SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 178 April 2014

Socialism Today 178 - May 2014Labour and the ‘immigration debate’

As Ed Miliband promises to make ‘curbing immigration’ a priority for the next Labour government, HANNAH SELL analyses David Goodhart’s book, The British Dream – Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration, that has influenced Labour Party thinking.

The British Dream: successes and failures of post-war immigration

By David Goodhart

Published by Atlantic Books, 2013, £20

David Goodhart is the great, great grandson of the founder of Lehman Brothers, the bank whose collapse triggered the deepest economic crisis since the 1930s. It is not Goodhart’s ancestry, however, that has been responsible for his prominence in the press over the last year, but the views he has expressed on immigration, which Operation Black Vote, for example, has argued could be ‘more dangerous than Nick Griffin’, the leader of the British National Party (BNP).

Goodhart comes from Britain’s elite and, like many of the Tory cabinet, studied at Eton. However, he is a longstanding Labour supporter and his book is not aimed primarily at the Tories, although he praises many of the current government’s immigration policies and is in turn praised by them. David Willetts, universities minister, for example, describes the book as "the best guide yet to one of the hottest topics in British politics".

Goodhart’s aim is to shape future Labour Party policy on the issue. He is pushing at an open door, as indicated by recent statements by shadow cabinet members, including Miliband’s promises to make ‘curbing’ immigration a priority for the next Labour government. ‘Blue Labour’ supporter and Labour policy coordinator, Jon Cruddas MP, has written a favourable review of Goodhart’s book. Nor is Goodhart’s ambition limited to influencing Labour Party policy in Britain. He has also produced a joint statement with the Labour deputy prime minister of the Netherlands, Lodewijk Asscher, arguing that the EU "put the downsides of the free movement of workers high on the agenda". (The Independent, 18 August 2013)

Goodhart’s book has received very negative reviews in a number of publications, including The Guardian and The London Review of Books (LRB). However, this is not a disagreement between right and left. Jonathon Portes (director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research) who slated The British Dream in the LRB, correctly summed up his own position as: "Markets are usually the best way to allocate resources, and that accordingly, a more rather than less open approach to migration and trade will deliver better outcomes".

Capitalism and the nation state

In essence both Goodhart and his mainstream detractors reflect different sides of the capitalist classes’ contradictory approach to immigration. Capitalism came into being based on the nation state, but from very early on also strained against national barriers as world trade developed. At different stages the capitalists have had different priorities. At some points, ‘freedom of trade’ has been at the fore, at others, the importance of protecting domestic markets. Today the productive forces have long outgrown nation states, and yet still remain partially constrained by them.

In the era before the great recession, capitalism worldwide became more integrated than ever before, and the corresponding ideology of ‘globalisation’ reigned supreme. New Labour in office was enthusiastic in its support for capitalist globalisation, reflected in its immigration policies. Under capitalism, for all Jonathon Portes’ statements about allowing market forces to determine immigration levels, no major economy will ever have completely open borders. It would give a completely wrong impression to suggest that New Labour in government ceased repressive measures against immigrant workers. On the contrary, for some sections, above all asylum seekers, they were intensified. Nonetheless, overall freer movement of labour did go further than in other European countries, although this was often carried out by covert means.

The biggest single change was the establishment of the right of workers from the A8 accession states (including Poland) to freely travel and work in Britain. The A8 joined the EU in 2004. Britain was the only major European economy to immediately allow workers from those countries to work in Britain without restriction and the result was the biggest net immigration in modern history.

Despite globalisation, however, capitalism remains economically and politically based on, and partially bound by, national states and is incapable of fully overcoming that. We predicted that, particularly in a time of crisis, national barriers would once again tend to come to the fore as different capitalist classes attempted to defend their own national interests. They would also use nationalism to increase their support in society in the face of mass opposition to the consequences of capitalist crisis. This has been proven correct in numerous ways, not least the growing national tensions within the European Union (EU). Those tensions have also been reflected in the growing anti-immigration rhetoric of virtually all capitalist parties.

Nationalist propaganda

While Goodhart’s book does propose a number of measures to ‘cut immigration’, it is less about cutting the numbers of people actually entering Britain – his proposals include, for example, simply reclassifying foreign students so they are not included in the immigration statistics. It is more concerned with strengthening supposedly ‘liberal’ arguments for British nationalism and, in particular, encouraging Labour to move further in a nationalist direction.

