Polls show strong public opposition to immigration, a trend that has coincided with a rise in support for the far-right, in Britain and across Europe. What responsibility do the mainstream parties bear for these developments, what role is immigration playing in the current election, and how should the left address the issue?
It’s hard to say whether the anti-immigrant stance of the mainstream parties is driven by a desire to please the tabloid media (and its readers), fear of being outflanked by their rivals, or a genuine hatred of migrants, but it’s clear that none of them have any interest in challenging the brutal way that migrants are currently treated by the British state. Whoever wins this election, we can expect to see a continuation of the inhumane policies that trigged the hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood detention centre and led to the recent suicide of a family of three people in Glasgow. None of the mainstream political parties offer any genuine opposition to the extreme-right views of groups such as the BNP. It makes little sense to expect those who are carrying out horrific repression against immigrants right now, to meaningfully oppose the people who dream of being able to attack immigrants one day.
Focusing on small, marginalised fascist groups like the BNP, however, does not address the issue as to how we challenge anti-immigrant prejudice widespread throughout the rest of British society. It would be counter-productive to write all these people off as Nazis. Many British workers fear immigrant labour to be a threat to their own living standards. They are also not going to be won over by abstract arguments concerning individuals’ rights or freedom of movement. Employers do frequently take advantage of the more temporary nature of jobs that migrant workers take on, migrant workers can also often be bullied into working in worse conditions than most British workers would accept and they can be threatened with deportation when they try to organise. Our increasingly liberalised labour market also encourages short term contracts, for workers to be mobile, to be flexible and continually self-improving. Migrant labour fits this model well (although almost all workers are now being expected to sing to this tune).
We need to make the case that the only way to stop immigrant labour becoming a threat is to take united action against our common enemy – the bosses. Only through united, direct action, demanding better wages and conditions and calling exploitative employers to account are we going to strengthen the position of British workers. This isn’t going to be easy, it’s going to be very hard, but the other options - to abandon our internationalist principles and support the state in its attacks on other working-class people, or to write off everyone who sees immigration as a threat - are no options at all.
J. Bauthumley is a member of the Anarchist Federation.