Stop the anti-immigrant rot

There is growing pong around the Labour Party. I am talking about the reek of foreigner-bashing.

For some time now Labour’s main plank of housing policy has consisted of banging the anti-foreigner drum. In July last year the party’s housing spokesperson Phil Twyford notoriously came out with a deliberate, racist, anti-Chinese outburst when he claimed, on the basis of no more than alleged Chinese-sounding surnames, that 40% of Auckland house-buyers were Chinese. To maintain any honour in the Labour Party, Twyford should have been disciplined and sacked. The opposite has happened. Not only has Twyford kept the housing portfolio, but he has been promoted to No. 4 in Labour’s caucus. Labour continues to blame foreign speculators for house prices being beyond the reach of “hard-working Kiwis.” Labour issued a press release by Twyford on 26 April under the headline ‘Government should ban foreign speculators’. Then on 29 April Twyford followed up with another press release calling on banks not to lend to non-resident buyers.

There is a genuine problem with speculators, ie buy-to-let housing landlords, but they are almost entirely New Zealand citizens. Labour does not target these real speculators. In fact it has softened its position on this front. For the 2014 general election Labour had a capital gains tax policy specifically designed to make investment in the profitable residential lettings business less attractive. Labour has dropped this progressive policy in its drift to the right. The historic social democratic solution to housing problems was for the state to build thousands of homes for affordable rent. This straightforward policy is needed today, but it is not the modern Labour Party’s policy by a long chalk.

Labour’s manufactured hysteria over alleged foreign speculators buying up residential and rural property is bad enough, but the rot is spreading, and dangerously. In recent months Andrew Little and even the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) have started to blame immigrants for unemployment and low pay. These statements have been picked up and broadcast in the media. If unchallenged, this pernicious scapegoating could become a rightwing consensus across the political spectrum.

In a 7 April news release CTU Secretary Sam Huggard says: “Not only is high migration contributing to more people out of work, it is also pulling wages down.” This statement is factually and politically wrong. Huggard bases his claim on a report by the Reserve Bank. However, what that report actually says is quite different to what he makes out.

The Reserve Bank report says that high immigration normally boosts the economy and reduces unemployment. However, the high immigration rate from 2013 through to 2015 has not boosted the economy as much as could be expected. The researchers explored why the unemployment rate has been higher than expected given high level of net immigration. They found that the current cycle of immigration was due to higher unemployment in Australia and that was affecting the unemployment rate in New Zealand. In other words, all the Reserve Bank is saying is that unemployed Kiwis returning from Australia are tending to dampen the normal correlation between immigration and job creation.

Huggard’s equation between immigration, unemployment and pay is baloney. If there has been one thing that has helped the NZ economy since the Global Financial Crisis it has been immigration. Blaming immigrants for unemployment and low pay is contemptible. This is Donald Trump talk. It recalls the politics of White Australia or nineteenth century anti-Irish racism in Britain. Throughout the history of capitalism reactionaries have raised the anti-immigration cry “they are taking our jobs, they are undermining our pay.”

The anti-foreigner stance of the Labour leadership has not been confined to housing, jobs and pay questions. Throughout the agitation over the TPPA (and before that over asset privatisations) there has been a strong nationalist tinge from this quarter. What should be a struggle against unfettered global capitalist activity, and fettered global workers’ and citizens’ rights, is diverted by the nationalists away from an internationalist common front of workers’ solidarity. Instead, the nationalists pervert the struggle to a cross-class defence of New Zealand’s interests, which translates into the interests of New Zealand business.

Given that the New Zealand capitalist class controls a state and political set-up that is permeated by the most free-market laws and ideology in the world, combined with very restrictive employment rights, the Labour nationalists’ target is misplaced. They divert justifiably embittered workers’ away from the home-grown source of their condition to a mythical foreign enemy. In doing this the Labour and union nationalists perform great service for New Zealand’s capitalist elite, who are laughing behind their hands.

Labour’s foreigner-bashing comes from electoral opportunism, but they are playing with fire. Labour cannot outbid National or New Zealand First in the nationalism stakes. Labour is endorsing the ideology of rightwing parties who can only gain. Labour are incompetent opportunists! Anti-immigrant politics is self-defeating to Labour’s cause in another way. Instead of deepening its roots amongst working people, Labour will alienate people of immigrant origins, particularly Chinese, who are hardly likely to be attracted to a party that points an accusatory finger at them.

Immigrants are no threat to New Zealand workers whatsoever. If it was the case that the New Zealand working class was well-organised, with high union density and a strong bargaining position, the only policy the union movement would require in respect of immigrants would be to welcome them into union membership. Historically, immigrants have joined the unions and strengthened working-class organisation.

But we are not well-organised. The vast majority are not in a union and are not covered by collective agreements. The Labour movement has to look to itself for this state of affairs. The notion that immigrants could undermine hard won pay rates is ridiculous. The only reason why immigrants today may not be joining the unions is that the unions are not there to be joined. Instead of indulging in immigrant-bashing, the CTU should concentrate on re-building union organisation among native-born and immigrant workers alike.

Labour, CTU! Stop the rot! Immigrants are welcome. Whether it is housing, unemployment or low pay, we must turn our fire on the real culprits: the New Zealand employer class and 30 years of neo-liberal governments.