Brexit or no Brexit, Labour must stand up for migrant rights.

The moment the left in any way concedes that foreigners are to blame, we let the right win the argument, writes Ana Oppenheim.

January 31, 2019 · 7 min read
Photo by Garry Knight (Flickr)

It took social media outrage and public criticism from MPs for Labour to vote against the second reading of the Immigration Bill. And even then, the front bench refused to put down a three line whip obliging all Labour MPs to vote against the bill. The legislation, which would end free movement with Europe and give the Tories a blank cheque to attack the rights of EU nationals, passed to the committee stage, with 78 Labour MPs not in the room.

For many dedicated Corbyn supporters, this reluctance to fight for migrants’ rights felt like betrayal. We were promised a new kind of politics. What we saw on Monday looked a lot like the old triangulation we had hoped to leave behind.

Some could say, Labour’s unwillingness to oppose the bill outright followed a long tradition of throwing migrants under the bus in the name of cold political calculation. Those who proudly declare that Labour has always been an anti-racist party are at risk of ignoring less glorious cards in our history. In 1968, amidst a wave of ugly scaremongering spearheaded by Enoch Powell, Harold Wilson’s government passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act which restricted the rights of overseas British citizens to enter the UK, leaving tens of thousands stateless. In 1974, Labour pledged to relax anti-migrant laws but quickly abandoned the promise once in power. New Labour oversaw a massive increase of immigration when Britain opened its borders to Europeans but also introduced new restrictions on asylum and expanded the detention estate, including opening Yarl’s Wood. Then, of course, came the infamous “racist mugs” and a pledge to control immigration literally carved into that ill-fated stone.

The promise of Corbynism was that things would be different now. Gone were the days of concessions to the right, of pandering to prejudice instead of challenging it head-on, of accepting the terms of debate instead of trying to shift them. Labour was now meant to be member-led and true to its socialist principles, with long-standing anti-racist campaigners at its helm.  Corbyn’s speech at a pro-refugee rally on the day of his leadership victory became one of the foundational myths of Corbynism, alongside his parliamentary rebellion on the welfare bill months earlier.

Long after the referendum, the front bench continued to defend the rights of migrants, including freedom of movement for EU citizens. It’s easy to forget that up until 2017, Diane Abbott spoke out for freedom of movement as a workers’ right – while many of Corbyn’s current pro-European critics, such as Chuka Ummuna, were prepared to leave the single market in order to close the borders.

The 2017 manifesto was a disappointment to those of us who hoped for a genuinely game-changing immigration policy. “Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union,” it declared, as if the biggest expansion of border controls in perhaps four or five decades was a fact of life, not a political choice. This wasn’t the only concession. “We will replace income thresholds with a prohibition on recourse to public funds,” the document reads further. No Recourse to Public Funds policies already exist, depriving many migrants who have leave to remain in the UK of access to benefits, social housing, free school meals. Why should an unashamedly radical Labour party explicitly support measures that leave people destitute? Subsequent progressive policy announcements, such as the pledge to end indefinite detention, have come in a package with reassurances that Labour would hire more border guards and be tough on “illegal immigrants.”

Monday’s events were a wakeup call for many Labour activists. It’s not enough to trust the leadership to do the right thing – it’s now down to us to make a positive, socialist case for migration rights.

Many treat migrant rights as separate from – or even in opposition to – class justice. But migration is a class issue. The super rich can live where they like anyway, paying for fast-tracked visas or frog leaping over any barriers put in place to disbar poorer migrants. Borders don’t exist to inconvenience the rich, they exist to control the poor. Furthermore, freedom of movement is not just about who comes to the country but their rights when already here. It’s easier to exploit migrant workers when their visa depends on their employer. And when a certain tranch of the population is deprived of their working rights – that’s a situation which puts more power in the hands of bosses. No working person, migrant or citizen, wins from that. We have more in common with our Romanian colleagues than with a tax-dodging, poverty-paying millionaire who happens to have the same logo on their passport.

Our defence of immigration also needs to be class-based. Appeals to celebrating diversity and the prosperity that migrants bring can only go so far – for many they are abstract statements, in contrast to the very immediate questions of poverty pay, sky-high rents and never ending NHS queues. Only the left can make a convincing defence of immigration because we have the real answers. Closing the borders won’t increase wages – studies show the impact of migration on pay to be grossly overstated – but raising the minimum wage and strengthening union rights would. Deporting people won’t reverse school cuts or bring back social housing – only a transformative programme of redistribution will give public services the lifeline they need.  If Labour really want to stand up for the many, they need to put this politics front and centre of their agenda. Otherwise they play right into the hands of billionaires who would rather blame migrants for economic decline than cough up their fair share of taxes. The moment the left in any way concedes that foreigners are to blame, we let the right win the argument.

If the 2017 general election taught us anything, it’s how quickly hearts and minds can change. On the economy, on austerity, Corbyn’s Labour has gone a long way to transform the conversation. It’s time to take the same approach to immigration. With Brexit threatening to raise borders and the far right determined to use it to boost nationalist sentiments, only an unapologetic defence of migrants will do.


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