It’s no surprise that 2017 begins with attacks on migrant workers. But it’s disappointing that so many come from members of the Labour Party.
Shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer called on New Year’s Day for “a fundamental rethink of immigration rules”. He singled out the “free movement” of European Union (EU) nationals.
This lined him up with Theresa May’s team at Downing Street, who reiterated that they will look at banning EU migrants from claiming benefits.
Now an unexpected leadership race inside the Unite union has entered the same slippery terrain.
Right wing challenger Gerard Coyne spoke in Birmingham on Monday. He said, “There can be no compromise on the principle of taking back control of our borders.”
He pitched curbing immigration as a defence of workers, claiming that “the presence of a very large number of foreign nationals has added to the pressures they already face at a time of austerity”.
Trade unionists from the region rapidly slammed him in an online statement.
“When we allow groups of workers to be used as scapegoats for the failures of employers and the state, we compete against one another for scraps instead of fighting together for victory,” it said.
Incumbent Len McCluskey—a powerful figure on the Labour left—tried to have his cake and eat it. Unlike Coyne he rightly called for opposing racism and welcoming refugees.
But he also echoed the code words of the right that “we must listen to the concerns of working people” on immigration.
McCluskey claimed, “Workers have always done best when the labour supply is controlled and communities are stable.”
This is a fantasy.
Communities have never been stable. For centuries capitalism has repeatedly transformed the way we live—be it through bosses’ attacks, workers’ resistance, new technologies or waves of migration.
Anti-immigrant measures have been used to divide and repress workers in the bosses’ interests.
The row reflects tensions over how to respond to a rising challenge from the right. McCluskey triggered the race in Unite to bolster his authority as Labour’s faction fights seep into the union.
He further made a nod to the right this week by saying that if Labour’s poll ratings don’t improve then Jeremy Corbyn could step down before 2020.
The working class has the strength to win, but only if workers unite for their class interests—migrants included. Turning on free movement takes us further in the wrong direction.
We need more strikes and protests to beat back the Tories—and a fight against racism. The Stand Up To Racism demonstrations on 18 March are crucial.