Billy Hayes, Communication Workers Union General Secretary, writes about why immigration and multi-culturalism is important to British society.
It is well understood in the trade unions today, that the economic policy of the coalition government is a major assault upon working class living standards. Correctly, this has led the majority of trade unions to organise in opposition, in some manner or another, to this policy.
Unfortunately, what is not so well understood is that the social policy of the same government is an equally devastating attack upon the working class. In particular, David Cameron's recent statements concerning multi-culturalism and the Muslim community, and immigrants, represents the social corollary of a reactionary economic policy. If you are going to inflict the biggest reduction in living standards since 1945, then a good dose of racism, Islamaphobia and xenophobia helps to divide the opposition.
As usual, the Conservatives demonstrate a degree of intelligence in the manner in which they promote their policy. David Cameron, whilst steering public opinion towards respectable forms of Islamaphobia, also tacks back by insisting that Islam is a good religion, and Muslims are generally peaceful. But it is evident that the suggestion that Muslims have to accept "our" values places them in total as a problem for the rest of society.
Of course, these prejudices are not created by a few political speeches. A basic audit of British history would demonstrate that for hundreds of years, British policy was premised on the subjugation of large parts of humanity. If you are going to enslave, colonise, or super exploit people, then defining these people as inferior rationalises and justifies the abuse.
Again, Cameron displays the confidence that comes from being part of a party and class which was prominent throughout those centuries. He is able to issue an apology on behalf of the government for the murder of Irish people on Bloody Sunday in Derry. Further, he even lets it drop before journalists that previous British governments were responsible for many of the current problems in the world. Yet the dominant discourse, as outlined in his Munich speech, is to provide aid and comfort to Islamaphobia, and a return to narrow British nationalism.
There is a long tradition of institutionalised racism in British society. Naively perhaps, after the murder to Stephen Lawrence and the findings of the Macpherson Inquiry, many of us dared to believe that the lesson had been learnt and systematic progress was possible.
But constant vigilance is the custodian of liberty. It has only taken the return of the Tory led coalition government to demonstrate how fragile progress has been in the fight against such racism.
The price to be paid for the promotion of racism, Islamaphobia and anti-immigrant prejudices is not just to be measured in the spread of bigotry, attacks on Muslims, and abusive attitudes to immigrant workers. It is also deeply damaging to the economic development of our society.
In a globalised economy, there is a strong bonus for ethnically diverse nations. Between nations, those will benefit who are familiar with the history and makeup of other nations, able to address them directly in their own language and offer a kindred face in trade, exchange and negotiations. Multi-cultural Britain has a competitive advantage in the inter-connected world.
Attempts to suppress, or ignore, the many language and social skills of our population will have the result of isolating our economy from the most dynamics parts of the world economy. The fact is that we have a pool of talent in our population who can directly engage us with markets and market makers in China and India.
The Trade Unions have a special responsibility to ensure this element of the debate around multi-culturalism is not lost. The more open connections to the world economy, gives the government the potential to address some of our traditional problems of under investment in the productive economy and over reliance upon the City of London and the financial sector. All this means new jobs and improved welfare services.
A free movement of people and goods means an introduction of more dynamic forces into our economy. Instead of City short-termism, inward investors will seek long term commitments if we provide an environment which welcomes the innovation that diversity brings.
Alongside this, immigrants provide a wide variety of advantages especially in the stimulation of domestic economic activity. The economist Philippe Legrain states, in his book "Aftershock", immigrants are twice as likely to starts a new business as people born in Britain. A government study found that in 2006, immigration's net contributions to GDP was to add £6 billion to annual growth.
Inward immigration is absolutely necessary. Even the coalition government is forced to recognise this, at the same time as it stokes up popular prejudice against migrants. In a recent article, the former Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema made the case for net immigration. Today there are 333 million Europeans, but with a present, and still falling, average birth rate, this number would shrink to 242 million in the next 40 years. He estimated that 30 million newcomers will be needed if the collapse of EU living standards is to be avoided. He writes "immigrants are an asset, not a danger."
It is then most disturbing, that there is a growing trend inside the Labour movement to also attack multi-culturalism. Not only is this damaging to Britain's ethnic minority communities, and a threat to our economic progress. But should this trend dominate the Labour leadership, then it is much less likely that there will be a return of a Labour government in the near future.
