the central tenet of neo-liberal economics. Can it not be criticised as an economic policy? All countries have immigration policies.

  • 1 December 2016 at 10:59am
    whisperit says:
    Anxiety about immigration is based in part on racism, but labeling it as such neither explains nor helps us determine what to do about it.

    There does seem to be a biological basis for hostility towards individuals who are seen as belonging to an "out group". However, the intensity of this hostility is conditional - there are social and environmental factors which affect both when and how this is expressed (Research primatologists Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Robert Sapolosky write well about this)

    As Keith Johnson writes above, "alienation" is a helpful way of understanding what this means in human society. When people feel separate from those around them, when they lack a sense of purpose in their daily activity, and when the solutions are presented as individualised, then people will identify with a smaller and smaller "in group".

    The dynamics of neoliberal consumer capitalism that require unceasing labour movement and that atomise experience are now coinciding with resource wars and environmental collapse that lead to mass refugee movements. It's a "perfect storm".

    IMHO, the prognosis is very bleak. The best we can do is to fight environmental destruction, and try to build inclusive, collective politics which deliberately include mutual support across identity groups and solutions independent of the market. "More jobs", free trade and the free movement of people without countervailing challenge to neoliberalism and active community-building will only fuel the alienation that causes racism.

    • 1 December 2016 at 11:54am
      streetsj says: @ whisperit
      Can it be "racist" for a white caucasian Brit to be anti a white caucasian Pole?

    • 1 December 2016 at 12:24pm
      Stu Bry says: @ streetsj
      I don't think white Caucasian is a very useful term.

      I can identify Slavs, Iberians, Scandinavians and Celts by sight so it's certainly possible to differentiate and discriminate.

    • 1 December 2016 at 1:23pm
      whisperit says: @ Stu Bry
      Physical/genetic difference may be one part of identifying an "out group", but it is neither necessary nor sufficient as a way of deciding whether discrimination is "racist".

      Power, history and "claimed" identity are also critical, for example.

      So, yes, discrimination between "white Caucasians" (even if such a category has a biological reality) can be racist.

    • 13 December 2016 at 7:45pm
      John Cowan says: @ streetsj
      German Jews (as distinct from East European Jews) weren't physically distinguishable from German Christians. That's why the Nazis had to push so hard with their Jews-are-repulsive-mongrels propaganda.

  • 1 December 2016 at 11:57am
    streetsj says:
    I don't understand how the huge amount of net immigration cannot put a strain on the housing market unless the incomers either build their own houses or do not live in houses. It's just a matter of numbers.
    The same must be true to some extent on public services though it is easier to see that the migrants might be net suppliers of public services.

    • 1 December 2016 at 12:33pm
      Stu Bry says: @ streetsj
      It is possible to come to that conclusion because the Guardian article the author links to looks only at the relative numbers of immigrants in different kinds of housing and doesn't consider at all what constitutes a housing crisis.

      Saying X percentage of immigrants live in Y percentage of a certain accommodation type tells us nothing about a housing crisis which surely relates to the number of people who are living in housing which is unsuitable for their means and/or needs.

    • 1 December 2016 at 3:12pm
      streetsj says: @ Stu Bry
      TheGuardian article is crammed full of illogicality.
      She starts off by saying that when immigrants first arrive they tend to live more densely (more to a property) and then they tend to tend spread out after an undefined period. This apparently debunks the idea that they are a strain on housing. It is completely illogical. they may not have the proportionate strain on housing that their numbers might imply but any additional housing requirement puts more strain on the supply. The fact that they subsequently spread out puts a further strain on supply just not from immediately arrived immigrants.
      The next chunk is about a misleading Daily Mail article but the thrust of it is that only 9% of social housing goes to immigrants. 9% is a substantial additional burden albeit not the 50% the Mail was claiming.
      The third chunk is even more ridiculous. it cites a report saying that immigrants cause house prices to fall in some areas as "natives" move out - which takes a millisecond to realise means that the housing problem is just moved elsewhere.
      The final part quotes an LSE report saying two thirds of housing demand is not created by immigrants; which means, hang on a second let me boot up my mainframe calculator, which means one third is.

      None of which is racist; it is simply pointing out the obvious fact that if you have a limited supply of housing (especially in the areas where people want to live) and more people move in, the problem is going to get worse.

  • 1 December 2016 at 1:25pm
    frmurphy98 says:
    "Now more than ever, it’s the job of the left to ... move away from the notion that more immigration controls are necessary, possible or desirable"

    A permanently open door to a vast reserve army of low-paid workers is hardly left wing. It's a Friedmanite prescription for decisively suppressing the cost and power of labour.

  • 2 December 2016 at 11:34am
    Charbb says:
    "But if the left doesn’t hold a line, it enables the surge of nativist nationalism by conceding ground, allowing the debate to shift ever rightwards. Do we really want to find out where it all ends?"

