In both the US and UK, the political commentariat are gripped by two related phenomena: Brexit and Trump. It is now generally accepted that the rise of Trump and the vote for Brexit were driven largely by two factors. The first was anger at the unequal nature of modern capitalism, the second was fear of migrants, refugees, and the general ‘other’.This latter factor has been something that both the labour movement and wider political left in the UK and the US have struggled to combat.
Indeed, it can be argued that mainstream labour, social democratic, and left-wing parties have largely capitulated to the demands of the populist right and its anti-migrant stances. However, such rhetoric and politics are not a new phenomenon on the political left. Whilst it can be said that many younger leftists tend to embrace immigration (as illustrated by the calls to keep free movement or abolish ICE), the so-called ‘old guard’ and elected politicians have become either increasingly sceptical of migrants or have always been hostile towards them.
Solidarity, Friend (Unless You’re Not From Here)
The British Labour Party has always had something of a mixed relationship with migrants. Whilst leaders such as Tony Blair were initially welcoming of migrants from the so-called ‘Eastern European’ countries, the tone became much more hostile following Blair’s premiership in the comments of other party leaders such as Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband.
Indeed, Miliband was rather infamous for a mug the party sold that argued that immigration restrictions were in keeping with ‘proper’ Labour values. He was rightly criticised by many of the more left-leaning members of the party who saw the mug and Miliband’s further comments on migrants, which painted them as job stealers, as cynical, heartless electioneering. It was this wing of the party who would go on to help Jeremy Corbyn become the party’s current leader. Initially, there was much furore about Corbyn. Whilst I had many issues with his generally protectionist, nationalistic economic views, his views on immigration seemed to be much more positive than his predecessors.
Hopes of Corbyn being more open to migration were dashed however following the Brexit referendum and subsequent vote to leave the European Union on June 23rd 2016. In an act no less cynical and heartless than that of his predecessors, Corbyn claimed that EU free movement was “destroying working conditions” and that a Labour government would stop the “importation of cheap labour.” Finally, Labour recently announced that it would be firmly seeking to end free movement of people and labour from the EU into the UK in favour of ‘state-managed migration’. Besides the fact that the state cannot “manage” migration, such a move is an insult not simply to the Labour activists who campaigned to keep free movement but also to the foreign workers, students, and families Labour claimed to ‘stand in solidarity’ with.
The wider left and union movement also has form here. For example, the UK Firefighter’s Union representative Paul Embery has also called for the party to end free movement of people. Again, the same old, tired cliches are trotted out by Embery; he argues that both EU free movement, as well as more generally open borders, harms and “betrays” the working class by lowering wages (in spite of evidence to the contrary). Members of the wider centre-left such continuity Social Democratic Party (SDP) have also sympathised with this, claiming that all migration into the UK must be managed and capped at under 100,000 people per year lest the “traditional white working class” be purged from existence.
Life, Liberty, Happiness (Unless You’re Not From Here)
This sort of rhetoric is also present on the other side of the pond as it were (albeit in seemingly quieter and less frequent outbursts). Indeed, many socialists, left-libertarians, and anarchists have been amongst the most vocal individuals calling for the dismantling of the despicable organisation known as ICE and the opening of borders around the globe.
However, whilst many younger leftists are calling for the demolition of ICE and border restrictions, the ‘heroes’ they look up to seem to think otherwise. Many see Bernie Sanders for example as a progressive darling who wants everyone, no matter their class or background, to be happy. But, as noted by fellow C4SS contributor and coordinator Cory Massimino, Bernie’s language surrounding open borders and immigration more generally stands in direct opposition to his wish for the poor to be treated more justly.
In fact, Sanders has long-standing form when it comes to peddling in anti-migrant narratives. Reason magazine noted that whilst Sanders tried to position himself as the kinder, gentler candidate in the race for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, his opposition to the guest worker programme showed he was anything but, with Sanders commenting as far back as 2007 that he “didn’t understand” why the US needed to accept “millions of guest-workers” who in his eyes would lower wages and take jobs. Also, when asked by Vox Media’s Ezra Klein about whether open borders would be a good idea, Sanders responded by stating that open borders were a “Koch Brothers proposal” that would lead to the importation of cheap labour and the lowering of wages for everyone.
These and Sanders’ previous comments are, much like those of his English counterparts, classic anti-immigrant cliches that have been repeatedly debunked. Indeed, the opening of borders globally would double the world’s GDP and vastly diversify the economies of nations around the world. Far from destroying the notion of the nation-state, a more open US immigration system would actually solidify it through increasing economic competitiveness and making the country as a whole much more prosperous.
There is nothing new to these anti-migrant narratives being peddled by many on the left. You could argue that as soon as the USSR entered into the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that the notion of a ‘red-brown’ alliance would forever endure in left-wing circles at the expense of migrants, refugees, and minorities. What is new, however (not to mention worrying) is the near total capitulation to and endorsement of anti-migrant narratives by both liberal and leftist officials, all in pursuit of electoral power.
The left needs to stand up alongside libertarians, anarchists, and Georgists to challenge these narratives; otherwise, their claim of standing for social justice is bogus and nothing more than a phrase deployed to gain power at the expense of the migrants and refugees they claim to support.