Goodhart gives a number of statistics showing increased immigration having a downward effect on wages for the lowest paid, and increasing unemployment. Undoubtedly, many workers, including some whose parents or grandparents were migrants, would agree with the points he makes on this, reflecting their experience of the employers’ relentless drive to push down wages, with super-exploited migrant workers being one means the employers have used to try and carry out their ‘race to the bottom’. It would be utterly wrong, however, to conclude from these passages that Goodhart is writing with the interests of the working class at heart. On the contrary, he is attempting to find a means to increase support for Labour’s pro-capitalist programme via nationalist and divisive propaganda.

Goodhart’s argument is that it is only possible to win public support for the continuation of good public services if immigration is much lower, as people will only support the provision of a social safety net for people who are similar to themselves. This position is disingenuous, however, because Goodhart is not in favour of the continuation of good public services! He agrees that it is necessary to slash public spending, supporting even some of the current government’s most unpopular measures, such as the hike in student tuition fees (Prospect magazine editorial, November 2010).

Goodhart gives figures showing a fall in public support for the ‘welfare state’ in the decade up to 2012. He links this to immigration but ignores the key factor that this was a decade when New Labour was in power and, unlike Labour in the past, continued the Tories’ propaganda offensive against the public sector. Goodhart’s argumentation is fundamentally no different to the Tories’ campaign against supposed ‘health tourism’. Whether from the Tories or Goodhart, trade unions must warn that these attempts to limit public services for immigrants are the thin end of the wedge to attack universal access to essential services and benefits.

New Labour to the core

Goodhart is New Labour to the core. He is completely hostile to Marxism. In passing he outrageously draws a comparison between right-wing Islamist organisations and Marxism and specifically Trotskyism. He also repeatedly attempts to consign the working class to history, for example declaring that: "The British working class no longer exists in the way it did 50 years ago", and attributing this to "growing affluence". He repeats the Blairite mantra ‘we are all middle class now’ at a time when it is so glaringly obvious that this is not the case that even the Tories have started trying to claim to be ‘the workers’ party’.

While it is true that the working class today has changed over the last 50 years, it is not growing affluence but increasingly growing impoverishment that has transformed it. Once adjusted for inflation, real incomes fell by more than 7% between 2009 and 2012, the biggest three-year drop on record. Nor did austerity begin with the great recession; we have been squeezed for decades. If the share of national wealth taken in wages had remained static since 1980, the average full-time worker would be taking home £7,000 a year more than at present.

Goodhart correctly says of Labour in office: "It tentatively made the case for immigration in speeches and seminars to elite audiences but, aware of the unpopularity of greater openness, it used restrictive and hard-nosed rhetoric for Labour’s blue-collar base, especially on asylum. David Blunkett, who became home secretary after the 2001 election, was a symbol of this two-facedness – happy to employ robust, populist language about immigration at times and yet presiding over the largest inflows in British history". In essence, Goodhart’s solution is to overcome Labour’s ‘two-facedness’ by increasing both the hard-nosed rhetoric and the anti-immigrant policies.

This gives an indication of the kind of approach that a future Labour government would take. The Tories used immigration to increase their vote in 2010, and will undoubtedly try to do the same in the next general election, even though immigration figures have not fallen significantly while they have been in power. UKIP is also gaining votes by whipping up anti-immigrant feeling, although the primary reason some workers are voting for it is to demonstrate their anger with the establishment parties. It is Labour’s struggle to deal with these issues, and its anxiety to gain votes by repudiating the more open Blair-era approach to immigration, which is driving the positive response Goodhart’s ideas are now receiving in parts of the Labour leadership.

Echoing right-wing prejudice

The result, of course, of adopting the ideas put forward in The British Dream will not be to cut across the support of parties that are even further to the right on immigration, but instead to give them more room to grow. Not only UKIP, but also potentially even more dangerous forces of the same type as the English Defence League, can make breakthroughs in the future, as all the establishment parties attempt to blame immigrants for austerity. Nonetheless, it is clear that this is the direction that the Labour leadership are empirically being pushed towards. They hope the likes of Goodhart can provide them with a coherent justification of this approach.

