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The Immigration Question

Class Consciousness Project

Sep 7, 2023

Knowsley in Merseyside was the scene of several nights of disturbances in February 2023 after far-right activists agitated local working class people (Picture: Liverpool Echo)

“A class cannot exist in society without in some degree manifesting a consciousness of itself as a group with common problems, interests and prospects” – Harry Braverman

The question of immigration is, to say the least, a testy one across the capitalist world.

In the United States, Republicans repeatedly accuse Joe Biden’s Democrats of allowing hundreds of thousands of people to cross its southern border unchecked. Last year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis took credit for flying fifty Venezuelan immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, the picturesque Massachusetts island resort which, under the fictional name of Amity Island, was the setting for the 1976 film Jaws.

The populace of Martha’s Vineyard are in the main wealthy, liberal and, crucially, Democrat voters. It could be strongly argued that this is why DeSantis chose this location, given that there is over 1,800 miles between Dallas Fort Worth and Martha’s Vineyard, so it’s hardly local. The people of Martha’s Vineyard, who would, in all likelihood, be the first to claim that all immigrants are welcome to the United States, went into meltdown, claiming that their small island did not have the infrastructure to cope with an influx of fifty people. Within two days, they were transferred onto a ferry and taken to Cape Cod.

In Britain, on an almost daily basis, news outlets report on boats of immigrants landing on the beaches of England filled to the brim with people, while the Tories’ self-appointed pantomime villain Lee Anderson MP decries the government’s lack of ‘action’ on stemming immigration, while at the same time claiming that those who take great personal risk to make the perilous and often illegal trip across the world’s busiest shipping lane aren’t in fact asylum seekers, as they claim, but economic migrants.

In February this year, Knowsley in Merseyside became the stage for public disorder in the vicinity of a hotel which, it was claimed, was housing asylum seekers. Far-right groups were claimed to have targeted Knowsley, which had been housing immigrants since 2016, by searching for the details of hotels where these immigrants were staying, then agitated members of the local community around an allegation that a local teenage girl had been harassed by a man they claimed was an immigrant living in Knowsley. The clashes led to over a dozen arrests, including that of a 13-year-old boy.

By way of context, the number of people attempting to enter Britain is lower this year than it was at this time last year. It’s also a fraction of the number of people attempting to land on the beaches of other European countries, including Italy, which this year has seen six times as many unauthorised arrivals as Britain.

The ruling class are deeply cynical in their approach to immigration. They know that, with a declining birth rate in the indigenous population, the working class are not having children at the necessary rate to replace themselves, so exploitable labour has to be imported from other nations to fill the breach. The ruling class target nations which, in the main, are much poorer than Britain: For example, when this country was a member of the European Union, those exploitable workers came from the old Warsaw Pact states which had just joined the EU – they were often highly skilled, often spoke English and were often very cheap to employ.

Coupled to this is the decades-long issue of the almost complete absence of investment in the British economy. Employers not only wanted to import cheap exploitable labour from Eastern Europe, they wanted to import cheap and fully qualified labour. For instance, a combination of Covid restrictions curtailing Heavy Goods Vehicle licence testing and Brexit prompting lorry drivers from Europe to return to their countries of origin (some 14,000 drivers left the UK in 2020 alone) created a shortage of HGV drivers that has still not been overcome. The HGV-driving profession is also beset with issues including long hours, poor pay and heavy regulation, the combination of which which deters people from either becoming lorry drivers or remaining in the industry.

While the current influx of immigrants are not in the main from Eastern Europe and have not been since Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016, immigrants from other parts of the world, including Iran, Albania, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are coming to Britain to feed a long-standing and insatiable demand for cheap, hyper-exploitable labour.

The NHS relies heavily on fully-qualified, imported labour from overseas. 220,000 NHS staff members come from abroad – the highest number of which come from India, then the Philippines, followed by Nigeria. It’s of course entirely understandable why these workers would come here – the salaries that they receive here are markedly better than for the same roles in their home countries and the prevalence of the English language in these countries makes it much easier for workers to settle in Britain. Of course, every doctor or nurse who comes to work here is one less doctor or nurse in the country that they come here from.

The Romanian Government, aware of the issue of qualified people leaving the country to make a better living abroad, increased the wages for doctors and other qualified medical practitioners to incentivise them to stay in Romania. Yet, despite the numbers of medical workers leaving the country to work abroad declining, the number of doctors per 100,000 was 346, which, while way above the 230 doctors per 100,000 people in the UK, has left some rural areas of Romania with no doctor at all. One country which has benefited most from this constant stream of exported medical workers from Romania is Italy. The hourly rate for a doctor in Romania is approximately €26 per hour, while for the same role in Italy, the rate of pay is €65 per hour.

The ruling class are also deeply cynical in making sure that these imported workers are placed in some of poorest and most deprived areas of the country, where municipal and health services for the local population are either stretched to their limits or are totally non-existent. Governments of both colours know how deeply unpopular depositing immigrants in affluent areas is and people from those areas tend to have a greater influence and access to means of leverage against the government, like the media, similar to those inhabitants of Martha’s Vineyard, who had their uninvited guests moved on within two days.

2017 statistics showed that there were more than five times as many asylum seekers in the poorest third of the country as there was in the richest third, with over 50% of all asylum seekers are placed in this poorest third of the country. This creates a potential social powder keg, which far-right groups have always been adept at exploiting: Knowsley was specifically targeted, as have towns like Dover in Kent and both Barking and the Isle of Dogs in east London in the past for agitation of the local population and the inflaming of tensions.

