Racism and poverty in Britain

Yarls Wood Immigration Removal Centre

Some have seen the election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London as a victory against racism – The Guardian claimed: ‘His election shows British Muslims they can succeed against the odds’. The defeat of Zac Goldsmith’s racist election campaign is welcome, but what does the election of London’s first Muslim Mayor mean for the majority of Muslims, ethnic minorities and migrants in Britain? Tom Vickers reports.

We are witnessing a rapid rise in state-driven racism, with thousands locked up in immigration detention, tens of thousands of deportations every year, routine workplace immigration raids, ID checks at London tube stations and ever more punitive surveillance and restrictions on access to services and state support for anybody suspected of being a migrant. On 14 May the 2016 Immigration Act became law, further intensifying this attack.

Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) people are twice as likely as white people to be stopped and searched by the police, and black people 4.2 times more likely to be stopped. BME groups are over-represented at almost all stages of the criminal justice process, disproportionately targeted by the police, more likely to be imprisoned and likely to be imprisoned for longer than white British people. The disproportionate numbers of black people in British prisons are higher, relative to the general population, than in the United States.

State racism and speeches by capitalist politicians drive popular racism. In 2013/14, 47,571 racist incidents were reported to the police in England and Wales, averaging 130 incidents per day, and many more go unreported because people have no confidence that the police will do anything. Indeed, in many cases people reporting racist incidents are themselves victimised by the police.

Justifying the super-exploitation of oppressed countries

Britain is an imperialist power; racism is the expression of national oppression within an imperialist country. As FRFI has documented, British capitalism is heavily reliant on international investment and the higher rates of return from capital invested in oppressed countries compared to investments in Britain. This represents imperialist super-exploitation, achieved in part through lower wages, poorer conditions, weaker environmental controls, absence of health and safety and workers’ rights in oppressed countries – enforced when necessary by repressive governments supported by Britain. Tragedies like the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 expose the dangerous conditions and poverty wages that enable profits to be made by imperialist multinationals like Primark.

The super-exploitation of oppressed countries requires an international division of labour, separating the workers of oppressed and imperialist countries. Immigration controls and the associated repressive state apparatus are reinforced at an ideological level by racism. The vicious racism directed at Muslims is based on and used as a justification for Britain’s imperialist interventions in the Middle East, while portrayals of African countries as inherently corrupt cover up the imperialist plunder of the continent and are used to justify repeated interference. Racism gives international inequalities the appearance of being ‘natural’, rather than the result of relationships of control and exploitation.

The position of ethnic minorities in Britain

Migration from Britain’s former colonies after the Second World War formed the main basis for today’s BME population, and today more than 50% of people who defined themselves in the 2011 census as Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean or Black African were born in Britain.

In general, BME people in Britain are more likely to be subject to state repression, and less likely to benefit from state welfare. They are also more likely to be homeless, or to suffer from housing deprivation – in the case of Bangladeshi and Black African households, 63% and 75% more likely than white British households. There are persistent ethnic inequalities in access to work, job security and conditions, and concentrations of BME workers in low-paid and insecure sectors, such as social care, catering, food processing and agriculture.

Since the 1980s, BME sections of the working class have become polarised. While the majority of BME people born in Britain remain concentrated in poorer sections of the working class, a numerically significant middle class has emerged. Sadiq Khan – the bus driver’s son, who became a solicitor and then a career politician – epitomises this development.


State policies supporting multiculturalism have been part of a strategy to undermine black resistance movements, by offering a degree of cultural acceptance and economic mobility in exchange for political loyalty to British imperialism. As part of the same process, resources were granted for community projects and salaries for community leaders, on the condition that anti-racist, political demands were dropped in favour of narrowly-defined ‘ethnic’ interests. ‘Communities’ competing for resources replaced the earlier black politics based on solidarity against racism, which made common cause with liberation movements in oppressed countries. The result has been the creation of a middle class layer from within the established BME working class.

Exploiting migrant workers

New migration continues to play a vital role for capitalism. In 2004 eight former socialist countries in Eastern Europe joined the EU, followed by Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. They entered the EU in a position subordinate to the interests of the big European imperialist powers; this offered British capital access to a substantial new source of labour and is reflected in the treatment of migrants from these countries. These workers face systematic discrimination that is based on attributes such as accent and language rather than skin colour, but shares the same material basis in national oppression.

