Most contenders for the leadership of the Labour Party think that a failure to take a tough line on immigration cost the party the general election.
They blame Labour’s inability to engage with voters’ “legitimate concerns” over the issue.
Even the editor of the left-leaning Prospect magazine last week urged Labour to become the “anti‑immigration party”.
For some on the left, Labour’s capitulation to anti-immigrant sentiment is inexplicable. But Labour has a long history of bending to such ideas—and it does so because of the nature of the party.
Governments’ approach to immigration is often shaped by the needs of the bosses—which they describe as the needs of “the economy” or “the national interest”.
Labour accepts this idea of a “national interest” and sees its role as managing the capitalist state. In reality this means backing up the bosses—and working class interests get crushed.
Labour has also swallowed the argument that workers have fixed racist views, and thinks it has to be too in order to keep votes.
Looking at Labour’s history shows how this plays out in terms of immigration. The ruling class has a contradictory attitude to immigration, shaped by the economy and the racism that is inherent to their system.
So, following the Second World War, the British economy was in dire need of more workers. Labour governments helped to recruit thousands of people from the Commonwealth to work in the “mother country”.
But by the late 1950s British capitalism’s desire for labour was abating.
The Tories and right wing press demanded immigration controls. In 1962 the Conservative government passed a law that sought to block black migration into Britain.
By accepting that black people were a problem, the Act legitimised the views of every bigot. Initially, Labour leaders promised to repeal the legislation if they returned to office.
But this opposition didn’t last. Some in the Labour Party began to argue that, if they joined the anti-immigrant clamour, it would block the right from being able to mobilise around it.
They also accepted the idea that anti-immigrant feeling was widespread—and worried about losing votes.
During the 1964 election twice as many Labour candidates mentioned immigration in their election addresses as the Tories.
One Labour candidate even issued a leaflet warning, “Large-scale immigration has occurred only under this Tory government. The Tory Immigration Act has failed to control it—immigrants of all colours and races continue to arrive here.”
This gave credibility to the idea that immigration controls were a way of maintaining the “national character”.
After Labour’s capitulation, the clamour for ever-tighter controls grew. Following Labour’s re-election in 1964, the party rushed through ever more restrictions—which made racists bolder.
In 1968 Tory MP Enoch Powell made an infamous speech predicting that “rivers of blood” would flow in the streets unless immigrants were repatriated.
Labour’s response was to rush through a new immigration bill to stop Kenyan Asians with British passports from entering Britain. This fed prejudice and undermined the basis of Labour’s support by boosting the right—the Nazi National Front increased its vote.
When Labour was in office in 1976, immigration officers at Heathrow airport secretly forced Asian women to undergo virginity tests.
Labour was against the Tories’ Nationality Act from the opposition benches in the 1980s. Yet it didn’t repeal the Act when it was re-elected.
And in its 13 years in office, New Labour made life harder for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.
Its 2009 Borders, Immigration and Citizenship Act aimed to “strengthen border controls to ensure that newcomers earn the right to stay”. The Act ended the right of people to apply for citizenship after five years’ residence.
Gordon Brown introduced the poisonous slogan of “British jobs for British workers” and used the points‑based immigration system to make it harder for non-EU migrant workers to come here.
Immigration minister Liam Byrne in 2007 said that immigration had “deeply unsettled the country”.
Many Labour Party members, and some Labour MPs, are rightly disgusted at the party for caving in to racist arguments. We will work with these people in campaigning for the rights of migrants.
But Labour accepts the framework of capitalism—and that’s why it fails to stand up for migrants.