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Why is Labour in such a muddle over migration?

This article is over 7 years, 6 months old
Labour needs to choose between defending migrants and pandering to racist ‘concerns’, writes Nick Clark
Issue 2529
John McDonnell wants a “People’s Brexit”—but what kind?
John McDonnell wants a “People’s Brexit”—but what kind? (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Ask a group of Labour politicians what their party should say about immigration. Each will give you a different answer.

Both the left and right of the Labour Party are trying to strike an uneasy balance between defending migrants and pandering to racist “concerns” around migration.

They end up with a predictably confused position.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell recently called for a “people’s Brexit”.

He said firmly, “It is not migrants who are to blame for low pay or insecurity at work or the high cost of housing.” He also said Labour would not promise to limit immigration.

But in the same speech he suggested that migrants “undercut wages”. He’s previously said that the Brexit vote should mean an end to freedom of movement for European Union (EU) migrants.

In the same week Labour’s shadow “Brexit minister” Keir Starmer said more immigration controls should not be “the number one priority”.

But he said Labour accepts that “immigration was a big issue in in the referendum”. He also said, “There has to be changes to the way the freedom of movement rules operate.”

On the surface Starmer and McDonnell say broadly similar things.

But their difference in emphasis shows a tension between those who want to focus on defending migrants, and those who think Labour should promise more immigration controls.

This split between the left and right reflects Labour’s confusion about immigration—but it’s not the cause of it. The problem is that both sides of Labour desperately want to be all things to all people.

Labour has to decide whether it wants to attack migrants or defend them.

Most Labour MPs go along with the idea that the vote to leave the EU was mainly a vote against freedom of movement.

They fear that the Leave vote—and Labour’s poor performance in recent polls—shows the party is out of touch with working class “concerns” about immigration.

Their answer is to pander to anti-migrant racism.

Yet the bulk of Labour’s supporters, members and activists are against leaving the EU. Most of them also associate the Leave vote with racism—and rightly want Labour to take a stand against the rise in racist attacks.

So Labour politicians are left scrabbling to find ways to square the circle.

The Labour right pitches immigration controls as a way of standing up for working class people.

Last week Wolverhampton MP Emma Reynolds described chairing a meeting of Labour MPs on how to increase immigration controls after Brexit. She contrasted their “fair and balanced” immigration controls to the Tories’ “anti-migrant and inflammatory” approach.

But their options were no less divisive. They included discriminating against migrants from outside the EU and migrants they called “unskilled”.

For their part, the Labour left are less keen on talking up immigration controls. But they do talk about how more funding can deal with the “impact” of migration—or even prevent it.

Neither solution addresses the contradiction that’s at the heart of Labour’s problem. Labour has to decide whether it wants to attack migrants or defend them.

There is truth in the argument that the Leave vote showed Labour was out of touch with working class people—just not in the way the right think.

Surveys such as Lord Ashcroft’s research show that the vote to leave the EU wasn’t mostly because of immigration.

It was, as anti-racist Labour MP Diane Abbott put it, “a roar of defiance against a Westminster elite”.

McDonnell’s talk of a “People’s Brexit for the many” rather than a “bankers’ Brexit for the few” could be a step towards connecting with that mood.

But defending migrants—wherever they’re from—has to be at the heart of it.

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