“Controls on Immigration.” These words, written on Britain’s Labour Party mugs, wreaked havoc in the 2015 general election. The Twitter storm that followed revealed the taboo surrounding immigration in leftist parties. For many supporters, anti-immigration positions have no place in social-left parties, yet it is becoming clear that the left must revise its stances on immigration to ensure future political survival.
In the 1980s, the social left bartered its Marxist vision of free-market liberalism in exchange for multiculturalism, finding a new fight to protect society’s weakest. Yet from Labour in Britain to the left in Germany, the social left needs to have a new debate on immigration before it loses its working class base.
In the postwar era, the left divided society between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The campaigns of socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn have demonstrated how this discourse never died. Yet their leftist ancestors had a difference. Marx claimed immigrants were capitalism’s “army of reserve,” damaging local classes as a whole. This came true when Irish immigrants in England put massive downward pressure on the wages of workers, causing Englanders to turn against those same poor immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s.
Yet in the 1980s, the communist bloc fell. A new generation of leftists rose from its ashes. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan enacted deregulation while antiquating the old class struggle. The discourse changed and a new “second left” crushed the old “hard left” in electoral contests. In England, the Labour Party abandoned the class struggle narrative to focus on a new grievance narrative no longer concerning a white factory worker: an immigrant shopkeeper attacked for his religion or ethnicity. European societies became more tolerant and culturally rich, and leftist parties embraced immigration as being to their benefit.
Many studies support the claim that immigration makes countries financially richer. Immigrants are healthier, use fewer benefits than natives and have a higher uptake in jobs. However, what fewer have noticed is the veracity of Marx’s 19th century claim: Immigration lowers working class wages. A study of the Federal Bank of Boston demonstrated that an increase of 1 percent of the migrant share in low-wage sector decreases wages by 0.5 percent. In a sector with a 20 percent share of migrants, like what occured in 1990s London, a small effect becomes dramatic.
While the electoral success of the left stemmed from embracing immigration, its future cannot rest on its current stance. In 2012, Terra Nova, a French think tank, urged the socialist party to abandon its working class base for a new electorate, making obvious a three-decadeslong strategy. A coalition of ethnic and sexual minorities and young professionals replaced the working classes, once the party’s backbone. These are the majorities that elected President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande.
Across Europe, the parties affiliated with social-liberal dogma are in shambles. Eviscerated in Austrian elections, humiliated in Britain and endangered in France, the left cannot claim to win back the 43 percent of registered factory workers who voted for the National Front in 2015 without a collected debate and revisiting of immigration and its burden on the working class.
Abandoned by the “third way” left, it was native workers and industrialists who voted massively for Brexit. Terrified by immigration, they are the Trumpeters of Europe, the British factory workers of Marx. Multicultural tolerance will not win that vote back, yet clear social protection and revisited immigration policy could.
Francois Valentin is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Fault Lines appears every other Friday.
Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.