The British left and immigration controls

In the last week, I have read two pieces that argue why the Australian left should embrace the concept on ‘open borders’ and ‘no immigration controls’, and it got me thinking about the position of the British left towards immigration controls. In my PhD, I explored the position of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which was ‘no racist immigration laws’, and that of the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party, which was ‘no immigration controls’. I thought that I might post a little extract from my thesis on the difference between the two parties on this issue:


From the time that the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was introduced in July 1962, the Communist Party had opposed the Act on the grounds that it was ‘not an act to control immigration in general’, but ‘constitute[d] colour discrimination in immigration’.[i] However the Party did recognise that ‘Governments have the right to regulate immigration and emigration’, but denounced the immigration policies introduced by both Labour and the Conservatives as ‘racialist’ and ‘directed specifically against black immigration’.[ii]

Despite the continued call for co-operation with the Labour left in The British Road to Socialism and the importance placed upon the ‘Broad Left’ strategy in the trade union movement, the Communist Party’s policies on immigration were distinct from those of the Labour Party, which accepted (and indeed strengthened) immigration controls and those of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), which followed the Labour Party’s policy between 1962 and 1973. Within the far left, the CPGB criticised the position of the IS/SWP and the IMG, who favoured no immigration controls, which the Communist Party dismissed as ‘foolish’ and ‘out of step with reality’.[iii] Another important factor was the attitudes of Britain’s migrant population, who experienced the racial bias of the immigration controls firsthand. The CPGB therefore held a distinct and precarious position. On one hand, it was critical of the Labour Party and the TUC, two of its most important political allies and potentially influential in fighting racism within the labour movement. On the other, its acceptance of the concept of immigration controls, if void of racial bias, fostered the possibility of alienating sections of the migrant communities, who faced the reality of racial discrimination through immigration controls.

The Communist Party always maintained its opposition to racially biased immigration controls and from 1962 onwards, called for the repeal of each increasingly racist amendment to legislation concerning immigration. However on the principle of immigration controls, the Party’s line was much more populist. This was defined in 1965 in a Party statement on the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act:

Every government, whatever its character, and whatever the social system, will naturally make regulations concerning immigration and emigration. This is an understandable exercise of its power by any sovereign government. The Communist Party has never stood for general unrestricted immigration, but has always opposed racialism and racial discrimination into Britain.[iv]

Before the introduction of legislation restricting Commonwealth immigration, the Party, like the shadow Labour Government, opposed immigration controls on the principle that ‘colonial people are British subjects’ and should retain the right to enter, settle and work in Britain.[v] In the lead up to the 1962 Act, the Communist Party opposed imposing restrictions, declaring that the Act would ‘reverse Britain’s traditional open door policy of allowing free entry to all her citizens’.[vi]

The Party’s policy statement on ‘race relations’ simply stated that the ‘Communist Party stands for… the repeal of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, and complete opposition to all forms of restriction (open or concealed)… against coloured immigrants’.[vii] By 1965, the Party was conceding ground, like the Labour Party, in its opposition to controls. In a statement on the 1965 White Paper, the Party declared that ‘Every government makes regulations concerning immigration and emigration’ as this was ‘an understandable exercise of its sovereign rights’.[viii] But as Harry Bourne wrote in a CPGB pamphlet published at the same time, this right was ‘not a cover for the practice of racial discrimination’.[ix] The CPGB called for the repeal of the 1962 Act, because it was ‘not an Act introduced for normal immigration purposes [a concept Bourne did not elaborate on] but designed to introduce an element of racial discrimination into the system of immigration’.[x]

Tony Chater was one of the few to elaborate on the Party’s position in CPGB literature. ‘Restrictions on immigration should never have a racialist bias and in any case are only justifiable if immigration is threatening the country with political, economic and social harm’, wrote Chater, ‘[and] no-one can seriously maintain that this applies today’.[xi] This asserted that there was no need for immigration control at all at that moment, rather than the usual Party line, which accepted controls, if they were not applied on racial discrimination. Chater was much more concerned about socialist planning to fix the housing and employment problems facing Britain, stating that the ‘only real solution is socialist policy, not immigration control’.[xii] Overcrowding in South-East England was ‘due to movements of population within Britain itself, rather than to immigration from outside’, claiming that as a ‘result of deliberate Tory policy… Industry [had] been allowed to develop too quickly in the South-East’.[xiii] For Chater, to combat overcrowding, what was needed was ‘not immigration control, but a real National Plan for the development of the country as a whole’.[xiv] The Commonwealth Immigrants Act was described as a ‘dangerous charade’, stating that ‘it solved no problem because there was no problem to solve’.[xv]

