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"For four decades, one speech has cast a shadow over British immigration policy" (The Observer 24.2.08). Enoch Powell's anticipated river "foaming with much blood" may have failed to materialise but, forty years on, immigration continues to pose difficult questions both for the working class and the bourgeoisie. Enoch's prophecy was wrong but it seems "the anxiety [that he] exploited has not gone away" (ibid).
One of the latest expressions of this "anxiety" is Labour's proposed "new route to citizenship" - in reality, a new attack on immigrant workers and a new means of creating divisions within the working class as a whole. Currently, "skilled economic migrants" can apply for British citizenship after five years, or after two if they are joining family members. According to The Guardian (21.2.08), "about 150,000 people a year successfully apply for a British passport, there is no compulsion to do so and around 100,000 with indefinite leave to remain in Britain retain their original citizenship". Plans that will effect economic migrants, relatives of British and permanent residents, refugees and asylum seekers, as outlined in a new Home Office green paper, The path to citizenship, would change this. "Newcomers will be classed as temporary residents for two to five years before becoming probationary citizens for a minimum of one year and a maximum of three years depending on their behaviour" (The Guardian 21.2.08).
The proposed three stage "route" would mean that becoming a British citizen would take six years (or three years for those joining family members, or eight years in some circumstances). But only migrants who play by the rules will be successful. For example, in order "to secure citizenship, applicants will need to fulfil a number of requirements. These include: speaking English, paying tax and becoming self-sufficient, obeying the law, and demonstrating integration into British life by playing an active role in the community" (The Guardian 20.2.08). Full access to benefits may be denied to some migrants until they have been in the UK for five years. Migrants who have been imprisoned will be prevented from accessing ‘probationary citizenship' while those who have committed minor offences will have their ‘journey' to citizenship slowed down. Citizenship will now have to be ‘earned'. As Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, made clear when the scheme was announced, these changes will "ensure that the rights of British citizenship are matched by the responsibilities and contributions we expect of newcomers to the UK" (ibid).
Hordes of immigrants? The working class is a class of immigrants
Even though the proposed plans don't affect the rights of migrants from the European Economic Area (which includes Poland) some people will undoubtedly think that they are a good starting point: ‘finally, the government is going to do something about the hordes of immigrants flooding Britain who are abusing our public services and destroying our communities'. Attitudes like this are certainly common, as The Guardian (ibid) noted, "recent surveys have found, for example, that the public believes that 20% of the population are immigrants", while "another poll found that the average Briton believes this country takes 25% of the world's asylum seekers". Even though the real figures are quite different - immigrants only make up 4% of the population and Britain only takes 2% of the world's asylum seekers - those questioned in these surveys would still think that their anxieties about the damaging affects of immigration are legitimate concerns rather than potential racist propaganda. Immigration minister Liam Byrne agrees; "consultation around the country has shown that Britain [is] not a nation of Alf Garnets"; people just want "newcomers to speak the language, obey the law and pay taxes like the rest of us" (ibid).
Instead of criticising workers who hold such views, shouldn't we try and engage with their ‘legitimate' concerns? After all, aren't they just an expression of class consciousness? No, the empirical evidence for xenophobic ideas amongst sections of the working class doesn't make them a manifestation of class consciousness. Historically, the workers' movement has understood the principle that the working class is one international class. Workers have no country. It is a class of immigrants. It has no ‘community' to defend. These ideas are central to the principle of international proletarian solidarity. Attitudes, like, for example, the ‘concern' over asylum seekers exploiting the NHS or the fear that Polish builders will force British builders' wages down, expressed by some British workers and regurgitated in the bourgeois press are a manifestation of bourgeois not working class consciousness. They are a virus in the body of the class. It's not surprising given the bourgeoisie's recent ideological campaign around the question of immigration and ‘national identity' that some of its ideas have found an echo in the working class. As Marx wrote in The German Ideology, "the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas". But just because the origin of these ideas may be recognisable, and sections of the class are receptive to them, this does not make them legitimate. Communists cannot make any concessions to the imagined ‘communities' of bourgeois ideology. The history of the workers' movement shows us that the real enemy has always been the capitalist class, not foreign workers.
Rather than worrying about how many Polish plumbers there are in the UK British workers should be more anxious about what the British state is planning to do. Faced with the deepening economic crisis the bourgeoisie will have to make more ‘tough decisions' over jobs, pay, pensions and public services as it struggles to offer any perspective for the future. As it begins its attack, Labour's official mask of liberal anti-racism will slip away to reveal the racism that lies at the heart of the British bourgeoisie. For over forty years it has exploited the question of race and immigration to divide and rule the working class while benefiting from cheap and ‘flexible' labour. Today's campaign around ‘citizenship' is just the latest example.
Certainly the bourgeoisie uses immigrant workers to cheapen the overall price of labour; it does the same thing by ‘relocating' industries to countries like India or China. But for the working class the answer to this can never be found by going along with the bourgeoisie's manipulations and divisions, but by uniting all workers together in a common struggle against attacks on the living and working conditions of all workers. And this is not a utopia. Despite all the bourgeois campaigns we have already seen examples of native and migrant workers struggling together, at, for example, Cottam power station in 2006 and in Liverpool during last year's postal strike. Since 2003 workers internationally have slowly begun to rediscover their combativity and as a consequence have also rediscovered the importance of solidarity across the artificial barriers created by the bourgeoisie: race, nation and ‘community'. It is in these (at the moment small) struggles where we see a real perspective for the future, a perspective imbued with a vision which is the antithesis of the bourgeois world of competing nations and ethnic groups: communism, the human community, a world without frontiers. Kino (28.2.08)