Earlier this year in Dublin, Ireland, protestors took to the streets carrying placards displaying slogans such as ‘#IrelandForTheIrish’ and ‘#IrishLivesMatter’ and coining the slogan that ‘Ireland is Full’. The protestors claimed that the root of their protest was an influx of immigrants to Dublin and the fact that this influx has exacerbated the huge problems that the population has in obtaining a home – houses are incredibly expensive in Dublin to either buy or rent.

Of course, the root of the housing crisis in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland and Britain is the Irish and British ruling class themselves: They have re-created a property asset bubble, fully restoring it after the death-blow it received in the financial crash in 2008, and have ordered the system so that it cannot affordably house its own population and has no intention of doing so, as to do so would collapse a sizeable chunk of the economy. We looked at the housing question in June, focussing on Britain, but the analysis we make is equally applicable to Ireland.

Working class people, who have no political leadership to educate them as to why this happens, fall into reaction, helped by far-right agitation, blaming immigrants which have been forced to flee their own nations for myriad of reasons. The same ruling class which deprive their own population of decent and affordable housing also deprive, through their imperialism, the people of countries like Iran, Albania, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria of the opportunities to live comfortable and prosperous lives in their own countries, through a combination of hyper-exploitation, resource extraction, war, sanctions and political volatility.

The ruling class are also deeply cynical in the manner in which they handle immigration in front of the electorate. They need to face in two directions at the same time – on the one hand, they need to appear tough on immigration, to be unequivocal that anyone here illegally will be told in no certain terms to collect their belongings and leave, while on the other hand allowing enough people to slip through the proverbial net to assuage the need of the capitalist class to access cheap and hyper-exploitable labour. Some, like the Blair Government of 1997-2010, really leant into the ‘economic benefits’ of immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe. Of course, by ‘economic benefits’, the Government really meant the downward pressure that this immigration had on wages.

Meanwhile, the left in Britain is not beyond criticism. Far from it. The mantra ‘Immigrants Welcome Here’ that is repeatedly chanted by so many on the left rings decidedly hollow to people living in provincial towns like Dover in Kent, Boston in Lincolnshire and Kirkby in Merseyside. They feel isolated and largely ignored by the ruling class and by both ruling class parties, the Conservatives and the Labour Party. The reason as to why the left cannot offer any real solutions to this crisis is to be found in the class composition of the modern left: They are mainly petty bourgeois, or middle class, and so the manner in which immigration affects them is markedly different from the manner in which it affects working class people. They see immigration manifest itself in the coffee shops that they frequent, or in the restaurants that they eat out in. Immigrants often pass through middle class lives through their transactions, not in the streets that they live in. The middle class have a much more transactional relationship with their neighbourhoods – if they find them in decline, they simply move to a new one, something that working class people are far less inclined and able to do.

The left not only don’t care about the plight of provincial towns like Dover in Kent, Boston in Lincolnshire or Kirkby in Merseyside, they resort to accusing the people of living there of being bigots and racists if they so much as dare to make a connection between the decline of their towns and the rise in immigration. Part of the reason for this is that the petty bourgeois left detest the working class – they think that they are feckless, lazy, ignorant and tend to hold views which are anathema to them. The petty bourgeois left are part of a wider left/labour movement, which includes the trade union bureaucracy, which believes that, at best, the working class are a charity case who should not become involved in bourgeois politics at any level and should be grateful for the small advances that they try to bestow on them on the rare occasions that they are handed the reigns of power.

So the situation can be summarised as follows: The ruling class both need immigration and need to be seen to manage it, they dump immigrants in poor working class communities the vast majority of the time and have created a housing crisis that they cannot solve, so have created fertile ground for far-right agitators to whip up resentment amongst the working class, while the left, both unable and unwilling to engage with the working class to educate them as to why the situation is as it is, choose instead to label them as bigots and racists when they raise objections to immigrants settling in their communities.

What is the answer? The truth is that there aren’t any easy solutions.

Increasing the birth rate has been a challenge for both capitalist and socialist governments for decades, and there are many theories on both why birth rates decline and how to restore them. However, there is a case to be made that birth rates increase when the population have a sense of ownership in their society – in Britain, a nation enjoying a post-war fervour and the introduction of the NHS and the welfare state, the birth rate rose from 670,000 in 1945 to almost 900,000 in 1947. In communist Albania, a nation which had become a workers’ state and had embarked on an unprecedented programme of modernisation, the fertility rate between 1950 and 1960 rose from 5.35 births per woman to 6.55. However, in both these cases the increase in births was not sustained, although Britain did see another peak in 1965.

It’s extremely difficult for governments to encourage people who are reluctant to have children to have them. Certainly in late-stage capitalism, bribery of prospective parents is just about the only option that our rulers have left and even that isn’t guaranteed to work. This explains to a degree why they resort to both not controlling and controlling immigration at the same time.

The only real answer to the immigration question is the introduction of socialism, not only in this country but in all nations, particularly those afflicted by the predations of western imperialism. Socialism would defeat poverty, end deprivation and imperialist wars and give the peoples of all nations a prosperous and dignified life. Crucially, it would give the peoples of all nations no reason to risk everything, including their own lives, to leave their homes, their countries and their families to try to make a better life for themselves.



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