In reality, The British Dream is not coherent. However, it does have some clear themes: that immigration to Britain has been much too high and that this could have been partially prevented; that the levels of immigration have had a negative effect for the working class in particular; that multiculturalism as it has been interpreted in Britain, especially within the Labour Party, has allowed Britain to become too segregated; and that a future Labour government should strengthen nationalism and put greater pressure on minorities to become more ‘integrated’.

Goodhart declares: "The tabloid press is often blamed for fanning prejudice but its bluntness may also have acted as a psychological safety valve for those who feel unrepresented by the mainly liberal political class". This suggests that the right-wing tabloids have been a bit ‘blunt’ in stating ‘truths’ that the politicians are scared to declare. Of course, the capitalist media are not neutral reporters of truth but are owned by billionaires and are peddlers of lies. The right-wing tabloids have repeatedly scapegoated different sections of society; whether predominantly working-class Liverpool fans at Hillsborough, the unemployed, young people, single parents or migrant workers.

Is Goodhart agreeing with The Daily Star front page declaring that migrant workers have "stolen all our jobs. 1.3 million migrants took every job vacancy since 2001"? Or the Daily Express headline: ‘White Men to Face Jobs Ban’? Or the hundreds of other similar headlines? In fact, while it is written in more ‘moderate’ language, The British Dream is full of numerous assertions about ethnic minorities in Britain which are lifted straight from the right-wing tabloids and are stated without adequate, or in some cases any, factual back up.

To give one of numerous examples, Goodhart declares: "Not all minority groups do make a great contribution. In 30 years’ time British Somalis may be considered as successful and entrepreneurial as the East African Asians are today, but currently only about 30% of them work". He clearly lays the blame for this with the character of the Somali community: "Somalis are heavily welfare dependent and notoriously clannish", and "rare Somali success stories like… Mo Farah, have only advanced by painfully breaking away from their families and community and finding mentors within British society".

These are sweeping distortions. The truth is that 21% of Somalis arrive in Britain with degrees, higher than most other immigrants from the neo-colonial world. It is true that levels of unemployment are high in the Somali community, but there are numerous causes for this other than ‘welfare dependency’. Asylum seekers, as most new Somali arrivals are, are not allowed to work. In addition, many are women with large families, who have come to Britain after their husbands have been killed in the civil war, and for whom it is very difficult to find work which would cover the costs of childcare. Even on an individual level Goodhart is inaccurate. Mo Farah’s family, like many Somali families, has been scattered across the world as a result of the civil war, but it is clear from his autobiography that they play a very important part in his life.

There is no point in an article like this spending time unpicking the many other generalisations and distortions about specific nationalities contained in The British Dream. However, they reveal the completely reactionary character of capitalist nationalism, even when it is dressed up in ‘liberal’ clothes. This is doubly so because this is not the nationalism of a small and under-developed capitalist class, oppressed by the major imperialist powers, but the nationalism of the first, and for centuries the most powerful, capitalist class on the planet.

Goodhart makes an attempt to sum up some inoffensive sounding universal British qualities, including ‘readiness to compromise, indirectness, support for the underdog’, and many more. In reality, however, he is arguing for a campaign of propaganda about the superiority of ‘British culture’ which, far from supporting the underdog, is designed to bolster support for the capitalist ruling elite, for the super-rich and the giant companies which dominate the British economy, and which would inevitably also increase racism and prejudice against minority communities as his book demonstrates.

Goodhart has the nerve to quote approvingly an earlier leader of the French Parti Socialiste, Jean Jaurès. He was murdered at the start of the first world war because of his unwillingness to go along with the nationalism of his own ruling class. Goodhart, on the other hand, is trying to find arguments to bolster capitalist nationalism. This is the antithesis of the pride that class-conscious workers in Britain have for the best of their heritage – such as the creation of the NHS, the heroic struggle of the miners 30 years ago, or the defeat of the poll tax – all of which were based on human and class solidarity across ethnic and religious lines.

Multiculturalism and segregation

Goodhart, like the Tories, is very critical of multiculturalism and particularly what he calls ‘separatist multiculturalism’. He asserts ‘separatist’ multiculturalism as wanting to "positively promote and fund ethnic difference: all groups in a society have equal claims to public recognition and financial support and that should be reflected in policies to protect and promote minority cultures through exemptions, public funding, and varieties of affirmative action". Goodhart massively exaggerates the influence of multiculturalist policies, and the effects they have had on the lives of workers in Britain.

