Socialist immigration control is an oxymoron

By Patrick Murphy, West Yorkshire rep on National Union of Teachers national executive (pc)

It’s common for victims of trauma to experience symptoms of disorientation and confusion for years afterwards. On the evidence of his discussion article for The Clarion (Standing in the way of control), Tom Muntzer has been seriously traumatised by the Brexit vote and the scale of working class support for it. The success of reactionary populist ideas in sections of our class, not only in the UK but across Europe and the US, is a challenging and dangerous development The problem is that what he proposes is not a socialist response but an accommodation.

Tom identifies the desire to “take back control” as the one reason which united all leave voters and describes this slogan as “a piece of genius”. The first thing that strikes me as odd here is the use of the word “back”. When was this time when working class people had control over their lives? I suspect that Tom’s answer would be no different than mine- there never was such a time. Despite listing a number of areas in which people may want to take back control (the laws that govern them their finances) there is only one area he wants us to consider with any urgency- and that is borders.

Borders, however, are not lines that divide workers from bosses. They are barriers which divide people regardless of class on the basis of their nationality, race or accident of birth. A move by the UK (or indeed any country) to impose more control over their borders would not “give back” any control at all to ordinary working class people. For millions of them (eg EU citizens) it would be an additional restriction on their movement and their ability to find work. For workers resident in Britain it would almost certainly lead to similar restrictions imposed on their movement elsewhere. The control is in the hands of the state, not workers.

Tom makes a concrete proposal, however, which implies a sort of socialist immigration control. Inspired by the words of Paul Mason and Clive Lewis he suggests that “any employers who bring staff from overseas are obliged to negotiate with a trade union”. Lewis is quoted as proposing that “if companies want to bring people in from abroad, those people should belong to a trade union” on the basis that those companies will then “want to begin to take people more often from this country”.

It seems to me that you only have to read these ideas to see what a dog’s breakfast they are. First it isn’t clear who would have the obligations here, the company (to negotiate), the foreign worker (to join a union) or both. Second, the migration of workers doesn’t mainly consist of companies “bringing people in from abroad”. People make their own way here and seek work independently. Tom, I think, sees some of the problem here without spelling it out, so that he makes a half-formed argument that such a policy of forced unionisation should be “aimed at all un-unionised workers”. Well maybe, but that isn’t a policy for border control, that’s a policy for a closed shop across all industries and services.

Tom frames the whole debate in terms of employers and companies bringing people in to avoid the highly inconvenient fact that the vast majority of migration is about individual workers making their own decision to move around to secure work and/or a freer, better life. There is an obvious reason for posing it this way. Talk of restrictions on employers is the sugar-coating necessary to mask the taste of a policy which, in reality, imposes restrictions on workers.

The fundamental problem with what Tom argues is that it accepts far too much of the assumptions promoted by the right on immigration. Apart from the false connection made between the desire to take control of our lives and border control he refers entirely uncritically to the numbers entering the UK in recent years as “mass immigration”. Nothing, however, reveals the confusion and ambiguity of the argument more than the convoluted statement that “there has never been anything progressive about free movement in and of itself if it is used as a weapon against the working class”.

That’s like saying there has never been anything progressive about female suffrage in and of itself if it leads to Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister. Or there has never been anything progressive about free speech if it is used by racists to spread their reactionary ideas. All of these formulations simply conflate positive and important freedoms with negative uses of those freedoms in order to attack the freedom. In fact there is and always will be something inherently progressive about free movement for people; the clue is in the word free.

The alternative to allowing people to move freely is for the state to restrict their movement on the basis of nationality or race and by force (border controls, police, holding camps, deportation and so on). It is no part of a socialist programme to advocate the division and restriction of our class (which let us remember has no country) in that way.

None of this is to say that the influence of nationalist anti-migrant politics isn’t a very major problem for the left and the Labour Party or that we don’t need a clear and strong response. Our answers must, however, point up the real problem and its real causes and propose means of addressing those. It cannot and must not give yet more credence to the false idea that workers in Britain are under the cosh because of uncontrolled immigration. There is too much not too little control. We need a labour movement and Labour Party that, amongst other things, argues and fights unapologetically for:

  • Taxing the rich to fund huge increases in investment in public services such as housing, health, education and transport
  • Major job creation schemes, not least in the above areas, to provide meaningful and stable work
  • The repeal of the anti-union laws (including but not just the 2016 TU Act) and a positive charter of workers’ rights
  • Building a movement of solidarity across Europe for workers’ rights, full employment, a common living wage and maximum social protection.

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