Politicians talk tough on immigration but fail to recognise Britain’s underlying demand for a highly exploitable workforce.
Almost 40 years after Enoch Powell delivered his anti-immigrant ‘rivers of blood’ speech, Britain is still unable to move beyond his grim legacy. In recent weeks, we have returned once more to the old paradigm he popularised – immigrants are a burden on public services, their numbers are too high and an elite conspiracy exists to conceal this reality from the populace.
In his first major speech on the subject, David Cameron presented a picture in which the economic benefits of migration are outweighed by the impact on public services, transport and housing. ‘Immigration is too high,’ he said, and the Conservatives plan to lower it by setting annual limits on non-EU (ie predominantly non-White) economic migration, restricting the migration rights of newer EU citizens from south-eastern Europe and the creation of a new border police force. Labour, on the other hand, is to establish a points system for migrant workers and to police access to public services with biometric identity cards which, from next year, will be compulsory for foreign nationals resident in the UK.
What is striking in this so-called debate on immigration is the common ground that both parties share. The logic of both programmes is the same – to reduce the numbers of migrants through increasing criminalisation of the unwanted. Moreover, both parties refuse to acknowledge the real driving forces of increased migration over the last decade: the ongoing casualisation of Britain’s labour market, as well as the devastation inflicted on poorer countries by neoliberal globalisation. Since the 1990s, the lower levels of Britain’s economy have became increasingly centred on short-term, non-binding, sub-contracted workforces which can be hired and fired at will and are constantly threatened with replacement by cheaper labour from elsewhere. This neoliberal transformation of Britain’s labour market, which leads to increased demand for rightless migrant workers to exploit, occurred at the same time as free market globalisation generated the conditions for large-scale emigration from many regions of the world, throwing up the migrant surplus population’ that post-industrial economies like Britain now need.
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