Jack O'Neill

Jack O'Neill

How We Talk About Immigration

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Immigration continues to be identified as a “pressing concern” by media commentators and policy makers, with surveys showing most Brits have a negative view of it. Socialists tend to have a stock number of responses to this, pointing statistical evidence and redirecting blame to politicians. However, Jack O’Neill argues this is insufficient – we need to directly address the concept of ownership itself to dissuade people’s concerns…

The far right’s divide and conquer tactics are visible for all to see when they demonstrate on the streets, a characteristic blend of national flags, racist chants and banners and Nazi salutes. They show themselves up time and time again. It was therefore heartening to see the many strains of the anti-fascist movement organising in unique yet co-ordinated ways to block the recent march by the Democratic Football Lads Alliance in London recently. The right pose an obvious threat when they march and it’s important that action like that conducted in London is taken wherever possible. When it comes to the confrontation on the streets, we can (and do) win. However, there are other areas the far right have made headway where it’s more difficult to combat them.

Right wing discourse around immigration has become mainstream – there’s no two ways about it. This is in no small part due to Britain’s flagging print media, which relies so heavily on creating minor moral panics and pitting working class folk against one another to boost sales and promote their owners’ world view. On the left we must be careful about how we respond to the right wing narrative about immigration’s impact on Britain. Every time we encounter family, friends and acquaintances regurgitating the myth that immigrants are taking houses from the British homeless or jobs from British people, we must recognise this is an opportunity to flip that person and introduce them to socialist ideas. We just need to recognise how to do it.

The idea immigration has a negative effect on any given country, particularly the UK, has long been debunked. In the public sphere, people don’t tend to profess anti-immigration sentiment in this manner (“I’m not against those who’ve contributed, but I think we need to stop more coming in”). What is a commonly held belief, though, is that immigration has a negative effect on jobs and housing availability. I personally know many people who readily believe this narrative and it’s easy to see why.

Rhetorically, it makes eminent sense and can be reduced to a simplistic sound bite: more people come into this country, they increase demand for housing, which means less housing for so called indigenous people. These claims are often motivated by a deeply held sense of ownership. The person feels aggrieved that one of “our” houses is going to “them”. It’s where we as socialists have an opportunity to take control of the conversation. It’s not a moment for awkward head nodding but political education, which can actually often dissuade fears.

We’re often too quick to lazily write of people with these views as racist or uneducated. Alternatively, and just as uselessly, we might reply that immigrant bring a net economic benefit to Britain. This again misses the point – we’re not trying to win over economists but people with similar lived experiences to our own. Another common argument we make is that it’s not the fault of the immigrants there’s a housing shortage but the fault of the government. This is of course true, but it again doesn’t win sceptics over. Why? Because it again misses the point. The opportunity to flip a person in this situation lies within the sense of ownership they feel and nowhere else.

We need to emphasise that any sense of ownership in this situation is misplaced. Working class people don’t have control over council housing. We don’t have control over house prices. We don’t have control over rents. We don’t have the ability to replenish council stock. Our agency is extremely limited because we don’t control the material conditions of the housing market, which has seen as many boom and bust cycles as any other free market. It’s precisely this area we need to exploit in this debate.

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When someone from abroad moves into a house in our community, it’s not one of our house they’re taking because we don’t have control over these homes or these communities. It’s imperative people our sparring partner recognises that just as we lack control and ownership, so does the family that has moved from abroad to down the street. It’s not the migrant who’s denied them ownership of that house; it’s the capitalist class.

There’s only way to go about changing the fact we lack control over any given aspect of our lives: we organise ourselves. It’s not done easily and takes many challenging and sometimes tedious conversations, but it’s up to every socialist to take on this role. In this particular case, we need to exploit the nationalist interpretation of “ownership” and reframe it through a Marxist lens. An abstract, imagined sense of collective ownership informed by a geographic constituency isn’t the same as genuinely holding the levers of power.

I’ve encountered this sense of misdirection in day-to-day activism. A good example came when I was door knocking for Living Rent, my tenants union, in a Glasgow Housing Association Estate as we attempted to garner support against the Serco evictions. One door I knocked was answered by an old school skinhead, which wasn’t obvious just from his shaved head but from the word “SKINHEAD” being inked across the back of it. He didn’t want to entertain the idea asylum seekers should be living in “our houses” when “so many Scots lie homeless on the streets”. We kept chatting, though, and it emerged he’d been homeless himself and gone through the housing system. He knew all about waiting lists and the difficulty of getting off the streets.

He, like most people, wasn’t interested in talking about the net contribution of migrants to the economy. He didn’t care who was in government. But when we introduced the idea we have no control over housing and there were no houses owned directly by Glasgow City Council he started to engage. He agreed working class folk need control over their own lives, that if we had control of housing in this country we’d ensure everyone had a home. He even agreed that if Serco could evict asylum seekers there was nothing stopping working class Scots born here from being evicted either. Your man went from “no, tough luck, evict them” to asking for leaflets, thanking us and promising to look into the matter further.

The truth is we can’t shy from these debates. If we do, it shows a willingness to cede the narrative to the right. When it comes to immigration, the centre ground of public opinion is too far in that direction, and we need to shift it back. To do so requires us to convince ordinary people who hold what they regard as common sense yet racially charged ideas of community and ownership to re-examine their material conditions and lived experiences. By bringing them to a point where they recognise their affinity with “them” who they have so much in common with, we redraw the lines of commonality. It’s the haves v the have-nots, and yes, we do need to take back what’s rightfully ours.


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