Three arguments against free movement, and three responses

Author: 

Ira Berkovic

In the debate in the labour movement around "free movement", which is in fact a debate about immigration, a number of arguments have been made by left-wing advocates of ending free movement - that is, leaving the EU on a basis which abolishes the rights of free movement to the UK that EU citizens currently have, and which UK citizens currently have to other EU states.

This article attempts to respond to some of those arguments, and present a positive case for defending and extending existing freedom of movement.

Argument One: "By ending free movement we can make Britain a giant closed shop"

See: “Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit opportunity”, Clive Heemskerk, Socialism Today No. 201, September 2016.
“Standing in the way of control: thoughts on Labour post-Brexit”, Tom Muntzer, The Clarion, 28 November 2016
“Workers need safeguards and strong unions to make migration work”, Len McCluskey, LabourList, 5 November 2016

A closed shop is a workplace in which membership of the recognised union is a condition of employment. It is a gain which grows out of workplace organisation and strength, when a union is strong enough to impose it on the employer.

It was illegalised by Thatcher's anti-union laws in 1990, and now exists only in a handful of places in a spectral form, where workers are able to establish a culture and a common sense in the workplace whereby choosing not to join the union is universally understood as a very bad idea.

So, what has any of that to do with the debate on immigration?

In what is simultaneously the most fantastical and, in some ways, the most offensively reactionary, "left-wing" argument against free movement, some have suggested that the existing free movement arrangements could be replaced by a form of immigration controls that legally compels bosses who wish to "hire abroad" to operate closed shops, so the foreign workers they recruit must be union members in order to get jobs, or be covered by collective bargaining agreements.

Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey puts it like this: “Any employer wishing to recruit labour abroad can only do so if they are either covered by a proper trade union agreement, or by sectoral collective bargaining.”

The implication is that if employers are legally forced to only hire union workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, there will be no financial incentive for them to hire cheaper, migrant labour.

The demand relies on two assumptions: one, that migrant labour necessarily has a depressing effect on the pay, terms, and conditions of domestic workers. And two, that employers deliberately and directly hire migrant workers in order to drive down their costs, because migrant workers will work for less.

But in a genuine closed shop, the enforcing body is the trade union. In this version, the British state will apparently become the enforcer. Quite how this is supposed to work in practise (whether, for example, it will involve uniformed border police checking people's union cards at Calais and Heathrow) is not clear.

And why will the proposed law apply only to international migrants? Why will a Polish worker looking for work in London require a union card, but not an English worker from, say, Blackburn looking for work in London?

And why is it imagined that the existing labour movement, that has not been able to overturn the law banning closed shops in order to force employers to recognise them for domestic labour, will succeed in forcing employers to operate closed shops for migrant labour?

Some advocates of this policy on the revolutionary left justify the approach with reference to the First International, which did indeed set as part of its aim resistance to attempts by employers to “play off” workers from one country against those of another.

But two key differences with the contemporary situation are missed out. Firstly, the disputes to which the First International was responding were ones in which employers who faced strikes in Country A attempted to directly hire workers from Country B, in order to break the strike in Country A. Almost no migrant labour in Britain today is directly recruited abroad, and none of it on the conscious, explicit basis of doing the work of striking workers in Britain.

And secondly, the methods of the First International were solidaristic, linking workers' organisations across borders to appeal directly to workers not to allow their labour be used to undermine the struggles of their brothers and sisters abroad. This approach has nothing in common with the hostile attitude to migrants and immigration implied by the policies of today's anti-free-movement left.

There is a nationalist arrogance implied in this politics. The implication is that British workers are unionised, militant, and in an almost permanent state of struggle to defend their conditions - which is why bosses want to use migrant workers, who of course have no trade union consciousness and are little more than scabs, to undermine it.

The reality is quite different. As we know, strikes are at historically low levels and the labour movement has halved in size since its 1979 height. The picture of a militant and combative “native” labour movement having its struggles undermined by bosses shipping in migrant strikebreakers is simply false. In fact, some of the brightest spots in contemporary class struggle in Britain are migrant workers' struggles, such as the organising by the Independent Workers’ union of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW). As Jason Moyer-Lee of the IWGB puts it, these struggles mean migrant workers often leave their jobs “better than they found them”.

