Cameron whips up immigration fears to divide movement against austerity

Hannah Sell, Socialist Party deputy general secretary

The Con-Dem government grows more unpopular by the day. Endless austerity is combined with falling living standards, rising unemployment, and no prospect of a return to economic growth.

If anger at austerity was harnessed into a mass, united movement the Con-Dems could be forced to call a general election within months.

Tory Prime Minister David Cameron knows this. Desperate to creep up a few points in the opinion polls, under pressure from the Eastleigh byelection result of right-wing nationalist Ukip, Cameron is attempting to tap into many workers’ concerns about the potential consequences of increased immigration. This is an attempt to divide the movement against austerity.

The trade union movement needs to respond by launching a serious united struggle – starting with a 24-hour general strike – against those who are really responsible for the misery we face; this government of millionaires and the capitalist system it defends.

Trade unions must warn that the Con-Dems will attempt to use limiting access to public services for immigrants as the thin end of the wedge to attack universal access to essential services and benefits.

However, the trade union movement also has a duty to answer the fears of some workers about increased immigration.

Over the last decade there has been a rapid increase in the number of people, mainly from other parts of the EU, who have come to Britain to live and work.

This is a major factor in the increase of around two million in Britain’s population in the last five years.

A small minority of new arrivals in Britain move to wealthy areas like Kensington and Chelsea – but they are almost all foreign fat cats and Cameron is more than happy to hobnob with them.

The vast majority of new arrivals, however, join the ranks of the poorest sections of the working class.

Increased population density has overwhelmingly taken place in working class communities with already over-stretched public services and over-crowded housing.

Against this background it is inevitable that tensions exist about who does, and does not, get the limited public services that are available.


It is on the question of housing that these tensions are particularly acute. By declaring that EU immigrants are to be kept off housing waiting lists for at least two years, Cameron is encouraging the idea that people from other countries are taking a disproportionately large share of social housing, and that this is causing the current acute housing crisis, where over five million people are on the waiting lists.

Is this true? Increased population has increased demand for social housing, but it is the complete absence of any other option for millions of people born in Britain that is the central reason for the increase in numbers wanting a council house or flat.

Cameron is attempting to shift the blame for the housing crisis away from its primary cause; the profit-driven housing policies of current and previous governments.

House prices have gone up 40 times since 1971 whereas prices in general have gone up tenfold while wages have mostly stagnated.

This means home ownership is now out of reach for the majority. At the same time rents in the extortionate private rented sector have increased by 86%.

But social housing is in incredibly short supply. Twenty years ago there were more than five million council homes, now there is barely half that number.

If the Con-Dems get their way even these will have their rents raised to extortionate ‘market’ levels.


New Labour in government also continued the previous Tory governments’ policies, selling off even more council houses than Thatcher. A puny 2,019 council houses were built during New Labour’s entire period in government, an average of 400 houses a year!

Contrast this to 5,000 council houses – all with front and back gardens – that just one Labour council – in Liverpool from 1983-87 – was able to build when it stood on a socialist programme.

Labour leader Ed Miliband has stated that Labour ‘got it wrong’ on immigration, but why doesn’t he admit that Labour ‘got it wrong’ on housing? Labour would be elected on a landslide if Miliband was to pledge that the next Labour government would carry out a mass council house-building programme, to create high-quality, genuinely affordable, secure housing for the majority and to provide work for unemployed construction workers on union rates of pay.

This is not unprecedented – from 1948 to 1954 the Labour and Tory governments built an average of 240,000 council houses a year.

However, Labour today, wedded to big business, will never implement such a demand. The Socialist Party calls for the organised workers’ movement, in the form of the trade unions, to launch a mass campaign to defend and expand council housing.

This could unite existing tenants and the five million people on waiting lists by demanding decent housing for all, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.

At the same time we recognise that, particularly given the current lack of supply, the lack of an open, democratic and accountable system of allocations, which would be accepted by most workers, increases anger and suspicion that housing is being allocated unfairly.

Cameron is whipping up this feeling in relation to migrants from other EU countries, who are in fact already only allowed to apply for social housing if they are currently in work, or have been in continuous work for at least the previous 12 months.

And that is only for the right to apply – the current acute shortage means that the vast majority of applicants for social housing languish indefinitely on a waiting list.

Statistics indicate that only 0.9% of social housing allocations have gone to workers from Eastern Europe.

This is largely because, to actually get social housing, particularly in London and other areas with a severe housing shortage, it is usually necessary to not only be homeless, but also in priority need – that is pregnant, with dependent children, or vulnerable because of old age or illness.

The mainly young economic migrants from EU countries rarely qualify. Nonetheless, there are of course cases where homeless families who are new to an area, sometimes refugees fleeing war, famine and persecution, are housed above families living in severely over-crowded conditions that have been on the waiting list for many years.

While it is the extreme lack of council housing which is the root cause, leading to a choice between housing the homeless and the ‘merely’ desperate, this inevitably creates resentment among those who do not get council housing against those who do.

The Socialist Party believes that the right of families to be housed in the same community is an important one.

The policies of this government and Labour councils are annihilating this right; forcing desperate families to move hundreds of miles from family and friends for social housing.

House building

The struggle to achieve it has to be linked to both the fight for a mass council house-building programme and for the democratic control of the allocation system.

Decisions should be taken on the basis of need, including the right to be housed near relatives and friends, not by council officials, however, but by elected representatives of local community organisations, including tenants associations, trade unions, elected councillors and other community campaigns.

The workers’ movement needs to take the same kind of class approach to other aspects of the government’s attempts to increase divisions between immigrant and non-immigrant workers which are, unfortunately, being echoed by Labour.

The Tories hypocritically claim that immigration is undermining ‘the British way of life’ but it is the government’s driving down of workers’ living standards that will ruin our way of life unless we fight back.

Miliband has been forced to recognise belatedly that over the last decade big business in Britain used super-exploited migrant workers to lower wages for all workers.

His proposals to prosecute more employers who pay less than the minimum wage are welcome. There have only been seven prosecutions since it was introduced 14 years ago, and for the first ten years of New Labour government not a single successful prosecution took place!

Miliband should also pledge immediately to increase the minimum wage – to at least £8 an hour – a living wage rather than starvation rations. This would lift millions out of the benefit trap.

United struggle needed

But if Miliband was serious about stopping the race to the bottom he would be calling for all workers – both non-migrants and migrants – to join a trade union and organise together to win decent pay and conditions.

This is the only way to effectively combat the employers’ relentless attempts to drive down the wages of all workers.

Instead Miliband, like Blair and Brown before him, has opposed workers striking to defend their living conditions and has made no pledge to repeal Britain’s vicious anti-trade union laws.

Unfortunately there is no possibility of Labour adopting even these minimal policies. Under Miliband, as under Blair and Brown, Labour remains a party wedded to capitalism.

Miliband is not willing to even vote against slave labour Workfare schemes. Promising to reverse the Tory-Lib Dem cuts is too much for him to stomach.

That is why the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is beginning to lay the foundations for the creation of a powerful electoral voice for working class people.

TUSC brings together trade unionists, including the transport workers’ union, the RMT, and socialists, including the Socialist Party.

TUSC stands in elections in opposition to all cuts in public services, and to fight for the kind of policies outlined in this article.

Socialists stand for workers’ unity, explaining that the only way to effectively prevent big business’s attempts to drive down wages is by uniting workers – non-migrant and migrant – to fight for everyone to get decent pay and conditions.