Where is the Labour Party heading on immigration?

As the Nationality and Borders Bill becomes law, Sabrina Huck attempts to decipher whether Labour's immigration policy offers any promise of change for the better

April 28, 2022 · 6 min read
Home Office immigration enforcement van in London. Photo: Philafrenzy

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Nearly a year after it was first introduced, the Nationality and Borders Bill’s journey through parliament is at an end. Some back-and-forth between the Houses of Commons and Lords briefly suggested that perhaps there was room for manoeuvre in the parliamentary process, as the Lords stripped the bill from some of its worst paragraphs. But in the end, Conservative MPs dutifully added them back in, and the bill passed on 28 April 2022, without concessions.

Although Labour’s front bench has opposed the bill, their arguments remained focused on technicalities – that its measures are unworkable or cost the taxpayer too much – failing to engage politically in a way that challenged the bill’s cruel racism.

The two cornerstones of Labour’s electoral strategy are to present Keir Starmer as a more capable and competent leader than Boris Johnson, and to unite their voting coalition around a set of ‘core values’. Labour’s attitude towards the Nationality and Borders Bill, and the foreshadowing of their future immigration policymaking, reflect this approach.

For example, Stephen Kinnock, the shadow immigration minister, argued in a debate on the Nationality and Borders Bill that what is needed is ‘a properly resourced and competent processing system’ that is ‘fair, compassionate and orderly’.

This approach too was mirrored in Yvette Cooper’s response to Priti Patel when the Home Secretary gave a statement on the government’s deal to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. The Shadow Home Secretary attacked Patel over ‘unworkable, unethical’ proposals that are ‘extortionate in their cost to the British taxpayer’.

Both responses are apolitical, and instead focus on ‘competence’ and ‘costs’, suggesting that Labour would not oppose it on principle, but rather come forward with measures that make the managing of migration more efficient than the Conservatives.

Starmerite rhetoric

What then would Labour’s immigration policy look like? Thom Brooks, an American law professor who is on Starmer’s payroll as a strategic adviser, recently published a Fabian pamphlet setting out a new plan for immigration for Labour. It distinctly lacks any substantial policy suggestions but is heavy on Starmerite rhetoric of ‘social contracts’, ‘prosperity’, ‘security’ and ‘community’. It does not mention measures that will be brought in by the Nationality and Borders Bill, such as the criminalisation of refugees who arrive via ‘illegal means’ in the UK.

On safe and legal routes, he advocates for a prioritisation of women and children and emergency schemes for conflicts, rather than universal support for all refugees. In best technocrat manner, the document proposes ‘consultations’ and ‘reviews’ that would allow Labour to avoid any firm commitments. Despite Brooks proclamation in his introduction that, as an immigrant himself, it is important to him to give a voice to the community, his proposals remain firmly within the framing of immigration and asylum as a ‘challenge’ to be ‘tackled’ and does not speak from the perspective of migrant communities or their needs.

Conditional rights

Starmer’s ‘social contract’ is not one of equals entering into an agreement, as those in the liberal political tradition would want us to believe. Rather it is a set of obligations for immigrant communities who, if they do not comply, are not awarded basic rights.

These obligations, often framed as ‘integration’ for ‘social cohesion’, will be informed by the ‘shared values’ framework developed by LOTO advisers such as Claire Ainsley and Deborah Mattinson. Ainsley has previously identified ‘family, fairness, hard work and decency’ as core values held by those that Labour could unite in its coalition.

In Brook’s pamphlet, an example of this approach is for example the automatic refusal of permanent residency or citizenship for those convicted of a hate crime or sexual offence. This supposedly reflects the values of ‘fairness’ and ‘decency’. Other suggestions are around language requirements, the creation of a new Life in the UK test and a new ‘UK Day’ bank holiday.

‘Integration’ and ‘civic identity’ policy as a tool of population control could grow in importance

Needing to demonstrate ‘shared values’ as a marker of ‘integration’ to access a secure immigration status gives the state power to mould a person’s behaviours and lifestyle choices. Such behavioural incentives would be framed as ‘for the common good’ of the national community, however who belongs to this community, and who benefits from this, is politically contested terrain.

‘Integration’ and ‘civic identity’ policy as a tool of population control could grow in importance. The influential think tank Policy Exchange published a report on the topic in March, which was co-authored by the widower of the late Labour MP Jo Cox, Brendan Cox, and interviewed a range of stakeholders, including Yvette Cooper. The report discusses policy ideas to encourage ‘mixing’ of communities to avoid ‘parallel societies’ to emerge.

That a prominent Labour Party figure such as Cox, with good links to the upper echelons of the Labour Party and plenty of opportunity to lobby on policy is involved in a project like this (notably alongside Eric Kauffman, controversial politics professor at Birkbeck College, University of London) indicates where the wind on Labour’s ‘thought leadership’ is blowing.

All this indicates that, as preparations for the next elections are ramping up, Labour continues its beaten path: immigrant communities are seen as a group that need to be controlled and managed, for the greater good of a society from which they are essentially excluded. Their needs and desires are not acknowledged by policymakers, and neither are they taken seriously as a constituency of voters in society. Those who hoped that a Labour victory might see the country turn its back on Tory-style immigration politics might once again be bitterly disappointed.

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