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Labour left must not give in to right over immigration

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Issue 2603
Lets not go back to the days of Labour being tough on immigration
Let’s not go back to the days of Labour being “tough on immigration” (Pic: EdMiliband/Flickr)

The Windrush scandal has raised old arguments about immigration. “Legal”, deserving migrants have been compared to undocumented, undeserving migrants.

Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said last week she would not treat “the Windrush Generation and others who have a right to be here as if they were illegal”.

But when asked about whether Labour would have targets for deporting “illegal” migrants, Abbott said, “Any government department should have targets and performance indicators.”

Maintaining the deportation regime means carrying out raids and checks on high streets, in schools and workplaces. It means denying medical care to people in hospitals. It means a continuation of the “hostile environment” policy.

Two years ago Abbott argued, “It is time people stopped talking about migrants as a problem.

“Our job is to say to people in the labour movement, what kind of solution is it for the underpaid and exploited to encourage them to think that another section of the working class is their enemy?

What’s behind Abbott’s shift? The first thing to say is it’s not new.


Throughout Labour’s history, the closer the party has moved to office, the more pressure it is under to portray itself as a responsible party capable of managing the state.

It does this because it believes the state can be used as a vehicle to achieve socialism, or at least some level of social change.

Because of this Labour makes concessions as it draws closer to office, in particular over the question of racism.

In 1958 Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell argued that “every Commonwealth citizen has the right as a British subject to enter this country at will”.

By the 1964 general election, the party leader Harold Wilson was attacking migrants.

“Labour accepts that the number of immigrants entering the United Kingdom must be limited,” he said.

“Until a satisfactory agreement covering this can be negotiated with the Commonwealth, a Labour government will retain immigration control.”

He was responding to increasing levels of racism in British society.

The Tories had waged a campaign of virulent anti?immigration rhetoric.

In Smethwick, in the West Midlands, the Tory candidate won after a vicious racist campaign.

Many in Labour thought their party should shift to the right over immigration to match them.

This pattern repeats itself. Labour’s history is filled with times when it pandered to anti-migrant racism.

After Tory racist Enoch Powell made his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968, the Labour government rushed through an Immigration Bill stopping Kenyan Asians coming to Britain.

In 1974 immigration rules said a woman travelling to Britain didn’t need a visa if she was going to get married.


This led to the disgusting policy, introduced under Labour, of immigration officials forcing Asian women to undergo virginity tests at airports.

In 2007 Gordon Brown responded to the economic crisis, and Labour’s unpopularity, with the racist slogan “British jobs for British workers”.

And Ed Miliband was so keen to appear “tough” on migrants that Labour even put a pledge for more immigration controls on a giant stone tablet, and emblazoned across mugs.

Now, as the possibility of a Labour government becomes increasingly likely, the pressure is on to tack right over immigration again.

One of the consequences of that move in the 1960s and 1970s was the legitimisation of racism and the rapid growth of the far right.

Today, the growth of the Football Lads Alliance and its joining with Ukip shows the threat from the far right is as real as ever.

Racism must be fought, not pandered to.

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