Initial controls on migrants from the new EU countries ended in 2011 and 2014, but have been replaced with regulations restricting access to benefits for all EU migrants. These restrictions are backed by the deportation of EU citizens who are found sleeping rough or otherwise without means of support.

Due to restricted access to benefits, EU migrants face severe pressure to accept whatever pay and conditions employers choose to offer, and to leave Britain if unemployed for more than a short period. This is ideal from the perspective of the capitalist because it removes the costs of reproducing the labour power of unemployed workers through welfare payments, and, since these migrants’ countries of origin are within Europe they remain close at hand if needed again in the future.

Poland has provided the largest number of EU migrants to Britain. In 2014/15, only 16.3% of Polish adults in Britain were classified as economically inactive, compared to 40.6% of the general population. 31.4% of Polish migrants in work were employed in ‘Elementary Occupations’, more than three times the percentage for the general population, and Polish workers’ median hourly pay was £7.94, compared to £10.81 for the general population. Research at UCL shows that EU migrants’ contributions to Britain’s public finances total £2bn each year, a massive transfer of wealth to Britain.

EU migration operates alongside other categories of migrant labour. In 2008 Labour introduced the Points-Based System for non-EU migrants, representing a new stage in the fine-tuning of immigration to the needs of British capital. Points were allocated based on qualifications, skills and competence in English, with a top tier in which ‘high skilled’ migrants from more middle class backgrounds, who tend to be from other imperialist countries, are granted greater rights, followed by workers with more limited rights, who are tied to specific employers. The bottom tier, ‘low skilled migrants’, was suspended as a result of the economic crisis, and has not been restored, given the availability of EU labour.

The tailoring of immigration controls to the needs of British capital has been further reinforced by imposing restrictions on migration routes that are not based on employment, particularly family reunification and asylum. The claim for asylum poses an implicit challenge to the attempt to make migration dependent on capitalists’ demand for labour, by claiming an absolute right to sanctuary. Furthermore, the growth in the number of refugees has been fuelled by a combination of aggressive neoliberal reform in oppressed countries and the many wars and covert interventions launched by imperialist states.

The impact of the crisis

The impact of the crisis on the BME working class has been mixed – it is not as clear-cut as in previous recessions, when black workers have uniformly been first to be sacked. Unemployment has risen more rapidly, particularly for young black men compared to young white men, but for some groups employment has risen. Partly this reflects the presence of newer arrivals, who in some sectors have been laid off much more rapidly than British workers whatever their ethnicity, and partly this reflects the growing numbers employed in part-time, temporary or otherwise insecure work.

The economic crisis has not removed the structural demand for migrant labour, even in areas of high and rising unemployment. Although there were indications of falling migration following the start of the crisis, and migrant employment fell significantly faster than among non-migrants overall, high levels of migrant employment in low-paid sectors such as care work and agriculture have been sustained.

The capitalist crisis has contributed to an increase in racist propaganda and restrictions on immigration. This is not just about limiting the influx of additional workers in a period of recession – stripping rights from workers on the basis of immigration status plays a role alongside austerity in enforcing wage cuts and poorer conditions. For example, the regulations limiting EU migrant workers’ access to benefits increase pressure on these workers to accept whatever pay and conditions are offered by employers.

The way forward

The British state has been very effective at dividing and neutralising resistance to racism. The creation of a substantial BME middle class since the 1980s has laid the basis for new forms of opportunism. One expression of this is the celebration of Sadiq Khan’s election despite his utterly reactionary politics. Others are turning to individualistic responses to racism, sometimes under the banner of ‘intersectionality’ – involving a focus on personal identity that does not address the material basis of racist oppression and so cannot offer a strategy to overturn that oppression. Instead this trend frequently focuses its attention on challenging individual expressions of racism in everyday life, diverting energy from the kind of co-ordinated, collective movement that would be needed to confront the British state. This trend adopts some of the language and symbolism of earlier black movements, whilst abandoning their revolutionary politics.

In recent years refugees facing immigration detention and migrants doing cleaning work in London have been at the forefront of struggle. FRFI supports these struggles, and stands for an approach to anti-racism that is based on revolutionary class politics. This approach acknowledges the particular forms of oppression and different conditions faced by different sections of the working class, within Britain and internationally, but exposes their common basis in the capitalist system, and the need for a co-ordinated struggle against the British state. To fight racism we must fight its root in the imperialist system, and to build a society free from racism we need to fight for socialism.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 251 June/July 2016


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