    This is a foolish argument. It is like saying if you stop eating after you are full you won't be able to eat again and it will put you on a slippery slope to starvation.

    There is no reason why the left cannot "hold a line" by putting reasonable curbs on immigration.

    A patritic left is exactly what we desperately need. Labour won election after election after election when it was seen by the public as a party solid on defence. We must get back to that. Someone like Denis Healy, not Jeremy Corbyn, is what we need.

  • 2 December 2016 at 11:42am
    Charbb says:
    "not to patronise people by suggesting everything can be made better with a bit of ‘patriotism’."

    Everything can be made better with a patriotic Labour Party strong on defence. Remember Clem Attlee?

    "It’s a hard line to take and will be met with ridicule and attack. But that’s to be expected. That’s what challenging a dominant political narrative looks like."

    No. It's an easy line to take and it leads to crushing defeat. Remember Michael Foot?

    And you are not challenging a dominant political narrative: merely condemning us to permanent Toryism or worse, UKIP fascism.

  • 2 December 2016 at 6:13pm
    Mat Snow says:
    The Labour Party and British left in general is in a mess because it cannot hold two thoughts in its head at the same time:

    • The free movement of labour (which is not the same as people) across national borders creates an oversupply which depresses pay and conditions for indigenous labour, especially of workers with manual skills.

    • Restricting the free movement of people (which is not the same as labour) across national borders has long been regarded by the left as solely motivated by racism, either overt or covert.

    Untangling the confusion of 'labour' for 'people' and restricting the free movement of labour into the UK, perhaps by reintroducing a work permit system, is a logical answer to the long-standing problem of stagnating and even declining pay and conditions for millions of indigenous workers, whose social costs and political consequences we are all suffering, even in white collar internationalist London. As an answer it is not intrinsically racist, nativist or any of the other toxic 'ists' which suppress its serious consideration by the left. Or am I so blinkered by racism and nativism I can't see the problem?

    • 13 December 2016 at 7:47pm
      John Cowan says: @ Mat Snow
      New York City doesn't find it necessary to repress the flow of potentially low-wage workers from rural Alabama.

    • 13 December 2016 at 10:25pm
      Mat Snow says: @ John Cowan
      Your point being…?

  • 14 December 2016 at 11:23am
    Koldo says:
    Latest available EU statistics from 2015 indicate that 13 per cent of inhabitants in the UK are foreign-born. Other countries have a higher share: Ireland (16.2 per cent), Austria (17.2 per cent) or Sweden (16.4 per cent).

    Still, according to a recent poll by Ipsos Mori, Britain remains the country where immigration is reported as the most significant worry: It is so for 42 per cent of the people. Germany goes second with 41 per cent and Sweden third with 33 per cent.

    But let’s take my home country as a point of reference: Spain. The number of foreign-born inhabitants lies at 12.7 per cent, not far behind the UK. However, immigration is the most unsettling issue only for nine per cent of the population.

    We are talking about a country where about 20 per cent of working age people are unemployed (it reached 25 per cent in the worst years of the financial crisis), and a society that only one generation ago barely knew what foreign nationals looked like, apart from pictures of blond blue-eyed northern Europeans on the Mediterranean coastline.

    Unscrupulous media groups and wily politicians have fruitfully spread the rumour that foreigners are to blame for the misfortunes of working people. This exercise of cheap scaremongering is proving very appealing.

    (From my piece in Left Foot Forward some weeks ago:

  • 14 December 2016 at 11:51pm
    trishjw says:
    Too many people in EU/Britain and USA have had it too good for too long and have become stingy. A few Middle eastern families have moved in my neighborhood and there has been no problems. They dress as they had in their homeland but not nijabs. They use head scarves instead--just at the Russian babushkas in the 40's and 50's had when they came here after Stalin/WWII. It's no big thing. The problems there and here have come from those that also were born in that country but too many feel they want to do things differently or don't like the jobs that are available. They greet us as they are supposed to and move on. Help them when they need it to get started. Most will appreciate what little help they get and do what they can on their own. That's more than many native born white do!!

  • 17 December 2016 at 3:48pm says:
    Why is "free movement" always focused on the movement of people? Or "labour" as they are sometimes known! In terms of the EU "free movement" applies to capital as well. Can anyone tell me how free movement of labour and capital can ever be in the interests of working people? We have to leave the single market - and abandon free movement of both capital AND labour - if a future Corbyn led Labour government is going to protect manufacturing jobs and rebuild the country's industrial base. a socialised, planned economy is impossible unless the basics such as capital and labour are under the control of the socialist government of the day. This is why I voted to leave the EU and do not for one moment regret doing so!

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