The most notable expression of this trend appears to be from the advocates of Blue Labour. In the May 2011 edition of Progress, an interview was conducted with Maurice Glasman, who is prominently associated with Blue Labour. "But it is immigration and multi-culturalism which has become the big monster that we don't like to talk about." claims Glasman. Mass immigration under Labour he believes, serves to "act as an unofficial wages policy." The party's position, Glasman contends, occupied a "weird space where we thought that a real assault on the wage levels of English workers was a positive good." He also charges the last government with having acted in a "very supercilious, high handed way: there was no public discussion of immigration and its benefits. There was no election that was fought on that basis. In fact there was a very, very hard rhetoric combined with a very loose policy going on. Labour lied to people about the extent of immigration and the extend of illegal immigration and there has been a massive rupture of trust."
Since Enoch Powell, it has been a staple of British political life that politicians will claim to be breaking a taboo by speaking out against immigration. Nothing reveals the lack of innovative thinking more than Glasman invoking this stale cliché.
Further, Glasman is promoting a myth by suggesting that immigration lowers wages. Government research found that a 1% increase in the rate of immigrants leads to an increase of up to 0.4% in average earnings. The Low Pay Commission found that between 1997 and 2005, immigrants made a positive contribution to the average wage increase experienced by non-immigrant workers.
It takes a wilful myopia to see Glasman as an original political thinker. He continues: "We have essentially devalued our language by making things the opposite of what they mean, and losing "fairness" - which we did at the last election - was actually a catastrophe for us because when we said "fairness" people thought we meant privilege, privilege for the new, privilege for people who don't work, everything calculated on a need and nothing done on desert."
It is certainly a devaluation of language to suggest that unemployment is a "privilege," or that Social Services are biased towards migrants and asylum seekers. There is no evidence offered for this, because there is none.
Glasman takes his reactionary analysis to a logical point: "Glasman calls on progressives to recognise their "responsibility for the generation of far right populism," currently manifested in the growth of the English Defence League." You consider yourself so opposed that you don't want to talk to them, don't want to engage with them, you don't want anybody with views like that anywhere near the party. This, he believes, is to ignore "a massive hate and rage against us" from working class people who have always been true to Labour." The solution, he says, is "to build a party that brokers a common good, that involves those people who support the EDL within our party. Not dominant in the party, not setting the tone of the party, but just a reconnection with those people that we can represent a better life for them, because that's what they want." That process begins, argues Glasman, by understanding that "working class men can't really speak at Labour Party meetings about what causes them grief, concerns about their family, concerns about immigration, love of country, without being falsely stereotyped as sexist, racist/nationalist."
Glasman obviously isn't above a few stereotypes of his own. He ignores the many white workers who have joined with the black community and participated in the many anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles that have taken place since 1945. Nor does it occur to him just how integrated a multi-cultural society is. Recent ONS figures show that ethnic minorities now make up nearly one in six of the population of England and Wales. Notably, he has not registered that there is a wide variety of cross-community marriage and reproduction with over a million people from such mixed marriages. It is much simpler for him to stick with the myth of white, male, working class political impotence.
This is where a rather threadbare and outdated reactionary rhetoric slides into the irresponsible and dangerous. The English Defence League is a violently Islamaphobic organisation with a fast growing record of physical attacks, hate speech and racist chants. It is not a radical stance to fail to so identify a pogromist organisation - it is an irresponsible stance.
Further, it is dangerous insofar as it concedes a point where there is only a prejudice. In the New Statesman's survey, published February 2010, 99% of British Muslims were found to believe that attacks in which civilians are the targets are not morally justifiable. 77% of Muslims strongly associated with this country, this is despite the fact that Muslims are disadvantaged on about every social measure in British society. The suggestion that EDL supporters are welcome in the Labour Party is a suggestion that Muslims are not.
The defence of multi-cultural Britain is also a defence of the Trade Union and Labour Movement which reflect, often imperfectly and unproportionally, that society.
The BNP is explicit in wanting an all white Britain. The EDL is explicit in wanting to suppress Muslims. It is the duty of the Trade Unions to explicitly stand up against these organisation, giving not an inch to their racism, Islamaphobia, or violent and intimidating activity.
The Trade Unions must continue to support anti-fascist campaigns and organisations like Unite Against Fascism. It is only through consistent campaigning that we will isolate these new fascists and pogromists. Those politicians who draw them into the wider body of society by attacking multi-culturalism are doing a terrible disservice to our society.
Above all, they are unnecessarily gambling with the security of Britain's black communities, ethnic minorities, and particularly Britain's Muslim community. But they are also damaging our economic position, with the inevitable impact upon general living standards.
We must defend multi-culturalism. Not just because it is phenomenally creative in social, cultural, scientific and artistic terms. But also because it is one of the most powerful forces of production in the globalised economy.
This article is taken from the forthcoming book "Defending multiculturalism", edited by Hassan Mahamdallie. The book is due to be published in late summer.
Article taken from LabourList.org