Overturning the law on closed shops, and reintroducing them as a feature of the industrial landscape in this country, is a worthy aspiration. But that will be achieved through organisation and struggle. To demand a state-enforced "closed shop" as a means of "solving" the largely illusory "problem" of migrant labour depressing wages for domestic workers is, at best, bizarre.

It either functions as a demand that migrant workers have adequate trade union consciousness before they move to Britain (again, why demand this of a Pole moving to Britain, but not a Geordie moving to London?), or is simply a dishonest obfuscation. Uneasy with straightforwardly expressing the political core of their demand - that immigration be reduced - the policy is wrapped up in "trade union" verbiage to make it appear like something other than what it is, a demand for boosting one group of workers at the expense of another, in this case on the basis of nationality and immigration status.

It is the very opposite of the politics of class unity and solidarity that the principle of the closed shop is supposed to express.

Argument Two: "We need fair immigration controls"

See: “My cure for a divided Britain: a programme of managed immigration”, Stephen Kinnock, The Guardian, 19 September 2016

Versions of this argument are used by a range of people in the labour movement, from Blairite and soft-left MPs through to some on the far-left.

Some far-leftists draw a parallel between controls on the flow of capital and controls on the flow of people: we're for the former, they argue, so why not the latter? As long as the controls are "fair", what's the problem?

In this perspective, immigration is reduced to an inhuman force which needs "controlling", as if migrants and refugees are a raw material scooped up by "neo-liberalism" and "dumped" in Britain (as in the phrase "social dumping", shamefully recycled by some trade unions). This may well be how capital views labour, but migrants and refugees are also human beings, conscious actors making choices, often in dire circumstances, to migrate in order to seek a better life for themselves. They need our solidarity, not our hostility.

In a more explicitly authoritarian and statist version of this argument, the aim of a left-wing position on immigration is said to be to "control the supply of labour", as if "labour" was a mechanical force rather than something that does not exist separately from the humans who provide it. A traditional closed shop is indeed a form of controlled “labour supply”, but the control is applied by the union at the factory gates (figurative or literal), not at the borders by the bosses’ state.

The idea that the left is unambiguously for "controlling the flow of capital" is itself worthy of some unpacking. We are for legal, which in any current political context must mean statist, restrictions on the ability of capitalists to do whatever they want: we are for legally-enforced living wages, living benefits, nationalised public services, and so on. We are for laws that subordinate the "needs" of capital to human needs. In this sense we are for "controls on the flow of capital". Ultimately we are for expropriation, and social control of wealth.

But if what is meant by this is to counterpose protectionist, autarkic trade policies to free trade and globalisation, then this is a different matter. On that issue, Karl Marx’s 1848 position is a helpful guide: that, while working-class has no dog in the fight between different models of capitalist trade policy, workers' movements should recognise that free trade and globalisation embody greater progressive potential, as they erode national boundaries and provide platforms for international working-class struggle.

But, we digress. What is really egregious about this argument is not that it is confused on the issue of trade policy. Whatever one's view on that, "the flow of capital" can be controlled by legislation. But there is no realistic way to "control the flow of people" without coercion: without guns, fences, detention centres, police. The ruling class already knows this. That is what borders are.

Anti-free-movement leftists say they want to replace "uncontrolled" immigration with "fair" controls. But who is to be the arbiter of fairness? How many migrants is enough, or too many? Are we currently at quota, or over it? Must some existing immigrants be made to leave? If so, how?

Will there be a points system? Will immigrants from certain countries be given preference? Or, as we are now in political territory where the British state can be looked to to enforce a closed shop, even though it has already legislated to outlaw them, will there be a workers' committee convened at every port and airport to adjudicate on the application of each individual migrant?

Advocates of this empty policy, which is in fact not even a policy and barely a half-baked slogan, need to take responsibility for their perspective. Even controls which are claimed by their architects to be “fair” must be enforced. Who will do the enforcing?

This is the essence of the basic socialist opposition to immigration controls. Any border control necessarily implies violence and coercion. It cannot but be a mechanism for discriminating against some workers, on the basis of their national origin. In its application, it cannot be other than racist.

