Can Labour resist the anti-migrant pressure?

Author: 

Sacha Ismail

How will the left-wing leadership of the Labour Party respond to the growth of right-wing, anti-immigrant populism in many countries and to increasingly vocal calls for Labour to concede to an anti-migrant agenda? The picture is confused.

Jeremy Corbyn has made several statements which imply standing firm in defence of migrants. His 3 December speech to Socialist International leaders in Prague rejected “abandon[ing] socialist principles because we are told this is the only way to win power… I have every confidence that the principles of solidarity, internationalism and socialism… can [win in Europe]… Our rhetoric cannot be used to legitimise the scapegoating of refugees or migrant workers.”

Unfortunately the implication has not been translated into collective, fought for Labour policy. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has also made pro-migrants statements, but appeared to endorse further limits on free movement. Shadow Business Secretary Clive Lewis told the Guardian that free movement “hasn’t worked for many of the people in this country, where they’ve been undercut”. (Lewis' own CLP submitted policy to Labour Party conference calling for Labour to defend free movement, but unfortunately the issue narrowly failed to be prioritised for discussion.) On the Andrew Marr Show, Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry openly backed the false idea that migration has dragged down wages and said: “Do I think that at the moment too many people come into this country? Yes I do”.

Even Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, who recently stood out by defending free movement and saying that opposition to it has “become a synonym for anti-immigrant racism”, used the last BBC Sunday Politics to seemingly dismiss earlier statements from a Corbyn spokesman that the Labour leader is not interested in reducing the level of immigration. Abbott endorsed unspecified comments by Emily Thornberry about “fair rules”. She did also she did attack the idea that “we have to move right on immigration to save seats from UKIP... if the Labour Party starts saying UKIP is right and immigration is the cause of all these people’s problems... it gives credence to UKIP”.

The confusion at the summits of the Labour left is emblemised by the policy proposed by Clive Lewis that workers recruited abroad should be legally required to join a union – which would have little impact on the balance of class forces in Britain but serve to justify retreat on migrants’ rights by dressing it up in labour movement clothing.

Further to the right, Shadow Brexit Minister Keir Starmer has said there has been “a huge amount of immigration over the last ten years” and called for the level to be reduced.

Blairite MPs Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna have, typically and in defiance of reality, argued to fight for access to the European single market while ending free movement from the EU. Reeves has described Leeds, where her constituency is, as "like a tinder box", predicted that the situation will "explode" if immigration is not curbed and, in response to local racist attacks, said: "The trouble is I’m just not surprised and if we don’t get this right in terms of this response, and getting the balance right in terms of the renegotiation but also the deeper seated problems, these sort of things are just going to get worse..."

Maverick and out-and-out right-winger Frank Field is naturally a strong and, it seems, conviction advocate of attacking migrants. More interesting, however, are the cynical “arguments” coming from Stephen Kinnock.

On 3 December, Kinnock followed up his recent call for Labour to orient to the “white working class” with an article in the Financial Times. Leave aside the embarrassing calls for Labour to embrace “patriotism”. He argues the party cannot defeat UKIP if it “ignore[s] voters’ concerns on immigration”. “The message from the doorstep is clear,” Kinnock explains. “[Voters are saying:] ‘Immigration may be good for the economy, but it hasn’t been good for my economy’.”

What about the fact that all the statistics show that immigration has had very little to do with the collapse of living standards since 2008 – and that the key factor is increasingly aggressive and militant employers backed by an increasingly aggressive and militant right-wing government? Well, says Kinnock: “the effects of immigration are not measured, they are experienced. This is visceral for voters.”

As if all kinds of reactionary ideas are not felt viscerally... Never mind the facts! Many people have come to believe something which is not true, a belief which conflicts with their genuine interests, but rather than patiently and respectfully try to convince them in a genuine dialogue with people, Labour should pander in order to win votes.

For the reasons Diane Abbott has explained, this strategy is not going to defeat the nationalist right. It is also ironic, since Labour itself has contributed hugely to the growth of anti-migrant feelings. As with the Tories’ patently contrived arguments about cuts being necessary to “deal with” the deficit (six years later: still a huge deficit, cuts with no end in sight) a crucial factor in anti-immigration beliefs and arguments becoming so widespread is the Labour leadership endorsing them and backing them up over years until summer 2015. Going further down that road will only make the situation worse.

Owen Jones has just published an interesting article about Labour, UKIP, social demands like rebuilding the NHS and immigration – an article which deserves some analysis in its own right. For now: Jones rightly calls for Labour to find a language that can connect to more working-class people, but also seems to despair about “transforming people’s worldview”. But such a connection is necessary precisely because the dominant narratives of politics need to be transformed – or everything will move further right.

Labour movement and Labour Party advocates of defending migrants’ rights need to get organised. On 3 December the Momentum national committee passed, with only two votes against, policy affirming that “the social problems we face are not caused by migrants but by austerity and capitalist attacks on the working class... Labour and the whole labour movement must resist the scapegoating of migrants and campaign for unity of all workers to win more resources and better jobs, homes, services and rights for everyone, regardless of origin”.

This could and should be the basis for a campaign to move Labour in the right direction. It is not just a matter of standing firm on immigration. Unless we can get the party and the labour movement fighting at a much higher level and convincing large numbers of workers they can fight, then the possibilities for challenging the anti-migrant narrative will be limited. Equally, telling the truth about immigration is a central part of making a fightback possible.