Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott’s interview on Radio 4 Today, 28 December, marked a new, abject low in the Labour leadership’s timidity and triangulation over migration policy.
A sharp rise in migrants attempting to cross the Channel in flimsy boats and dinghies – a desperate, dangerous prospect that police have likened to “trying to cross the M25 at rush hour on foot” – saw forty people, including children, rescued from boats in the early hours of Christmas Day.
The best response our Shadow Home Secretary could muster was: it would be “quite wrong” to intentionally leave people to drown; we have to accept that it would break international law to deny the right to claim asylum once refugees reach British waters; and “maybe” (only maybe!) we should increase patrols to save drowning people. The key thing, Abbott repeated three times, was to dissuade migrants from attempting to come here in the first place, by working with the French government to “advise” them how dangerous the crossing is.
Famously, Jeremy Corbyn’s first act on being elected Labour leader was to join a demonstration of tens of thousands of people demanding welcome and aid to refugees.
Triangulation is not just pathetic, but pointless. The Daily Express swiftly responded by railing against Abbott’s “admission” that she might mildly step up efforts to save drowning humans, and right¬wing Twitter exploded with denunciations. Decades of triangulation by Labour on this issue – from Blair’s expansion of detentions and deportations, to Brown’s adoption of the “British jobs for British workers” slogan, to Ed Miliband’s “Controls on Immigration” mug – have helped hand control of the narrative to the right and bring us to the point where we are seriously debating whether saving lives is right.
The Labour left must ditch the dangerous and nonsensical idea that disagreement equals disloyalty, rise to the task of holding our leaders to account, and demand better.