He repeatedly criticises, for example, the public sector spending money providing translation services, stating that "it is estimated that £184 million has been spent in the past three years on translating official documents and hiring translators for those… who do not speak English adequately". Yet this is a tiny sum comparatively, less than the current government spent on PR and consultants in its first five months in office!

Goodhart also criticises ‘multiculturalist’ Labour councils for ‘funding ethnic difference’ yet, even before the current brutal austerity cut local authority spending to the bone, the financial support given to different minority communities was already very small. In 2011/12 just 3% of local authority spending was on ‘other services’, of which the funding of minority communities groups would have been a tiny fraction in most areas. The rest of local authority spending was on the bare necessities of housing, education, adult social care and so on.

Nor is the picture Goodhart paints of an increasingly segregated society wholly accurate. By many measures Britain is becoming less segregated. According to the 2011 Census, overall the indices for segregation fell between 2001 and 2011 for all ethnic and religious groups in England, Scotland and Wales (Dynamics of Diversity: Evidence from the 2011 Census). The segregation figures have improved overall for a number of reasons. Longer-standing communities have tended to spread out from the places they moved into when they first arrived in Britain. In outer London, for example, segregation of the Bangladeshi community decreased by 12%.

In addition, there has been an increase in immigration from a wider range of countries than was previously the case. This means that areas which were previously dominated by one ethnic minority have now often become more ethnically mixed (although this does not necessarily mean that there is greater communication between different ethnic groups). Finally, there has been an increase in the number of people from ethnic minorities, particularly longer-standing sections, who have moved out of the big cities.

However, there has undoubtedly been an increased trend towards segregation in some areas. Even where different communities live in one area it does not automatically mean that they have meaningful contact with one another. The destruction of manufacturing industry is an important factor in this. In the ex-mill towns of the North West, for example, the closure of the mills means that there is no longer contact between communities – however limited that was – in the workplaces.

The increase in immigration has inevitably resulted in many inner-city communities being a patchwork of different nationalities who, at this stage, are more orientated to life in their country of origin than to life in Britain and have limited interaction with people from other communities. Goodhart also emphasises that some Muslim communities have become more inward looking and that, particularly, younger Muslims have become more supportive of right-wing political Islamism. He gives figures that indicate this is the case for a minority of young Muslims: "A poll conducted for a Policy Exchange report into Muslim Britain in 2007 found 16-24-year-olds to be far more fundamentalist in their views than over 55s. Thirty-seven per cent of the young group claim they would like to live under Sharia law compared with just 17 per cent of the older; on preferring women to wear the veil the numbers were 74 per cent to 28 per cent".

Continued discrimination

Nonetheless, it is ludicrous to suggest, as Goodhart does, that multicultural policies, such as the provision of translation services (which are needed far more by older Muslims than by the younger generation) are the cause of this trend. Goodhart mentions in passing the effect of the New Labour government’s participation in the war on Iraq and Afghanistan but completely underestimates the effect this brutal war, and the inevitable global wave of anti-Muslim propaganda that came with it, had on increasing the alienation from British society of a layer of young Muslims.

He also completely downplays the continued discrimination suffered by black and Asian and migrant workers who, in general, remain among the poorest sections of the working class. His position on this is contradictory, as he recognises that big business uses migrant workers as a means to hold down wages and that this was consciously encouraged by the Labour government: "The enthusiasm of the Treasury for mass immigration in the 1990s and 2000s was partly based on the assumption that it did indeed hold down real wages".

At the same time, Goodhart brushes aside claims of wage discrimination against minorities as a minor issue and asserts that, in as far as different groups of migrant workers are economically disadvantaged, this is primarily the responsibility not of racism but the faults of their own communities! He says, for example, that "people who live inside very difference cultures at home – say Hindu Indian and Turkish – often end up with very different capabilities and aspirations". He holds up East African Asians as a ‘success story’ without explaining that many had come from a relatively privileged business background.

