Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Labour, migration and a divided country

The 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott successfully fought a racist bar on Black and Asian workers by the Bristol Omnibus Company
Over the last couple of months, a series of public statements has muddied the Labour Party’s position on free movement in the EU after Brexit, and its wider position on migration to the UK. The wider reaction to these conflicting messages is a shambles, with the right criticising Labour’s alleged commitment to FOM while the Green Party take them to task for abandoning it. This is an updated and edited version of the letter I sent to the Labour leader before the first Article 50 vote. 

Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn, a large part of the mainstream media has been obsessively biased and vindictive in its representation of the Labour Party leader. He is under great pressure from outside and inside the party to change his line on freedom of movement and migration, in order to pander to an inevitably racist attempt at populism. If the Labour Party is going to succeed in future elections, it is crucial that Corbyn stands firm and sticks to the anti-racist, migration-friendly approach that has characterised his 30 years in Parliament. Labour's loss in Copeland, and the embarrassing scramble of much of the shadow cabinet to gain a secure foothold somewhere between the will of Party members and the urges of the PLP before the next, inevitable coup, put even more pressure on the Corbyn camp. But for thirty years Corbyn kept our respect (and was continuously re-elected) by doing the right thing over the popular thing. Is he going to fail now, after so long?


1. ‘Free Movement’ 
The idea of free movement of goods or capital without free movement of labour is repellent. It also does not make economic sense. If there is any way to lessen the devastating effects of Brexit on the people living on this island, it will be by insisting that free movement of people is protected. (This will also protect the hundreds of thousands of British citizens living in the rest of the EU.) While I hold no illusions that the Labour Party will be able to stop Brexit, in the current climate it is essential that we hold out against a Tory ‘hard Brexit’, refusing to support Article 50 unless crucial concessions are made. In fact there is little likelihood that the EU negotiations will lead to a real reduction in migration, so even the Tories are really looking at purely nominal controls, perhaps accompanied by an increase in hoops for EU workers to jump through, such as work permits and reduced access to state support. 

2. A Wholly Racist Discourse 
Almost all discourse on ‘migrants’ lumps together a vast number of people. Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic people including citizens and long-term residents have suffered from a rise in violence and abuse despite usually not having anything to do with EU migration. People who have lived in this country for decades, with families born here, who perceive Britain as their home, suddenly find this basic security called into question. The rise in xenophobia has worsened our already-shameful treatment of some of our most vulnerable people: refugees and asylums seekers, who should be protected under the Geneva Convention. I cannot understand how any decent person can speak of migrants as dichotomous to ‘British people’, ‘citizens’, ‘taxpayers’ or ‘voters’. No such dichotomy exists, and to imply it does recalls an older strand of racism (not so very long ago) when it was acceptable to talk of migration in terms of ‘black’ and ‘white’. 

3. Workers’ Rights for All: a No-Brainer 
The myth of ‘undercutting wages’ is an aberration for a socialist Labour Party which should be seeking a real living wage for all people living here. Many undocumented people are known to pay more tax than they should, as they have no means to reclaim overpayments. In fact recent migrants in general often suffer from a lack of access to information and translation which will help them understand their rights and contributions. At the same time it is well-established that migrants are less likely to use public services or claim pensions. If any ‘undercutting’ is possible (and studies show that it is hugely exaggerated if not wholly invented) our role is to fight for adequate minimum wages and care for all workers. 

Trade unions should be actively recruiting migrant workers and encouraging a united front between them and other victims of exploitation. They should also be fighting on a smaller scale in majority-migrant sectors: the rapid spread of unionised struggles starting from the SOAS Justice for Cleaners campaign is a good example. Facilitated in part by Unison, it is now winning significant gains in cleaning workplaces across London universities and elsewhere. And protecting and reinforcing labour laws which seek to minimise the damage of wholesale casualisation will not only protect workers, but will force employers to rely less on itinerant, seasonal and zero-hours workers, thus benefiting ALL workers and their dependants. 

4. A doomed appeal to UKIP supporters 
Ed Miliband’s election campaign, complete with anti-migration mugs, is a laughable example of how appealing to UKIP voters and other anti-migration people (often presented in in the media in an offensive caricature of white working-class people) is not just ethically wrong but doomed to fail. Firstly, it is crucial to challenge the reasons why some voters are racist and/or anti-migration. There is a significant link between this and poverty, and a sense of political exclusion. Secondly, a Labour Party which has something real to offer to people who feel marginalised will not need to pander to racist rhetoric. A robust challenge to the scapegoating of benefits claimants would help. And finally, the Tories are already capitalising on the growing racism to win votes for themselves. 

Pandering to this kind of populism will not help us win the election: offering a real alternative might. Furthermore, to win back voters Labour needs to address the reasons that votes were lost in a more balanced, long-term manner. Labour has sometimes capitulated to racism (it was, for example, slow to embrace equal employment during the ‘60s and ‘70s) and under New Labour, a rise in Islamophobia and the Iraq catastrophe alienated young Muslims. These are people who can be won back by Labour, as are the children and grandchildren of people who have come to live in this country over the last century. Those who think that Labour was ‘soft’ on migration under Blair or Miliband are not the ones we wish to woo: neither will it be possible to do so. 

In 1954, Joseph Welch asked Senator McCarthy ‘Have you no sense of decency?’ This simple question, asked by one brave person, contributed to the end of McCarthy’s reign of terror and persecution. 


In the face of the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ hysteria on migration which has plagued our country for decades, this is the question that must be asked of those who seek to vilify and scapegoat Eastern European workers, BAME British citizens and residents, asylum seekers and refugees, and the undocumented people who carry out some of our most difficult jobs. If you won’t ask it, who will? Many people, including myself, are waiting for an anti-racist clarity to emerge from this chaos, and votes depend on it in the next election. In these mad times, the Labour Party must be seen to be doing what is right; what is just; what is necessary.

No comments: