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The real purpose of the government's open-door immigration policy is now clear: to undermine the wages and conditions of British workers

Migration and class power

This article is an edited version of a talk entitled "Migration and Class Power", given at a CPBML public meeting in London on 20 October.

As a class, we have got ourselves into an awful mess. Of course, it's not all of our own making. For over three decades, we have been subjected to an unrelenting, escalating ruling class assault: more than 30 years of reaction and counter-revolution from our ruling class, which has pressed down on our daily lives, shattered our trade union culture and traditions, circumscribed our hopes and strangled our aspirations.

With only some exceptions, notably the strategic offensive undertaken by the engineers and others in the 1970s against the Industrial Relations Act and the miners' stalwart but ultimately gladiatorial defence of their industry in 1984–85, our class has not attempted to fend off, let alone repulse, these regressive attacks.

We have seen, in the mere span of a person's lifetime, the situation in Britain turned dramatically upside down. From the days of the early 1970s when the media (superficial as always) could clamour "Who rules Britain?" to now, when capitalism is naked and callous in its operations, trade unions are studiously ignored and Big Business is slavishly kow-towed to.

In the 1960s and early 1970s it was possible for Mao Tse-tung to talk about revolution being the main trend. And though with hindsight perhaps it was a slight embellishment, you still had a Soviet Union: not as revolutionary a force as it once was, showing signs of fraying round the edges and with capitulationist talk emerging at times from the likes of Kruschev and Kosygin, but still exerting a restraining influence on the world of capitalism.

The extent of migration

What is the scale of the recent migration into Britain? Official figures reveal the following:


Obviously the figures do not count any illegal immigration.

In these 4 years alone, before the accession of the new EU countries, immigration at 1,335,000 exceeded emigration by about 400,000. Since those years immigration has continued to rise. Take the months between May and December 2004: according to Home Office estimates about 130,000 nationals from eight of the new member states alone applied to work in Britain; about 123,000 of them successfully obtained work permits.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 223,000 more people came into Britain than left in 2004 (more than double the annual average from 1997 to 2000). Some 583,000 entered the country. Separate figures predict the population may increase by up to 7.2 million over the next ten years.

The number of migrants from Eastern Europe EU member states has risen dramatically, due to the government's open door policy. The Home Office admits that 14,000 are now arriving every month from Eastern Europe (170,000 a year).

It is estimated that anywhere up to 200,000 illegal Turkish Kurds have entered Britain recently. Of course, if Turkey joins the EU, then that will all become legal immigration.

Post-1945 there was not a commitment to full employment: it was there in reality – or at least capitalism's definition of full employment, with no more than half a million people out of work at any time. Even at the start of the 1970s, the unemployment rate (as calculated at the time, so divide by half to equate with current figures) was around 3%.

We were in a position to defeat the Labour Party's 1969 attempt to control unions, In Place of Strife and, in the early 1970s, the Tories' Industrial Relations Act. If today it was a truce, tomorrow it could be war.

Workers are thinking beings, and depending on how they think they may then decide to act or not. Workers do not act spontaneously, nor do they act responsively, as a result of cause and effect. Actions and struggle depend on us knowing our circumstances.

In recent years there has been a marked lessening of working class confidence, clarity of thought and class organisation. Material factors were at work, the greatest of which was the rundown and destruction of our industrial manufacturing base.

From 1968 we saw an end to full employment and the re-creation of the reserve army of the unemployed; anti-trade union legislation and reduction of trade union strength; deindustrialisation; and the removal of manufacturing heartlands. Along with this came membership of the European Economic Community (now the EU), privatisation and, at the end of the 1970s, Thatcherism.

The latest weapon in the armoury of capitalism is a massive increase in the numbers of people migrating to Britain. It is not accidental; it is not without purpose. The EU requires free movement of capital and labour. This measure benefits capital, while making labour weaker, more insecure.

The migration attack
Speaking in Bradford in June, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, put it starkly: "Immigration has reduced wage inflation. The inflow of migrant labour, especially in the past year or so from Eastern Europe, has probably led to a diminution of inflationary pressure on the labour market."

Cheap mass labour from Eastern Europe has been used to keep wages stagnant or reduce them. The real purpose of an open-door immigration policy is revealed for what it is: to undermine the wages and conditions of British workers.

Apart from Ireland, only Britain (courtesy of Jack Straw and the Labour Government) decided from 1 August 2004 to give unrestricted access to workers from the new Eastern European member states, even though transitional arrangements allowed restrictions for up to seven years.

Many of the EU's original 15 member states, including Germany, France and Italy, still have tough limits on economic migration from the ten countries which joined the EU last May. Even by the EU's regulations, countries can apply their own national migration legislation until at least 2006 and also impose entry quotas in certain professions. In contrast, the United Kingdom and Ireland have moved quickly to remove barriers in their labour markets.

Britain already has millions unemployed, however much the government attempts to reclassify them. This massive influx of labour, often concentrated in our leading urban conurbations, particularly London, will have a significant impact on our wages and conditions and on our creaking services already struggling to cope with needs and reduced financial budgets. In fact, the impact is already there in many areas.

Much of our infrastructure was already under great stress and struggling to cope – schools, hospitals, transport – and now it has this sudden, unexpected demographic change thrown into the equation. It is evident in London as you go about daily life.

1971, and the fight against the Industrial Relations Act: the three decades since then have seen a relentless counter-revolution. Open-door migration from Eastern Europe is the latest weapon in capitalism's armoury, aimed at lowering wages and conditions.

