No Turning Back on Migrant Rights

By Adam Peggs

As the Labour leadership contest begins to liven up there is a real chance that the steps forward of the last few years, a renewed left-wing agenda, could be halted and watered down and the wrong lessons learned from the defeat. Unfortunately, we can expect to hear that Labour’s stance on immigration was out of step with a country that just elected an avidly right-wing government which is set to cut migrants’ rights. The Corbyn leadership had, by its end, and primarily due to the efforts of the party’s membership moved towards a notably more pro-migrant’ rights position than we saw from Labour at any other point in my lifetime.

In September of last year, the party passed a conference motion which among other measures proposed to close down all detention centres – rather than just two – the policy that eventually appeared in the Labour manifesto. The policy had been endorsed by Momentum and LARAF in the Spring of 2019 and reflected a turn within the Corbyn-project toward a bolder stance on immigration. The party had taken steps from the language of ‘fair rules and reasonable management of migration’ and an immigration policy ostensibly with the sole purpose of pursuing ‘growth, jobs and prosperity’, to one underpinned by social justice and equality. The move marked the high watermark of migrants rights activism within the Labour Party in recent decades, and a sense that the Labour Party sought to substantially improve the lives not just of UK citizens, but those subject to the rules of Britain’s immigration system.

The policy did not survive the infamous Clause V meeting where the party manifesto is drawn up, but it should have, and the fears that the policy would be seen as too radical remain unfounded. Ending the ‘migrant detention estate’ in Britain is key to stopping the criminalisation of people because of where they are from.

In a political climate in which an electorally successful right are seeking to introduce an Australian-style points system, the Labour leadership contest and the surrounding political climate could ultimately begin to shift the party backwards on immigration. Labour members should resist efforts to turn the clock back to the days of accommodation with the right on immigration.

In 2015 the party put forward its hated ‘controls on immigration’ mug, with a set of policies in a similar vein. Though the manifesto document included constructive language on refugees and a pledge to get rid of indefinite detention, the remainder of its proposals were concerning. Vowing to introduce ‘proper controls’, advocating stronger ‘integration’ and ‘stronger borders’, and presaging David Cameron’s policy of restricting the social security entitlements available to people from the EU. In 2010 immigration was lumped in with crime in the manifesto and linked to failing public services and wage stagnation, setting the tone for a platform which implied immigration was a societal problem. Worse still, the party promised an Australian-style points system, not unlike that advocated by the Conservatives today. Both these policies may have inadvertently given the Tories more space to move rightward, with acquiescence on the subject having driven the narrative that the Tories and Nigel Farage were right. Last year, in contrast to the recent past, the party made important steps forward, promising to end indefinite detention, introduce equal voting rights for migrants and oppose a two-tier system of rights. There is a risk that, especially with pressure coming from the political right and a ravenous media, this progress could end up being reversed.

Looking at the leadership contest so far it is hard to tell the state of the immigration debate, but there are not many reasons to be enthused. While Long-Bailey has stood up and already made some positive arguments and commitments, at this stage, we have seen little else said on the subject. This has included rejecting the inaccurate but oft-repeated argument that immigration has led to the undercutting of wages. It is austerity, weak labour rights and the power of unfettered business that has hit wages and pretending otherwise will only serve the political interests of the right – and most of all those bent on curtailing migrants’ rights.

Elsewhere most other candidates have yet to make notable interventions on this area – though we can surely expect some once public hustings are underway. Lisa Nandy has in the past talked about undercutting of pay and introducing greater management of immigration, whilst warning against blaming EU immigration for unrelated problems. But since then Nandy has employed much more positive language, speaking of rejecting the idea that ‘immigration and community are at odds’ and opposing ‘a system that pits immigrants and citizens against one another’. This week she recalled the Miliband-era mug as one of the lower ebbs of that period, and she has now come out as mostly supportive of freedom of movement. This leaves Nandy in an odd position, representing a coalition which includes many who would like to ‘get tougher’ on immigration, while herself pursuing a more progressive line.

Jess Phillips has also yet to make an intervention on this area. Last year, the candidate popular with centrist MPs, made a noted speech criticising the Tories’ immigration bill and has been critical of both Yarl’s Wood and the Tories’ immigration targets. However, she has faced criticism for stances relating to a number of minority groups. This and her comments about engaging with The Sun – among the nation’s most anti-migrant publications – won’t help her ingratiate herself with the membership. Keir Starmer has also been a critic of the Conservatives’ immigration targets, especially on economic grounds. With all candidates, we will have to wait to see how much their platforms resemble the renewed left-wing agenda that has arisen in the last five years.

Commitments to progress on No Recourse to Public Funds, to end the practice of landlords, teachers and doctors having to behave as immigration officers and to retain the commitment to end indefinite detention would be welcome. Opposition to the Conservatives’ hostile environment for migrants will need to be substantive and more than just rhetorical. And leadership candidates should be asked whether they will give backing to the policy on detention centres passed at the 2019 conference. The party has a duty to represent the interests of all working class people across the lines of citizenship, not just when or whether it is convenient, and that must be upheld. While labourism has historically had a conservative strand when it comes to immigration, from problems in the forties to Jim Callaghan to New Labour, it is one that must be opposed. There is work to do and arguments to win, but we should note that positive attitudes towards immigration are surprisingly high, that free movement is not unpopular and that the argument can be won.

The next leader will face pressures to move back to the centre on international relations and on economic policy, but they may face even greater pressure to take steps toward a more social conservative immigration policy. Alternatively, activists, civil society and the significant party membership might assert the need for building on the party’s positive commitments and developing them further. Now more than ever we need a positive, solidaristic argument on immigration – one that brings together the economic argument and the moral one. With the government planning to bring in an Australian-style points system and continuing the ‘compliant environment’, and Labour at risk of pressure to turn backwards, there is a hard road ahead.