Don’t let the nationalists win – Defend free movement!

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By Michael Chessum, Another Europe is Possible

There is a simple answer to the argument that immigration is to blame for low wages: 0.3%. That is, according to the Bank of England, the average figure by which wages deflate for each 10 percentage point rise in migrant labour in a given sector; in the lowest-skilled sector, it rises to 1.8%. The statistical measure is important: a ten percentage point rise is not 10% becoming 11%, but 10% becoming 20%. Since 2007, median wages have fallen by more than 10% in real terms. It clearly isn’t because of immigration.

This matters because over the next few months, the left is going to have its commitment to freedom of movement tested. But as the government goes into long, complex Brexit negotiations and parliament votes on the triggering of Article 50, Labour is in a position to shift the debate and win concessions. Sadly, in Labour, unlikely voices can be heard making arguments that were once confined to the right of the party: that free movement has not worked, that it is eroding identity or wages or public services; and that free movement is not a priority.

Of course, most people on the left who argue that wages are falling because of migration are not saying what they actually think. They think they are channeling what “working class people” want, as if working class people are not also migrants and had not, collectively, been responsible for the most inspiring and effective anti-racist movements in world history. This is not “listening”, it is patronising people: since when has the left’s starting point been to say what is popular?

The squeamishness about free movement in some parts of the left stems from a false economy. Supporting immigration controls could be electorally useful – a sort of unprincipled tunnel vision. But it isn’t how to win an election: if people want immigration controls, they’ll vote for the real thing. The job of the left is to convince people of the reality – that public services, housing and wages are not in crisis because of migration, but because of the decimation of industry, the fire sale of social housing, the hyper-exploitation of the 21st century workplace, the defeat of the labour movement, and so on.

There is no particular democratic mandate to end free movement with Europe: 48% of people voted directly to continue it, and of the 52% who did not, not all will have wanted it to end. In the coming Brexit negotiations, Labour and the wider left must make retaining free movement – along with workers’ rights, environmental protections and human rights – one of its key demands.

Too often we are caught on the defensive about immigration. But above all, the freedom to move is a class issue. Rich people can move, work, study and buy up property wherever they like. Ordinary people can’t. Borders are like capitalism: the poor get exploited and confined to whatever piece of land they were born in, while the rich get state bailouts and a borderless world.

The freedom to live where you want – like the freedom to dress how you want or love who you want – is a freedom that is worth fighting for. For a brief moment the European Union provided its citizens with that freedom. Not always for the right reasons, not without problems. It is our job is to defend and extend such freedoms.

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1 Comment

  1. ‘Too often we are caught on the defensive about immigration. But above all, the freedom to move is a class issue. Rich people can move, work, study and buy up property wherever they like. Ordinary people can’t. Borders are like capitalism: the poor get exploited and confined to whatever piece of land they were born in, while the rich get state bailouts and a borderless world.

    The freedom to live where you want – like the freedom to dress how you want or love who you want – is a freedom that is worth fighting for. For a brief moment the European Union provided its citizens with that freedom. Not always for the right reasons, not without problems. It is our job is to defend and extend such freedoms. ‘

    If the history of the growth of capitalism for ordinary people had meant being ‘confined to whatever piece of land they were born in’ we’d have a lot less to complain about than we do – the history of capitalism is the story of ordinary people being pushed away from the land they’re born in whether they want to move or not, by enclosure, colonial exile, etc.

    Devil’s advocate: most people don’t want to have to move half a continent’s distance away from their family and community to find decent paying work. When 73% of the EU nationals who come to Britain do so because they get paid more for the same work they would otherwise be doing, that’s not ‘the freedom to live where you want’ as a spur to self-realisation and an expression of personality etc., that’s ‘being forced to choose between your home and higher wages’. In a rationalised Europe the imbalances between countries would be diminished and movement would be more of an expression of free choice, but as it is movement is more about impersonal economic calculations imposed from without – hardly anything close to the experience that the rich have of a borderless world.

    Capitalism has always been about hiding relations of unequal power and exploitation behind freedoms, the four freedoms at the heart of the EU could very well be preventing these imbalances from being addressed and exacerbating the uneven levels of development across the EU. If the evidence shows that to be true, surely we would have to conclude that the four freedoms are a little premature and should wait until there is some balance across the EU.

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