During the 1971 campaign against both the Immigration Act and the Industrial Relations Act, the Party still had to make clear that it opposed the immigration controls, ‘not because it is opposed to Government control of immigration, but because all these Acts… are based on colour discrimination’.[xvi] In 1973, it was included in the list of demands for labour movement incorporated in the resolution on racism at the 33rd National Congress. The first of ten demands was the repeal of the 1971 Immigration Act ‘which is a racialist measure’ and for the Labour to ‘introduce new legislation relating to immigration on a strictly non-racial basis’.[xvii]

Still the Party’s position on immigration controls provoked debate within the Party over its practicality as well as its implication for the wider anti-racist struggle and was something that required clarification. In a letter to the CPGB’s Press and Publicity Department, Jack Woddis emphasised that the Party supported non-racially based controls, criticising a draft pamphlet by Joan Bellamy ‘as it implies that we would be in favour of open immigration for all’.[xviii] Woddis clarified that the pamphlet should have read, ‘The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 and the new Act of February 1968 should be repealed so that all Commonwealth immigrants, whether white or coloured, should be allowed entry into Britain with[out] discrimination’.[xix]

Criticism of the Communist Party’s position on immigration by the groups of the far left, most importantly from the IS/SWP, had existed since the mid-1960s. In 1965, Paul Foot wrote in the journal International Socialism that, ‘Immigration control is chauvinist legislation’ and that it ‘cannot be contemplated by an international socialist’.[xx] The British left had a ‘chauvinist tradition’ that placed immigration into the current demand for ‘national planning’, wrote Foot.[xxi] ‘The only possible attitude of an international socialist’, as the CPGB still claimed to be an internationalist party, ‘is outright opposition to immigration control’, which the CPGB did not undertake.[xxii] In a pamphlet produced by the SWP in 1978, the Communist Party’s argument for ‘democratic’ immigration controls was likened to ‘talking about “humane” repatriation’.[xxiii] As Bernie Wilcox, an International Socialist member and Rock Against Racism organiser in Manchester, wrote in a letter to Socialist Worker in 1976, ‘any giving way on this point puts us on the slippery slope to the CP’s situation, which implies immigrants are the problem, not capitalism’.[xxiv]

In a 1979 pamphlet, CPGB and IWA (Southall) member Vishnu Sharma tackled what he described as ‘The “No Immigration Controls At All” Position’, claiming that although ‘Communists want to see… a world where there are no immigration controls of any kind’, the ‘first and urgent responsibility’ must be to ‘turn the spotlight onto the racist character of the present laws’.[xxv] Therefore there is a shift in the CPGB’s position with opposition to the far left’s proposal of ‘no immigration controls at all’ becoming less about principle and more about strategy. The far left (especially the IS/SWP) was heavily criticised by the Communist Party during the 1970s for ‘their attractive but dangerous “smash everything” slogans’.[xxvi] Sharma pointed out that this difference over immigration controls ‘touches on big questions of revolutionary strategy’.[xxvii] The CPGB was committed to the Broad Democratic Alliance as defined in The British Road to Socialism and this meant a ‘great mass campaign’ that relied on working within the current system to ‘make parts of the state function more democratically’.[xxviii] This unity was needed to combat the ‘immediate causes of racial oppression’, but Sharma warned, ‘under the slogan “no immigration controls at all” this will not be built’.[xxix]


I am fairly certain that the CPGB did not revise their position in the 1980s. Alongside the SWP, the International Marxist Group, I believe, had a similar position (although I’m waiting to hear back from someone to confirm this). I haven’t been able to ascertain what the position of Militant was in the 1970s and 1980s, but I suppose it would be similar to the position put forward by the Socialist Party nowadays.

