Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Labour's Immigration Policy Is A Mess - Part 1

Labour's immigration policy is a mess. It has been a mess for the last sixty years. It was not always so. In 1905, the TUC held its annual congress here in Stoke. It was an important congress, because it was the congress that passed all of the motions that led to the setting up of the Labour Party by the trades unions. Leading members of those trades unions were also leading members of the ILP, and some of the first Labour MP's. President of the TUC in 1905 was James Sexton, who was also a prominent member of the ILP, Labour candidate in Toxteth in 1905, and later Labour MP for St Helens between 1918-31. One of the other main items discussed at the 1905 Congress was the Aliens Bill, the first time that immigration controls were introduced in Britain. The purpose was to stop the immigration of persecuted Jews from Eastern Europe. The unions and Labour politicians were unreservedly opposed to the Bill.

Sexton, speaking at the TUC in Hanley Town Hall, said of the Aliens Bill, it was being used by the government as an “appeal to stupid blind prejudice” to gain votes at the next election. “It is claimed,” he said, “that this Bill will relieve sweated workpeople by prohibiting the introduction of cheap labour from other countries. The political dishonesty of the measure needs no other argument than the fact that while the promoters profess to shut out undesirables from the UK in order to help the British workman here, they rushed a measure through to introduce the most undesirable kind of cheap labour into South Africa.”

The background to the Bill would be familiar to anyone today. It was the result of widespread moral panic drummed up by the media of the time. As today, they were aided and abetted not only by right-wing Tory politicians, but also by right-wing extra parliamentary forces. In 1905, that took the form of The British Brothers League, which was formed in 1902, by Captain William Stanley Shaw under the slogan “England for the English”. The aim, as with later fascist organisations, was to create a paramilitary organisation. The Brothers League quickly made alliances with right-wing Tories such as the MP major Evans-Gordon, and Howard Vincent MP.

The media campaign against immigrants of the time was written in the same kind of scurrilous tones that can be found in the pages of the gutter press such as the Daily Express and Daily Mail today, and, of course, the Daily Mail, in the 1930's not only supported fascists like Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, but supported those British fascists like Moseley that themselves had their roots in the anti-semitic swamp that the British Brothers League had created in the East End of London earlier.

In 1905, the TUC and Labour leaders set themselves clearly against this nationalistic, racist and anti-semitic vomit. Not only did they oppose the Aliens Bill, but they also set themselves clearly against that other manifestation of nationalism and racism of the time, purveyed by the Tories, the attempt to foist protectionism on the working-class. 

This policy, Sexton said, was as unstable as when it was practised by Joseph in the land of the Pharaohs. “Protection,” he said, “will but bind our fetters closer and give the monopolist greater advantages than ever.” But, echoing the arguments Marx and Engels had made 60 years earlier  Sexton did not simply ally himself with the arguments put forward by the Liberals in favour of Free Trade either. Marx came down on the side of Free Trade because, it was the more mature, more rational policy for industrial capital to adopt, and thereby was more revolutionary, because it drove more quickly to the heightening of the contradictions inherent within Capitalism. Sexton argued that “Free trade could only be developed in the true sense of the word when the freedom of produce has been secured, not for the benefit of the few, but for the benefit of all mankind…” 

Later, in a discussion on Free Trade, John Ward of the navvies union, and Labour candidate for Stoke proposed the following resolution.

“That in the opinion of this Congress any departure from the principles of Free Trade would be detrimental to the interests of the working classes on whom the burdens of Protection would press most heavily, and injurious to the nation as a whole; that protective duties by increasing the cost of people’s necessaries are unjust in incidence and economically unsound, subsidising capital at the expense of labour; and that a system of preference or retaliation by creating cause for dispute with other countries would be a hindrance to international progress and peace.”

In his opinion “they would always have the poverty problem so long as there was a private ownership in land and capital.” (Applause).

Mr. Albert Stanley (Cannock Chase Miners) seconding the motion said that after the repeal of the Corn Laws, millions of loaves of bread had found their way into workers homes. Pete Curran (Gasworkers Association London) supporting the motion said, “What they wanted to do was to join hands with their comrades across the seas and instead of building up walls, they wanted to break down existing walls.” (Applause). The motion was carried with 1,253,000 for and only 26,000 against. The result was received with great acclamation.

(For further details of the 1905 TUC Congress, See My blog post 1905 - Reform and Revolution)

I will look further at how Labour and the Trades Unions internationalist position opposed attempts to divide workers by nationalistic calls for immigration and import controls in the next part.

Forward To Part 2

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