Take schools as an example. In June 2005, the Association of London Government published a report entitled "Breaking Point: Examining the disruption caused by pupil mobility". It points out that government does not provide any additional resources for schools with high pupil movement.

High pupil turnover is heavily concentrated in specific geographical locations (usually where housing is cheaper – generally poorer areas) and in specific schools. One of the key factors in pupil mobility is international migration. Many of these children do not speak English or do not have fluency in the language.

The report notes that the failure to fund pupil turnover means that schools, particularly those with the additional challenges of high deprivation, do not have the capacity to meet the true level of need associated with mobile pupils or existing pupils with diverse multiple disadvantages. Most rely heavily on staff to provide support for new pupils by working additional unpaid hours – which in part reflects a dilution of teaching and learning support to all children in that school.

Research undertaken by London Metropolitan University in 2002 concluded there were approximately 80,000 asylum-seeking and refugee children in British schools, with an estimated 62,666 in schools and nurseries in London. In seven London education authorities, refugee children comprise more than 10% of the school roll: a significant concentration. Teachers feel overwhelmed by the numbers of children without English from so many backgrounds.

These levels of migration if allowed to continue will put massive strain not just on the fabric of British society but also on its mental complexion too. A nation must retain the right to control entry if it is to maintain the glue that holds it together. We wish to retain an integrated society.

Most migrants to Britain are aged under 34. Research suggests that many are university educated, prompting real concerns about a brain drain in the countries they have left. Those coming are attempting to escape hardship elsewhere. Do they really think it's going to be easy here? Do they imagine a land flowing with milk and honey? They are in for a rude awakening.

We cannot tolerate being dragged backwards by certain other groups of migrants. There is, for example, no place in Britain for African ritual murders, for devilry exorcism with its maltreatment of children. We tamed our religion a long time ago, and we shall not let religion persecute workers again.

What it means to be British
Are nations outmoded? Capitalism says so. Once capitalism was the spur to the building of nations, sweeping aside the localism and feudal land structures. Now it prefers to create larger economic bases such as the EU, giving power to the larger corporations, weakening working class power. Yet as workers we only have Britain, so we have to save it.

How do we see the composition of a nation? Immigrants to Britain who are serious about staying have the same choice as any other British worker: either join with other workers to improve wages and conditions, preserve liberties and quality of life or ally with capitalists. True integration has nothing to do with appreciation of the national cricket team and warm beer (though many more will be supporting England rather than Pakistan or Bangladesh or the West Indies after this summer).

From 1750 to 1840 our class was torn from the land, drawn to the factories and the towns and thrown into conditions in which survival was a daily achievement. They could look to no one else but themselves for protection and alleviation. Without stars, without do-gooders and without political parties, our class founded its own bodies to defend and further the interests of its own.

The whole force of the employers' state was brought to bear upon these emerging working class organisations which, despite imprisonment, transportation to Australia, penury, acts of parliament, spies, provocateurs and even death itself, were never vanquished.

In these years, the British working class first discovered for the world this absolute truth: the necessity of working class solidarity, of combination of labour against capital, of trade unionism.

In contemporary times, have we started to forget, discard, shun or just fail to apply what we knew – the vital local pride; skills; communities; brotherhoods of workers; the culture of mutual support?

Guidance for the future
The Labour Party now is trying to preserve capitalism in absolute decline by elevating the rights of capital above all other interests. It must be pushed aside.

We must treat the Labour Party with the disdain it deserves – do not waste efforts over it. Certainly do not attempt to resurrect it as a true labour party. Do we really want to re-run the setback and disillusionment and betrayal of the last 100 years?

Let it wither on the vine. It can go the way of the Liberal party after the First World War and seemingly what has happened to the Conservative Party after the debacle of Thatcherism. Let the decline be terminal for them all.

And then our class has to face squarely the conclusion that there is no way out of their predicament courtesy of one of the bourgeois parties or through capitalism's representative democracy.

But how to do for ourselves when trade unions have been allowed to degenerate? Look at class for what it is, not what we want it to be. Rebuild class organisation again. Explore the experience of the British working class organisation. Start with the local.

The greatest gift that the British have made to the world is in ideas: our thinking, our attitude to life. These are largely based on our response to the material changes of industry, manufacture and science – raising collective forms of survival in the simple but stubborn form of organisation: trade unions. We have a way of life to lose; we have a future to gain.

Those going – 360,000 emigrated in 2004 – have a lack of belief in Britain. Good riddance! The ones left will be those with sterner resolution, more mettle, the root and branch.

Cul-de-sacs and the open road
Workers must do for themselves: we are many, they are few. There are but two classes and class is everything. Without clarity about it we do not know who we are or what we are doing. We must be in charge of our professions and protect and develop skill.
We are in a guerrilla war against the capitalist enemy who for the past few decades has analysed our strengths, largely in manufacture, largely in trade unions, and been undermining and destroying these sources of our strength, letting our life-blood trickle out bit by bit.

How do we break out of their encirclement? We need to know what we are defending and when. Choose terrain favourable to ourselves, employ active and passive defence, conserve our strength, and await an opportunity to defeat the enemy.

Do not underestimate, do not overestimate the enemy: the ruling class only has apparent strength due largely to our lack of activity. Developments will occur: if we don't respond, then the response of the capitalists will simply get more intense. Don't wait, or there will be worse ahead