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Free movement across Europe: Did Briefing get it wrong?

THE IDEA THAT PUBLIC SERVICES are deteriorating because of foreign benefit tourists is a racist lie put forward by the likes of UKIP. But people need to be persuaded that socialist explanations and alternatives have more to offer. When liberal commentators imply that working class people are simply ignorant and bigoted for raising concerns about levels of immigration, it fosters understandable resentment. When the Guardian-reading middle class celebrates the importance of immigration for ‘our economy’, it amounts to little more than a defence of social arrangements which afford them their relatively privileged social position.

To be effective, arguments on immigration need to be made from a class perspective, grounded in experience. Racist myths are designed to deflect attention from the real causes and disempower the working class by promoting hatred and division within communities. To make a persuasive case for socialist ideas, we must raise demands around which forms of class agency can be constructed.

There is now a feeling that the ‘people have spoken’ and that concerns about immigration are central to what they have said. If people believe that Labour is ignoring or countermanding the views of the electorate it stands to be punished heavily, not only failing to win key marginal seats like Harlow and Nuneaton, but even losing its hold in former heartlands in the North and Midlands. Winning votes in the more liberal and ethnically-diverse metropolitan centres is necessary but not a sufficient basis for electing a Labour government. Put bluntly, this issue could be the rock on which Corbyn’s Labour is smashed.

How do we respond, without conceding to the racist arguments of the populist far right? Corbyn has been right to challenge the neoliberal terms on which the EU seeks immigration to take place, whereby bosses must have free access to a reserve pool of cheap labour from which they draw to keep down pay and conditions of their workforce. Ending exploitation of migrant workers and guaranteeing a decent living wage for all is key here. But more is needed.

‘Uncontrolled’ immigration has become a cipher for the inability of national government to defend the interests of those who elected them. This has been given a reactionary framing, in the absence of any clear socialist alternative making the case for a radical democratic transformation of society. Labour needs to step into the vacuum with a compelling vision of ‘taking back control’ in a much more comprehensive way - challenging the power of profiteering companies, exploitative bosses, the banks, the lying media monopolies and all the rest.

Some on the left respond with an uncompromising defence of the free movement of peoples. In an abstract sense, all socialists can agree to this, just as we could agree to the idea that the state should wither away or that the principle of private property should be relegated to prehistory. But living as we do in a neoliberal capitalist society, the conditions under which such a maximalist demand could be realised do not yet exist.

Many leftists making the case for free movement must surely know this, and are being dishonest even with themselves. Hardly anyone would advocate that a Labour government would immediately scrap all border controls. Few have been making the case even for membership of the Shengen agreement, let alone for unlimited access from beyond European shores.

Britain’s inability to control levels of the EU migration, particularly from the accession countries, has seen the Tories resort to much more draconian immigration controls being placed on non-EU citizens, even including the families of UK residents from places like India, Pakistan or Somalia. Polling suggests that a significant section of BAME voted to reject what they saw as the ‘European privilege’ in immigration policy as a consequence of the EU’s free movement. Briefing’s last cover promoting free movement with a map limited to European nations could also have been interpreted in this light.

Signalling support for the status quo on immigration would be a grave mistake - an indication that we’re ignoring the electorate or are powerless to act. The argument that we either immediately accept unlimited levels of inward migration or the capitalist state’s model of policing national borders is a classic false binary. If leftists stand for democratic planning of the economy, why wouldn’t we - under transitional conditions - also stand for the humane and democratic planning of migration flows, free from the institutional racial and economic prejudices which mar the current system?

By taking responsibility for implementing a socialist policy of this sort on the question, as part and parcel of a wider democratisation of society and the economy, Labour would win itself the ability to be heard. We might even begin to persuade alienated communities that immigration can be valuable and that migrants deserve our respect and solidarity.  

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