Sunday, 1 January 2017

Len McCluskey’s Marxist case for reduced immigration

Recently, the Morning Star published something interesting and original. Improbable for the in-house journal of the British far-left, a group whose usual conception of an original idea is a slightly new reading of Trotsky, but true none-the-less. And no I’m not referring to the publications recent unhinged decision to describe the carpet bombing and wholesale destruction of Aleppo as a ‘liberation’. Stranger still the piece was written by Len McCluskey, General Secretary of the Unite trade union, whose biggest contribution to British politics to date has been his efforts to facilitate Jeremy Corbyn’s disastrous stint as Labour Party leader. The piece presented the Marxist case for tightly controlled immigration. Considering the difficulty the Labour Party has been having connecting with its working-class base on immigration and associated issues of identity, its surprised this argument hasn’t been made more assertively before.     

McCluskey asserts that, at some point in the future, people will be able to ‘move freely across the world and live or work where they will’. For this to happen apparently ‘international economic planning and public ownership’ will be required, which sounds like a great way to #MakeEarthPoorAgain but there we are. Alas this workers utopia is apparently some way off, as always seems to be the case, meaning that short-term compromises are required.

MsCluskey asserts that ‘the free movement of labour is a class question’. His argument is as follows: Capitalists have been utilising globalisation to undermine the bargaining position of the British working class, either by using the threat of exporting jobs to the third world to undermine pay and working conditions or importing overseas workers who are prepared to work for less. McCluskey is blunt, and surely correct, when he points out that the immigration of workers from poorer countries, who are prepared to work for less, undermines the bargaining power of British workers. This is particularly likely to be the case in relatively unskilled professions, as poorer migrants are less likely to have the education/training to compete in higher professions. This creates a difference in class attitudes to migration between the working-class, who disproportionately loose out, and the wealthy who tend to gain. Or, as McCluskey puts it, the benefits of migration ‘are easier to see in Muswell Hill than they are in Middlesbrough’.

Regarding the outsourcing of jobs McCluskey asserts that ‘Anyone who has had to negotiate for workers…knows the huge difficulties that have been caused by the ability of capital to move production around the world’. Essentially because capital is more mobile than labour, as is generally the case, the capitalist enjoys a comparative advantage when negotiating with the worker. This is combined with ‘the elite’s use of immigration’, which ensures ‘a plentiful supply of cheap labour…for those jobs that can’t be exported elsewhere’. Thus employers use a combination of the threat of outsourcing jobs from the UK, and their ability to hire overseas workers with relative ease, to reduce wages and working conditions in certain UK industries, generally those which are low skilled and so can be relocated/re-staffed without difficulty.

Now I’m not sure McCluskey’s proposed solution will resolve the problem. He thinks UK employers should only be able to recruit foreign labour ‘if they are either covered by a proper trade union agreement, or by sectoral collective bargaining’. But what really matters is that he’s recognised the strength of concern over this issue. I would argue that one of the most dangerous facets of politics in the UK, and the wider Western world, in the past few decades has been the extent to which the political establishment, both right-wing and left-wing, have ceased to represent majority opinion on immigration. Poll after poll has shown that the majority of the British population want immigration to be either dramatically reduced, or stopped altogether.

Yet the centre-right remains pro-immigration as it’s useful to business, whilst the centre-left holds the same position due to internationalist principles. As a result a significant section of the population of Western countries has felt ignored, and is now striking out. This partially explains Brexit and Trump, and the probable gains which the European radical right is expected to make this year. The gulf between elite and public opinion on the issue of immigration is starting to do a lot of damage, and is undermining the current Western political order.

Thus it’s refreshing to see an argument for migration policy reform coming from the left, even if it is from a Marxist angle. I don’t agree with McCluskey on much, but his arguments here are logically coherent and I dare say rather more in tune with the majority of Labour voters than those of the Labour leadership. I’m in the somewhat unusual position of being broadly pro-immigration for centre-right reasons. I think it’s been good for British business, and hence for the economy in general. Yet I’ve become very concerned about the extent of the divide between public and elite opinion on this issue, and about the associated backlash which is happening across the Western world. It’s reassuring to see that some on the left share my concerns.

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