The SWP have retained the same position since the 1960s (which would be on of the few constants in IS/SWP history) and a reprinted pamphlet by Charlie Kimber clearly states, ‘We believe that all immigration controls should go.’ The Socialist Party has a more populist position, akin to that of the CPGB. In their 2013 Congress document, they state:

69. Of course, we have to stand in defence of the most oppressed sections of the working class, including migrant workers and other immigrants.

We staunchly oppose racism. We defend the right to asylum, and argue for the end of repressive measures like detention centres.

At the same time, given the outlook of the majority of the working class, we cannot put forward a bald [sic] slogan of ‘open borders’ or ‘no immigration controls’, which would be a barrier to convincing workers of a socialist programme, both on immigration and other issues.

Such a demand would alienate the vast majority of the working class, including many more long-standing immigrants, who would see it as a threat to jobs, wages and living conditions.

Nor can we make the mistake of dismissing workers who express concerns about immigration as ‘racists’.

While racism and nationalism are clearly elements in anti-immigrant feeling, there are many consciously anti-racist workers who are concerned about the scale of immigration.

We have to put forward a programme which unites the working class in dealing with the consequences of immigration.*

*I’d like to know what the Party means by the ‘consequences of immigration’

The Communist Party of Britain simply states this demand as part of their programme:

• Repeal all anti-trade union, anti-democratic and racist immigration laws with full employment rights and trade union participation for migrant workers.

The Weekly Worker CPGB has published letters on this subject in recent years, but I haven’t been able to find out what their position is. I think it is a debate that the British left have not really had in recent years as the prospect of immigration controls being abolished, or even relaxed, seems so remote. But it is an issue that highlights the tensions in trying to connect the traditionally protectionist attitudes of the trade union movement with the attitudes of those involved in anti-racist and pro-migrant campaigns. As Liza Schuster wrote in 2003, we need to have this debate out there.

[i] Kay Beauchamp, ‘“Immigrants Act” After First Year’, Comment, November 16, 1963

[ii] ‘Resolution: The Fight Against Racialism in Britain’, Comment, December 1973, p. 406

[iii] Vishnu Sharma, No Racist Immigration Laws, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1979, p. 16

[iv]‘Draft Statement on Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962’, 1965, CP/LON/RACE/01/10, LHASC

[v] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 10

[vi] J. Moss, Together Say No Discrimination, p. 3

[vii] End Racialism in Britain

[viii] ‘Immigration’, 1965, CP/LON/RACE/01/09, LHASC

[ix] H. Bourne, Racialism, p. 9

[x] H. Bourne, Racialism, p. 11

[xi] Tony Chater, Race Relations in Britain, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1966, p. 62

[xii] T. Chater, Race Relations in Britain, p. 42

[xiii] T. Chater, Race Relations in Britain, p. 39

[xiv] T. Chater, Race Relations in Britain, p. 40

[xv] T. Chater, Race Relations in Britain, p. 50

[xvi] Black and White Unity Needed to Kill Both Bills

[xvii] ‘Resolution: The Fight Against Racialism in Britain’, p. 406; Italics are my emphasis

[xviii] Letter from Jack Woddis to Nora Jeffrey, 30 April, 1968, CP/LON/RACE/02/01, LHASC

[xix] Letter from Jack Woddis to Nora Jeffrey

[xx] P. Foot, ‘Immigration and the British Labour Movement’, p. 13

[xxi] P. Foot, ‘Immigration and the British Labour Movement’, p. 13

[xxii] P. Foot, ‘Immigration and the British Labour Movement’, p. 13

[xxiii] SWP, The Case Against Immigration Controls, SWP pamphlet, London, 1978, p. 12

[xxiv] Socialist Worker, 2 October, 1976

[xxv] V. Sharma, No Racist Immigration Laws, p. 16

[xxvi] ‘Draft for Political Committee’, 1 July, 1976, CP/CENT/PC/14/01, LHASC

[xxvii] V. Sharma, No Racist Immigration Laws, p. 16

[xxviii] V. Sharma, No Racist Immigration Laws, p. 16

[xxix] V. Sharma, No Racist Immigration Laws, p. 16

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