Ed Miliband had said that on immigration the Labour Party needed to make a break with its record in government.
He claims the problem is that New Labour failed to impose sufficient controls. In fact they imposed too many.
In 2004, New Labour oversaw 1,098 “successful operations” (i.e. raids) against undocumented migrant workers, which saw the arrest of over 3,000 workers, but the prosecution of only eight of the employers responsible for exploiting them.
In 2003, only one boss was successfully prosecuted, while 1,779 workers were arrested and removed from the workplace (and presumably deported).
Even laws which were motivated as improving conditions for migrant workers — such as the Gangmasters Licensing Act of 2004 — were used by employers and the state for further crackdowns against undocumented workers.
Labour’s 2004 Asylum and Immigration Act made the meagre housing and social support to which most refugees were entitled conditional on their performing unpaid “community service”.
In 2003, the Labour government deported 17,040 asylum seekers and their dependants. That was a record at the time, and a 23% increase on 2002 figures.
Britain’s current points-based immigration system, which allows entry for “entrepreneurs” with £200,000 or more, or employees with high qualifications and “future expected earnings”, but excludes ordinary workers, was introduced not by the Tories, but by Labour in 2008.
Labour’s record in government is not one of being a “soft touch”. It is one of ratcheting up immigration controls, increasing deportations, and reducing the legal status of many migrant workers, asylum seekers, and refugees to something akin to slaves.
The Labour government also joined it with tabloid hysteria about immigration. Labour leaders fed the far-right’s agenda by dressing up endorsement of “coming-over-here-taking-our-jobs” scapegoating as concern for the interests of white working-class constituents.
Helping whip up at atmosphere of racist fear and hatred can have a terrible effect on the lives of migrants. Crown Prosecution Service figures for 2010-2011 showed that racially and religiously motivated hate crimes were at a record high, with over 13,000 people appearing before courts (and that’s just the ones who were caught, arrested, and charged). Research by the Institute of Race Relations has shown a particular and ongoing increase in violence against eastern European migrant workers.
At the Young Labour conference on 23-4 June, both Tom Watson and Ed Balls claimed that Labour’s new so-called “tough approach” is not about pandering to racism. They said it responds to people’s concerns about cheap migrant labour being used to undercut wages and conditions. Immigration control is a “class issue”.
This is indeed a class issue. According to official figures (Guardian, 1 April 2008), immigration generally increases living standards for the already-settled. But if the bosses can divide already-settled workers from migrants, then the migrants become super-exploited, and the already-settled lose out too. We must unite. To do this effectively we have to challenge the racist immigration controls which systematically criminalise migrants, and fight the media and government-driven demonisation of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Labour’s current so-called change of heart does the exact opposite.
Unemployment, lack of housing, and the decay of public services are caused by the people who created the financial crisis — bankers, big business and the politicians who are battering the living standards working-class people have fought for and won.
British working-class people cannot fight effectively for their own interests without standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who come here to flee persecution or build a better life.
Socialists in the labour movement must fight for solidarity between British-born and migrant workers, against immigration controls, for decent homes, jobs, and public services for all, and against racism.