This is not to say that socialist advocates of immigration controls are themselves racists, or that they intend their policies to have a racist application. The vast majority of them are sincere and active anti-racists. But a policy which has at its core discrimination between workers on the basis of where they come from has an unavoidably racist impact, no matter how much its supporters protest that they want the discrimination to be organised “fairly”.

There is no way to construct a socialist system of immigration controls. Immigration controls are systems our bosses use to divide a global class on the basis of our immigration status, to decide that some workers are "legal" and others "illegal". Our slogan should be "no-one is illegal", not "let us decide who is illegal!"

Argument Three: "We must listen to the concerns of working-class voters who are worried about immigration"

See: “People are concerned about immigration: Labour must come up with fair answers rather than hiding from it”, Ian Austin MP, LabourList, 18 November 2016.

If the phrase "post-truth politics" has any useful application, this must surely be it: the idea that it does not matter whether immigration has depressed wages (it hasn't); whether migrants have "taken" "our" jobs (they haven't); whether they're given preferential treatment by the housing and benefits systems (they aren't); what matters is that people feel like these things are true, and if political parties wish to win their allegiance, or, more narrowly, their votes, they must be seen to address these feelings and respond to their concerns. As Ian Austin puts it: “You can’t ignore people’s concerns or, worse still, tell them they what they should or shouldn’t be worried about.”

Labour needs to be able to have two distinct conversations. With working-class voters worried about low pay, a lack of jobs or struggling services who, out of desperation and despair, or because they are convinced by the political narrative pushed by almost the entirety of mainstream politics and the press, “blame” immigration and immigrants for these things, the conversation is about how Labour’s policies could address the core issues: by implementing living wages; reversing cuts to public services; building social housing. That conversation is about convincing working-class people that Tory (and, indeed, New Labour) policies are the causes of their grievances, not immigration and immigrants. It is a conversation that most advocates of “listening to people’s concerns” rarely seem to want to have, preferring to insist on starting from an acceptance that people are right to be “concerned” about immigration per se.

With voters hostile to immigration because an influx of migrants (real or imagined, and often the latter) threatens their white, English identity, the conversation has to be different. Moralistic denunciation of these attitudes is worse than useless; nationalism, xenophobia, and racism have social roots that have to be understood. But they are real phenomena, that exist within our class, and which must be confronted. The two groups aren’t entirely dichotomous, but pretending that there is no real bigotry within our class, and that all anti-migrant sentiment is only a cipher for an implicitly-progressive critique of austerity, is self-defeatingly naive. It is particularly grotesque when it comes from those, like Blairite MPs, who designed and stood fully behind many of the very austerity policies which created the social conditions on which nationalism and racism feeds.

It is also conspicuous the "concerns" to which it is insisted that Labour must "listen" and "respond" are always the anti-immigration concerns of British communities (and the actual communities referred to are almost always majority-white), and never the "concerns" of migrant workers or refugees worried about threats to their civil and human rights. Len McCluskey’s disingenuous formulation that the benefits of free movement are “easier to see in Muswell Hill [a relatively affluent north London suburb] than they are in Middlesbrough” is a case in point. Of course the concerns of working-class communities in Middlesbrough should be of paramount importance for Labour, but so should the concerns of working-class communities in multicultural, “metropolitan” cities like London, including migrant communities.

Integral to this perspective is the bizarre idea that Labour has historically "ignored", or, in Austin’s words, “hidden from”, these "concerns" about immigration. Whatever else might be said about the Blair/Brown leaderships of the Labour Party, they could hardly be accused of "ignoring" the issue of immigration. Indeed, in 2010, Gordon Brown, he of “British jobs for British workers”, stood on a rostrum emblazoned with the phrase "Controlling Immigration for a Fairer Britain", and proclaimed: ‘I know how people worry that immigration might be changing their neighbourhoods. They would worry if immigration was putting pressure on schools, hospitals and housing; and they question whether immigration might undermine their wages or might harm the job prospects of their children […] If we don't [respond], people will listen to whoever does”.

