Immigration – Labour Needs Clarity and Conviction

By Cathy Cole

The confusion yesterday over the Labour whip on the Immigration Bill was regrettable, but its’ significance goes beyond a few hours’ embarrassment in the House or on social media.  Ultimately, the episode demonstrated Labour has yet to articulate the position developed in the 2017 manifesto with sufficient clarity and conviction, or to fully convince ourselves that our position is the right one.   

It’s unfair and untrue to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott have sold out on their commitments to a progressive policy on immigration, as some were implying.  Labour’s policy is to scrap the Hostile Environment, end the scapegoating of migrants and asylum seekers, put a stop to indefinite detention, and reject arbitrary income-based thresholds for residency entitlements.   Diane, as Shadow Home Secretary, was in the process of spelling out how much of the existing Tory proposals Labour would be challenging in Committee and at Report stage.

It’s entirely false to imply that there is a direct correlation between arguing we should remain in the EU and a pro-immigration stance.  After all, amongst those voting to Remain in the EU (and therefore implicitly to keep FoM) was none other than the architect of the Hostile Environment, Theresa May herself!  Remainers are simply displacing responsibility for policing migration to the southern borders of Fortress Europe. Nor is there anything particularly “progressive” about those supporting FoM in order to guarantee a large exploitable workforce to drive down wages.

By respecting the referendum result and accepting that FoM will come to an end, Labour is not accepting an “anti-immigration” position.  On the contrary, precisely by ensuring that the system managed in a way which is fair to all and where policy is subject to democratic controls, we establish a solid foundation from which to argue that migration is good, positive and necessary.  Our values are inclusive and humane.

We can turn the tide in a debate we have begun to lose over recent years, not by ignoring the concerns of the electorate, but by driving a wedge between the racists and those who associate recent migration trends with a more general sense of powerlessness.  The fear of immigration is an index that people feel they aren’t in control of their lives, social change leaves them feeling dislocated and powerless, the future is controlled by forces over which they have no power, and the political elite will do very nicely for themselves but don’t care about the lives of ordinary people. No wonder people want to “take back control” and rebuild solidarities and security for themselves.   If we tell all these people they are racists/fascists then we cut the ground from beneath our own feet.

The question is how to re-articulate these demands such that forms of solidarity which have waned under neoliberalism – including between the diverse urban working class of the cities and the majority white working class of the former industrial areas – just as much as between domestic and migrant workers – can be brought back into play.   It would be easier – much easier – for a largely middle class metropolitan left to be content to enjoy a spot of virtue-signalling to other Guardian readers. But it would massively self-defeating. The rise of the populist far right across the Western world shows this. Corbyn’s Labour is doing the right thing, not necessarily the easiest.