By Alex Callinicos
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Labour needs clarity, not slippage, in defence of migrant workers

This article is over 7 years, 4 months old
Issue 2531
Labours shadow business secretary Clive Lewis
Labour’s shadow business secretary Clive Lewis (Pic: Rwendland/Wikimedia Commons)

The relatively firm stand Jeremy Corbyn has taken on migration is a tonic in a dark time. But this principled stand is under heavy attack from within the Labour Party.

At Labour’s National Policy Forum in Loughborough last week, Corbyn denounced the “fake anti-elitism” of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, two “rich white men”. He also pledged Labour to taking “a different path” on immigration.

“There can be no accommodation, now and never, with hate,” he said, refusing to “make false promises on immigration targets as the Tories have done”.

It’s not news that right wing Labour MPs demand that the party drop its support for free movement for European Union (EU) workers. Though it’s a particularly contemptible U-turn from those who campaigned to remain in the EU.

But, according to the New Statesman magazine last week, similar moves are taking place in Corbyn’s team itself.

The plan is, apparently, “to go into the election with a sharper offer on border control. One shadow minister describes it like this ‘radical on the economy, where the public are on immigration’.

“Just as Ed Miliband turned to Chuka Umunna and Sadiq Khan to do the heavy lifting as far as announcements on immigration were concerned, Clive Lewis, who as well as being from an ethnic minority is popular among activists, has been deployed for many of the more controversial announcements—telling the Guardian that free movement of people has not worked for ‘millions’ of Brits, and announcing today that only people who are members of a trade union should be able to come to work here.

“He reiterated that on Sky…, say[ing] that ‘if’ immigration has had a net benefit, the benefits have not been share[d] fairly, and the way to tackle that is to compel companies that bring people in from abroad to only bring in those who are trade union members, adding ‘I think that that will in turn mean that companies will want to begin to take people more often from this country.’”

This approach is wrong on so many levels.


It concedes the argument of Farage and the Tory right, who want to put their stamp on Brexit by claiming that the vote to leave was all about immigration. In fact, polling reveals more complex and divided attitudes.

For example, a ComRes survey published at the end of September showed 61 percent support preserving freedom of movement in some form. That compares to just 39 percent who want the so-called “Australian” points-based system advocated by Ukip.

Lewis also largely accepts that immigration has a negative economic impact, even though there is very little evidence.

Corbyn himself goes some way in this direction, saying for example in Loughborough, “we will take decisive action to end the undercutting of workers’ pay and conditions, reinstate the migrant impact fund to support public services and back fair rules on migration”.

This way of putting it is just about OK. It places responsibility on the government for not supporting communities where migration has taken place and on British employers and their gangmasters for super-exploiting migrant labour.

But this is dangerous territory ideologically.

So much of what’s said about the supposed economic damage caused by migration is driven by xenophobic fantasy that has nothing to do with any genuine evidence.

Lewis’s suggestion to allow in only trade unionists is dreadful—and all the more so since it is intended to have a vaguely right-on feel.

How would it work? Is the Border Agency going to contact trade unions around Europe to check the membership of potential migrants?

Moreover, it lets the British unions—which should be straining to organise migrant workers—off the hook.

One of the few genuine boons offered by European integration has been the freedom for workers to move, live, and work across the continent.

This is now under threat—from the Brexiteers and Labour back-sliders, and throughout Europe from the racist right. It’s the duty of everyone who cares about the future of the labour movement to fight to defend it.

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