Step up the attack on Tory immigration policies
Following the reactionary campaign that dominated the June 2016 referendum on EU membership and the racism and xenophobia that were stirred up in its aftermath, there has been a gradual shift in the terrain of the fight over immigration policy in Britain. Two years after this most intense demonisation of migrants it is now the right wing’s agenda on race that is on the defensive.
The Tories are now on the back foot and being forced to repudiate some of their longstanding reactionary positions on immigration. Within Labour the framework defended by Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott, for years a minority view in their party, has now gained widespread support and under their leadership a significant blow was inflicted on the Tory government, successfully forcing a Home Secretary to resign on this issue.
There has been a concerted effort by powerful sections of Britain’s ruling class to recast the agenda. Propaganda in parts of the media has shifted from anti to pro-immigration and there have been interventions from within the state to reinforce this change of orientation.
Public opinion has been significantly influenced. The chart below, reproduced from an article here by Rob Ford Professor of Political Science at the University of Manchester, gives some indication of how the population’s views have changed since the referendum. Since June 2016 the importance people attach to the issue of immigration has been steadily declining, as measured by the regular IPSOS-MORI and YouGov surveys.
As Ford points out, over the same period the view that immigration is good for the economy has also gained support.
Capital spent many years ramping up the reactionary ideological offensive on immigration. The propaganda serves the political function of dividing the working class. It helped strengthened the right and far right in British politics at the expense of the left. It had little adverse impact on business as immigration legislation did not interfere with capital’s interests.
The EU referendum changed all that. The hostility to migrants that UKIP and the Tories had whipped up for years was the Brexit campaign’s central theme. Opposition to immigration became the decisive issue that secured the slim majority for Leave.
The Tory government then claimed that, in addition to leaving the EU, Britain must also withdraw from the Single Market. It argued that the vote was a clear rejection of the free movement of people across Europe – a key principal underpinning the market.
This would harm the economy’s international ties, and in turn hit people’s jobs and living standards.
Significant sections of capital, trying to defend their current business operations, are fighting to retain the benefits of being in the Single Market and the benefits of free movement of labour. Their propaganda machinery, for present, has done a U-turn and has been directed at attacking the reactionary positions they previously promoted. They hope to change the government’s policy but keep the Tories firmly in office – the latter objective of course remaining the number one concern.
As a result, the policies Theresa May championed for years have been unravelling. Longstanding anti-immigration newspapers decried the treatment of the Windrush generation. Home Office staff helped bring down the Tory Home Secretary over deportation targets. The Scottish Tory leader has attacked Theresa May’s infamous net migration target. Diane Abbott is lauded in the Times for defending migrants’ rights.
Powerful sections of capital need a more liberal immigration agenda during the negotiations over Britain’s departure from the EU. They will of course reinstate their reactionary offensive when Britain’s future relations with the EU have been determined.
But for present the struggle against racism has new opportunities to advance and Labour has found a new popular cause on which to attack the Tories.