Labour had a chance to stop a major racist Tory attack on migrants this week. It failed.
MPs voted on the Immigration Bill on Monday.
This nasty piece of legislation would end freedom of movement, which allows European Union migrants to come to Britain without a visa.
The bill passed through its second reading with a majority of just 63 votes. That means it is now one step closer to becoming law.
If the 78 Labour MPs who were absent had bothered to turn up and vote against, it could have been stopped in its tracks.
Labour‘s behaviour in the hours running up to the vote was farcical.
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott denounced the bill in an article for the Morning Star newspaper last Saturday.
Yet by Monday she said, “The Labour Party is clear that when Britain leaves the single market, freedom of movement ends.
“The front bench will not be opposing this bill.”
After outrage on social media, Labour changed its position again. It said it would vote against the bill after all—but with only a “one line whip”. This instruction to Labour MPs essentially tells them they don’t have to turn up to the vote if they don’t want to.
The confusion comes from two big problems with how Labour thinks it should approach immigration.
The first is that too many Labour MPs think their voters are hostile to migrants.
That’s a patronising idea of what working class people are like, and one with little evidence to back it up. But it’s one that plenty of Labour MPs swallow.
The second problem is that most Labour MPs then think that the only way to deal with the racists views that do exist is to pander to racist ideas. They think that challenging anti-migrant attacks could cost them votes—and for them, winning votes is more important than stopping attacks on migrants.
So Labour fudges its policies. Abbott’s Morning Star article managed to speak of both defending migrants’ rights and shutting migrants out.
The Tory immigration system “will no doubt be accompanied by lots of blood-curdling rhetoric about migrants, while at the same time encouraging just as many migrants to come,” she wrote.
She pointed out that Tory plans to divide migrants into “skilled” and “unskilled” benefit the bosses.
“Unskilled” migrants become more vulnerable to attacks on their wages and conditions—which affects the whole working class. So why does Labour propose a skilled-based immigration system of its own?
If Labour wants to avoid a repeat of this week’s mess, it needs to say that racist ideas can be challenged.
But more importantly Labour, trade unions and the whole working class need to stand against more immigration controls and defend migrants’ rights.