The objective consequences of poverty and overcrowding are pushed aside for the more nebulous effects of ‘culture’. In reality, it is the driving down of the wages of the working class as a whole, and particularly its poorest sections, which is primarily responsible for the further impoverishment of the majority of black and Asian workers. In 1993, black workers were paid an average of 18% less than white workers. By 2008, the gap had grown to a massive 48% (TUC press release, Unions Must Tackle the Toxic Debate about Immigration). Black workers are twice as likely to be unemployed as white workers and this situation is worsening as the public sector, where black workers are more likely to be employed, suffers huge job cuts.

The capitalist Labour Party

The capitalist class’s success in undermining the living standards of the working class has been enormously helped by the transformation of Labour into a capitalist party. Goodhart fully supports this transformation but, accidentally, in his criticisms of multiculturalism, makes some points which are at least tangentially connected to the real betrayals of the Labour Party. He describes how "municipal anti-racism was also part of the cultural turn of the young, white left in the 1970s and 1980s in which a ‘rainbow coalition’ of the dispossessed, led by ethnic minorities, would be the new driver of change now that affluence had blunted working-class radicalism". In reality, this process was part of a move to the right by sections of the Labour Party, many of whom later became supporters of New Labour. Their mistake was not that they fought against racism and discrimination but that, under the guise of doing so, they abandoned a struggle to defend the working class as a whole.

There were Labour councils in the 1980s which were attacked by the tabloids of the day as being ‘trendy lefties’ on the grounds of their multicultural and pro-gay rights policies. Ironically, these included the councils led by David Blunkett (Sheffield) and Margaret Hodge (Islington) who have since swung dramatically in Goodhart’s direction. The real problem with these councils, however, was that – when the crunch came – they were not prepared to follow the road of Liverpool council and lead a mass struggle to demand a reversal of the Tory cuts to their budgets. As a result, they presided over cuts which were detrimental for all sections of the working class, and particularly black and Asian workers. When this was combined with their largely empty ‘multicultural’ propaganda it allowed the Tories and right-wing tabloids to whip up the idea that black and Asian workers were being given ‘special treatment’.

The historic link between Labour and the majority of immigrant communities – a memory of which still remains today in the higher percentage of African-Caribbean and South Asian workers who vote Labour – was built because of their positive associations with the Labour Party and the trade union movement. This was based on the record of the labour movement at its best in fighting against racism. However, it was also linked to Labour being seen as the party of the working class, which the overwhelming majority of migrants were part of. They saw Labour as the party that had founded the NHS, launched the mass building of council housing and so on. Goodhart is right when he talks about the role Labour played in the East End of London to engender ‘community spirit’. This was only possible, however, because wide sections of the working class saw Labour as a party that fought in ‘their interests’, including opposing racism and discrimination. There is an urgent need to build a new mass party of the working class, with a clearly anti-racist programme and capable of uniting workers from every background.

For a united workers’ struggle

Goodhart’s book, in reality a mishmash of prejudices stitched together into a theory, is a warning of the direction that can be taken by the majority of capitalist politicians in the next period. Whether or not some of the specific policies – such as a six-month compulsory citizenship service for all young people – are ever implemented, it is clear that many of the ideas, including preventing access to the benefit system, the NHS and council housing for many migrants, are already becoming commonplace.

Socialists have to approach the question of immigration carefully. We understand the fears of workers about increased immigration. A socialist world would be a world without borders, but also a world without poverty and war forcing people to move. However, under capitalism, it would be completely wrong to put forward a bald slogan of ‘open borders’, which would alienate the vast majority of the working class, including many more long-standing immigrants, who would see it as a threat to jobs, wages and living conditions (see Capitalism, Globalisation and Migration, in Socialism Today No.160, July-August 2012).

Our task is to patiently explain to the working class – indigenous and immigrant – that the only way to prevent the race to the bottom is a united struggle of all workers to demand decent pay and the ‘rate for the job’ for all. At the same time, we have to stand clearly against the racism and nationalism increasingly being spouted by the capitalist politicians. We have to defend the right to asylum and oppose deportations, the splitting up of families, and the many other inhumane acts of an ever-more brutal immigration system.

We have to condemn the cynical attempts of capitalist politicians and their ideologues – such as Goodhart – to play on these genuine fears in order to try and secure a social base for their system. Goodhart talks about ‘the British way of life’ but most of what is good in that life is being destroyed – not by immigration, but by the brutality of 21st century capitalism and its diet of endless austerity, which is fully supported by Goodhart.

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