Blue Labour and Immigration

This article was published on LabourList on 2nd August 2011.

Immigration, by being freighted with so many unsaid and often unconsidered subtexts, is a toxic subject. As both Marc Stears and Anthony Painter have suggested on LabourList recently, it certainly seems to have poisoned the ‘Blue Labour’ project, possibly fatally.

To uproot yourself and your family to a new and unfamiliar country takes considerable determination and courage – sometimes forced by terrible circumstances of persecution or famine. It is an attempt to find a better life through better opportunities for yourself and your children. As long as it does not involve actions in the new country that would also be unacceptable for pre-existing residents of that country, there is an element of hypocrisy in frustrating such a desire. British people seek careers in Australia, America or Europe, and our businesses seek profits wherever they can.

Britain’s colonial legacy means that many immigrants here are black or Asian. A different skin colour is of course the most obvious (as well as one of the least significant) differences that can exist between humans. Racism is easily created and sustained. If you are led to dislike or fear the visibly different, then resistance to immigration is an obvious move.

I doubt that Maurice Glasman is racist but he does seem to believe that immigration has been an important cause of problems in Britain – or at least that its perception as such should be addressed by directly tackling the thing itself. As long as this view is clearly distinguished (and distinguishable – which may be the more difficult task) from prejudice against existing immigrants or against potential new immigrants because of their different culture or skin colour, then this cannot be objected to on grounds of racism.

But it can be objected to on grounds of unfairness, misreading of the evidence and some degree of inhumanity. Glasman seems to have accepted the argument that immigrant workers significantly reduce jobs and wages for those already resident. In fact the evidence for this is not particularly strong. Economic logic also tells us that this is likely to be an incomplete view at best. Most of the money earned by immigrants will be re-spent by them on other goods and services (for which demand would otherwise not have existed), which in turn create new employment opportunities. These opportunities will be distributed differently but will exist somewhere. But clearly if you are in a low employment area and you see new jobs going to recent immigrants it is difficult to appreciate this overall truth.

The other aspect of the immigration problem Glasman sees is encapsulated in his line from the Blue Labour ebook that

Pluralism and diversity, without strong forms of a common life, undermine the solidarity necessary for generating a welfare state and redistribution.

In this, I think he was correct. But this does not mean that we should be further isolating ourselves into national enclaves of shared culture and appearance, not least because, whatever its national impact, its global impact can only be to increase divisions. As both Stears and Painter suggest, we need new forms of common life to replace the current hierarchical forms of our politics and business. If these are democratic institutions designed to share political and economic power more equally, this ‘common life’ doesn’t have to mean complete sharing of culture, religion and skin colour.

In the end immigration is more of a ‘poorist’ issue than a racist one. The rich are free to take their homes and businesses where they wish, but the poor are restricted in their choice of where to better themselves. This is why in the face of huge disparities of global wealth Anthony Painter’s ‘pragmatic’ welcome for ‘highly-qualified people’ is not as neutral as it may seem. While these disparities remain, the perception of a problem will not easily be dispelled.

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