Labour’s resounding success in the general election has given the left plenty to be happy about; after two years of internal battles and a hostile right-wing media, Corbyn’s team shifted the debate on some of the country’s biggest issues in a way many thought unimaginable. From nationalisation to austerity, Labour has pulled the country leftwards. On immigration, they largely failed to do the same and public attitude remains largely anti-migrant. But if the party is bold in its intentions, there’s real possibility for a Corbyn-led Labour to change this toxic conversation.
“What there wouldn't be is the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions,” Corbyn told Andrew Marr last month, “particularly in the construction industry.” In this one sentence Corbyn - intentionally or not - reinforced a commonly accepted untruth that migrants push down wages. Corbyn seems, as some suggested, to have been talking about the Posted Workers Directive, used by certain employers to hire people with fewer rights. But after standing on a policy platform that for the most part correctly identified the real culprits for low pay as weak labour laws and decades of neoliberal economic policy compounded by swingeing austerity measures, why not integrate this issue into their broader pro-rights approach? The problem is inadequate labour and union rights, not migrants.
But one remark does not a policy platform make. What’s more telling is Corbyn’s comment wasn’t a significant deviation from what Labour had said during the election. In their manifesto, the message was somewhat ambiguous. The party adopted a cool-headed approach to migration figures, saying time and again they wouldn’t sign up to “bogus immigration targets”. This dampened the xenophobic obsession with how many people from different countries are in the UK (the reason there’s so much focus on numbers stems from the racialised idea of migrants “flooding” the job market and diluting an imagined British culture through supposed inalienable differences). Corbyn maintained his decades-long pro-migrant tone, frequently talking about the history of migration to and from the UK - an effort to normalise the movement of people and cast it in a positive light.
But lurking in this progressive language was a pledge to deny migrants recourse to public funds, hardly a destigmatising proposal, and a promise to end freedom of movement. What’s more, Labour’s policy to have “fair rules and reasonable management of migration” has a big question mark hanging over it: what would this mean in practical terms? Labour haven’t committed to a target but they seem to be signing up to a policy programme that ties the numbers of people coming and going from the country to economic needs. It remains to be seen what that will mean for the finer policy details that will impact people's lives, rights and ability to come to this country.
The issue of immigration is fuelled by xenophobia and scaremongering (think Cameron’s “swarms”, Miliband’s mugs or May’s “hostile environment”). Labour might have calculated this economy-first approach is a way to begin winning people over to pro-migrant arguments. But migrants’ worth and right to come to the UK shouldn’t be contingent upon and entirely measured by their economic contribution. For years politicians on the right and left have scapegoated people from abroad by saying they’re a drain on the economy, when all the evidence shows that isn’t true. There’s an understandable urge to highlight the many ways migrants do contribute. But that’s not where the discussion should stop. If the end point of the pro-migrant argument is how much migrants put into the public purse, it risks morphing into New Labour corporate cosmopolitanism, which treats human beings as pawns in the neoliberal marketplace instead of people with feelings, thoughts and lives of their own.
Although people move for a variety of reasons, when over one billion people live on less than a dollar a day, people continue to move at high rates. Migration will become an increasing necessity as climate change takes grip of the planet. But the economy-focussed discourse erases these many realities.
To recognise these flaws is not to attack the Corbyn project. When New Labour was riding roughshod over asylum seekers’ rights, Corbyn was among a handful of Labour allies who took a principled stand against the government and its rightwards lurch. But to make sense of Labour’s approach on migration we need to see it as less about Corbyn the individual and more about the party as a whole. This debate should be situated in the broader historical and contemporary context: Labour’s record on migration has often been one in which they’ve cravenly capitulated to and actively inflamed anti-migrant politics.
Labour’s current stance is as much a product of the time they are operating in, as it is the party’s multiple fractures. Immigration might not have been a defining issue of the 2017 election (perhaps because people view Brexit as a victory in terms of stopping migration) but it does still shape our party politics and is unlikely to simply disappear off the political scene. Corbyn is under pressure to shift to the right on migration but in reality more work needs to be done to change public opinion. Eventually people will realise they’ve been sold a lie about migration numbers or if fewer migrants come to the country, the economy will suffer. And if endemic prejudice isn’t addressed, the people they’ll blame either way? Migrants.
In the wake of the 2015 election, we were told Labour’s unexpected defeat was a result of them moving too far to the left. When Corbyn was voted in as Labour leader (the first time round), pundits warned the public wouldn’t stomach an anti-austerity party. And during the snap election, you wouldn’t be hard pressed to find large numbers of people predicting Labour was headed for total annihilation. The realms of the achievable had been narrowed to such an extent that the left were told there was no appetite for their ideas. Corbyn, unwavering in his anti-austerity stance, smashed that belief.
But the party’s thinking on immigration hasn’t matched its bold economic agenda. While the window of possibility may seem tiny to many, there is a potential for Labour to be radical on immigration – both rhetorically and in terms of policy. They should connect up with antiracist groups and mobilise local activists to advocate for a better migration system for all. The aim should be to unite people regardless of where they were born in fighting for better pay, rights and conditions – instead of, as previous Labour leaders have, perpetuating myths that divide people. From everyday border policing in schools and hospitals to inhumane immigration detention centres, there are a multitude of hostile policies Labour could do away with.
The political backdrop to the immigration debate is a dangerous one: xenoracism is the norm because for decades there’s been little intelligent political engagement with this much talked about topic. But Labour’s current, leftwing leadership - paired with it hundreds and thousands of passionate supporters - has the power to shatter immigration myths.
Photo Darren Johnson