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Between the devil and the deep blue sea

Don Flynn explains the realities of Labour's migration policies

The shifts and turns in the New Labour's policies on migration in recent years have the government in a dispiriting, friendless state. Human rights supporters are repelled by its apparent disregard for the welfare of vulnerable migrant groups, whilst opponents of migration think not enough has been done to curtail movement across frontiers and enforce the removal of people who are deemed to have broken rules.

Between the polar opposites of opinion, the public mood fluctuates across a range of often conflicting viewpoints which have been illustrated in the publication of the recent Transatlantic Survey on immigration, conducted by the German Marshall Fund US. The people of the UK appear in these findings as outliers, being more anxious and less prepared to admit the benefits of migration than others in Europe or North America. This should be a surprising result.

New Labour has invested more than any other European government (and more than the US , but less than the Canadian) in branding its policies as a producing a 'managed' form of migration, admitting only those who 'benefit Britain' and having the capacity to reject anyone not equipped to meet its high standards for acceptance.

So why hasn't this policy been hailed a great success? The skills mix amongst the migrant currents into the UK have been weighted in favour of high added value workers, even if an uncomfortably large proportion of promising talent seems to have been slotted into low-skilled activities on poultry farms and construction sites.

The post May 2004 arrival of Polish and other East European migrants added an estimated 0.7% to GDP growth during the period up to the onset of the credit crisis. The concern that migration on a large scale would place pressures on wage rates and job security seems not to be have been borne out across the largest parts of the labour market because this now has a highly segmented structure and the occasions in which migrants are in head-to-head competition with natives for scarce jobs is very limited. Unloved migrants.

So, what's there not to like about immigration? White Papers and strategy documents have rolled off the Home Office presses asserting the belief that once the British people see the good coming from the movement of people, and providing they are assured that it is well-managed, they will stop worrying and learn to love immigrants. But it appears that we don't.

An indication of just how grim the news is comes from a recent poll by the union Unite of its members. This found that the most frequently expressed reason for thinking about not voting Labour in the next election is the government's record on immigration control. As we get closer to an election campaign which has all the danger of providing a springboard for far right nationalist parties using immigration to bash the political elites, cool heads are needed.

Evidence from other European countries, which have seen anti-immigrant parties emerge as significant forces during the past two decades, suggests that attempts to triangulate populist anxieties into centre left (or centre right) political programmes to blunt their edge will be self defeating.

Yes, sensible political strategists will recognise that concerns need to be addressed in the platforms of the parties, but this is a different proposition from the one that lies at the heart of the spin doctor's art. The view dominating the councils of the Labour leadership throughout its period of branded 'New'-ness has been to prefer vulgar sleight-of-hand over political debate, stunning apprehensive voters that what they believe about the 'work-shy', criminal youth gangs, out-of-control trade unionists and other scapegoats is what 'we' have believed all along.

Exactly the opposite response is now needed from serious progressively-minded politicians. Their task should be to observe and evaluate moods, but to look beyond superficial impressions to get to the deeper currents and trends which shape the longer term political landscape. From this standpoint the facts which form the critical nodes of the contemporary scene, borne out by scrutiny of serious opinion poll findings as much as anything else, is that immigration has been allowed to become a part of the symbolic language of popular discontent with a social and political system which produces massive levels of inequality and injustice.

Parties of the left would once have offered the people who felt the anxieties that these things produce a narrative which demanded criticism of social and economic elites. Progress was synonymous with the actuality of challenge to the interests of these elite groups, and the posing of concrete alternatives for the delivery of social goods, like well- paid employment, health care systems, affordable housing, and a sustainable environment, rather than the ones they favoured.

Beyond technocracy Hopefully over the course of the next few years the structure of politics will return to something recognisable as left/right contestation, with scrutiny of the activities of real power-holders back at the centre of the game. The asinine mantras of the past period, of 'better regulation', 'what works', and 'trust me' need to go on a bonfire and make room for a tougher and more combative iconography which places the notion of radical challenge at its heart. But this still leaves the problem of how we deal with migration.

The truth is that for the last decade the notion of a more liberal approach has been allowed to become identified primarily with elite interests, rather than a challenge to power. The tabloid spat interpreting the attempts of the former New Labour advisor, Andrew Neather, to explain what was going on behind the scenes back in 2000, when the then immigration minister Barbara Roche, first starting setting New Labour's 'liberal' approach to immigration policy, illustrates the nature of the trap the government has fallen into.

Neather sets out an account in which New Labour ministers reviewed the evidence coming from think tanks, reports of the 10 Downing Street Performance and Innovation Unit, and just about every other direction, conveyed the message that the 'zero immigration policies' of the three decades had to be reversed and replaced with an approach which actively sought migrants to fill critical gaps in an over-heated labour market. A sustained period of economic growth has placed capital in a quandary: future prosperity required access to the talent circulating in global labour markets plus the filling of 600,000 low skilled jobs, primarily in the south east, which were beginning to constrain the possibility of further expansion.

With this evidence in its possession the government was equipped with formidable arguments to take to the people. It could have said that a programme aiming for the re-building of our cities, the rehabilitation of housing stock and public infrastructure, improvements in public services, raising productivity based on highly-skilled labour, absolutely meant more open borders and pro-active policies aiming for the integration of migrants into the economic and social mainstream. Powerful allies were available to support these arguments, including the trade unions, public service planners, community organisations and other significant stakeholders.

But New Labour flunked it. In 2000 and the following years it allowed itself to be guided by the belief that immigration was a 'vortex issue'; one which the voters would never be happy about and would always punish a government which attempted to push the issue in a liberal direction. If the party leadership was going to go ahead with a re-vamping of policies to allow for the entry of large numbers they needed to proceed behind a veil of subterfuge and evasion, throwing up a snowstorm of promises about 'toughness' and 'e-borders' and identity card surveillance, and super-efficient immigration officers who could ramp up arrests and deportations of anyone found breaking the rules.

The outcome has been the classic quandary of being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. One of the great lessons that came from the 20th century is the unimpeachable fact that liberal capitalist societies are very bad at fixing limits on migration. On the occasions when reductions in numbers do take place these are invariably due to the onset of recessionary conditions, dampening down market demand for new labour, rather than an increase in state efficiency in controlling the movement of people.

Readers of Chartist will be less interested in the needs of capitalism than they are in the emergence of a democratic, egalitarian society capable of providing higher levels of welfare and social justice. But the fact is that this will be assembled from the material which has been bequeathed to us by capitalism, with transformations in the relationships of power between social classes opening the way for new forms of democracy and progress.

A critical change needed to open up the road to progress will be around the relations which established the currently subordinate position of migrant labour to so-called native labour. New Labour's policies, through the paraphernalia of its 'Points Based Scheme' and other technocratic fixes, have sought to set this subordination in stone. Socialists should aim to dissolve them in the radical challenge of solidarity and internationalism.