Six years ago, then, the leader of the Labour Party, the Labour Prime Minister of Britain, was already saying exactly what MPs like Ian Austin claim Labour should be saying now. The reality is not that Labour has "ignored" the issue of immigration, nor, even more ludicrously, that it has been too pro-migrant: in fact, it has gone along with, and at times enthusiastically contributed to, the anti-migrant clamour which has now established itself as a political common sense so apparently concrete that, according to the very people who helped establish it, it can no longer be challenged or confronted in any way.

The Blairite advocates of this approach, like Stephen Kinnock, know exactly what they're doing. It's beside the point whether Kinnock himself is profoundly ideologically committed to tougher immigration controls. What matters for him and his project is getting into power, and whatever ideological twists and turns are necessary to accomplish that are admissible.

But for those of us for whom winning a Labour government is not an end in itself, but part of the means to affect a wider and more fundamental transformation of society, a strategy of triangulating to the "concerns", real or imagined, of potential voters will not do. Rather, our job is to convince people of an alternative political narrative, not only, or even primarily, for them to vote for but for them to become active around, at work and in their communities. And anti-racism and internationalist solidarity are essential aspects of that alternative narrative.

It has become fashionable to decry "identity politics", where that term is a synonym for liberal disregard for working-class economic hardship in favour of promoting trendy, but implicitly ephemeral or insignificant, struggles around gender or sexuality. The whole critique is rather toxic and needs dismantling, but even on their own terms, these born-again left-wing critics of identity politics are hypocrites. The approach they advocate is precisely a form of "identity politics", based on appealing to a romantic "working-class" identity where one's class identity is bound up with one's nationhood.

Labour movement figures like the Fire Brigades Union's Paul Embery have written euphemistically of “uncontrolled” immigration disrupting "community cohesion". What can this possibly mean, other than that a settled community feels itself to be threatened, on an identitarian basis, by the arrival of outsiders? In rhetoric barely distinguishable from that of Ukip, Gerard Coyne, the right-wing challenger in the Unite General Secretary election, goes beyond the argument that an influx of migrant labour has depressed wages to decry the mere “presence” of a “very large number of foreign nationals”. Translated into concrete political proposals, this is a call not only for tighter restrictions on future immigration, but for reducing, presumably through deportations, the “very large number of foreign nationals” already here.

There is no way to put a left-wing gloss on such sentiment. The politics of national identity is anathema to class politics.

Postscript: What should Labour say about immigration?

Could Labour fight an election on a programme that advocates open borders, and win?

Could it fight an election on a programme that advocated social ownership of industry and the expropriation of the banks? Or scrapping Trident and withdrawing from NATO?

There are very many socialist policies which are currently "unpopular" and marginal. If simply winning electoral power is one's aim, any policy or principle can be jettisoned. But for us, the socialist, class-struggle left, "power" does not simply mean winning a general election, but growing class power on the basis of winning hegemony for socialist ideas within the labour movement and wider working class.

What is "popular", "electable", a "vote winner" are not fixed quantities. They change depending on consciousness. A Labour Party that sought to reshape consciousness, rather than simply adapt to it, could take on the anti-migrant consensus.

What, then, would a "transitional programme" for immigration look like? I'd propose the following as the basis for discussion:

• Solidarity with refugees and migrants: we are part of a global class, and migrant workers and refugees coming to Britain are our brothers and sisters, not our enemies.
• Defend free movement: the existing rights that EU citizens have to migrate to the UK, and vice versa, should be retained.
• Restore and increase the Migration Impact Fund: communities that have accommodated large numbers of migrants should receive increased subsidies to expand housing and services.
• A £10/hour minimum wage, properly enforced.
• Abolish all anti-union laws: restore and extend trade union rights.
• Reverse cuts to public services.
• End detention: close Yarl's Wood and other detention centres, end private sector involvement in the immigration system.

We should have faith in the ability of fellow members of our class, including in the most depressed, de-industrialised communities now targeted by Ukip, to reach internationalist, and revolutionary, political conclusions. To give up hope of promoting open-borders policies to some utopian socialist future is to conclude that the seam of nationalism within our class is now so deep that it cannot be challenged.

We owe it to our class, in its global entirety, both local and migrant, to hope and fight for better.