By Nick Clark
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2640

Why does Labour give in to myths about immigration?

This article is over 5 years, 4 months old
Issue 2640
Diane Abbott speaking at a rally defending Windush Generation migrants last year
Diane Abbott speaking at a rally defending Windush Generation migrants last year (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Labour’s shadow home secretary Diane Abbott has spent her whole life fighting racism. But last week she was threatening to let a vicious Tory immigration bill progress through parliament unopposed.

The Immigration Bill would end freedom of movement, which allows European Union migrants to come to Britain without a visa.

On the day it went through its second reading in parliament, Abbott said that “under Labour freedom of movement will end”.

But socialists should defend the right for ordinary people to move around freely without border controls. Immigration law—like the Tories’ latest piece of legislation—is always applied in a racist way.

What is it that leads one of Labour’s most principled and well known anti-racists to cave in?

A look at Labour’s history helps to find an explanation.

Time and again Labour politicians have promised to defend migrant rights only to accept—or even champion—anti-migrant laws.

Ever since Labour was founded its politicians have felt the need to appeal for votes from all sections of society—left and right.

Labour’s MPs were split down the middle at the first attempt to introduce Britain’s very first immigration controls.

The Aliens Act specifically targeted Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. It aimed to institutionalise the idea that these migrants were to blame for sickness, housing problems, criminality and poverty.

When the then Tory government first tried to pass the bill in 1904, three of Labour’s six MPs voted against it—but the others abstained.

They managed to get themselves together to oppose it unanimously when it came back in 1905. But the bill passed and from then on Labour’s opposition to immigration controls was shaky.


In 1914—when Labour capitulated to the nationalism that accompanied the outbreak of the First World War—a new Aliens Restriction Act went virtually unopposed. This act allowed for the internment and expulsion of any “undesirable” migrant.

Yet in 1919—a period of mass revolt across Britain—Labour unanimously opposed a bill to keep and tighten those laws.

Labour MP Josiah Wedgewood declared, “We believe that the interests of the working classes everywhere are the same.” Just five years later MPs cast that spirit of internationalism aside in an effort to keep the first Labour government in office.

The Tories claimed that Labour’s immigration policy was to “let them all come.” Fearing that this could cost it votes, Labour’s response was that it had naturalised fewer foreigners than the Tories.

It didn’t save Labour, which was booted out of office in a snap election. Yet throughout the 1920s and 1930s Labour remained firmly in favour of restricting immigration.

The only thing that could force a change was the needs of capitalism and the British state.

The need for workers after the Second World War led the 1945 Labour government to attract migrants to Britain.

But rather than repeal the Aliens Act, Labour instead launched European Volunteer Worker schemes with severe conditions forced on migrants who came to work. Migrant workers from Europe couldn’t bring their families with them, for instance, and if they fell ill or were injured on the job, they were deported.

Labour’s defence of immigration from the Commonwealth—countries that were once part of the British Empire—was on a similar basis.

Labour MPs spoke out against attempts by the Tory government to restrict migration from the Commonwealth in the late 1950s and early 60s. Labour shadow home secretary Patrick Gordon Walker attacked the Tories’ Commonwealth Immigration Bill as “bare-faced, open race discrimination.”


But Labour’s arguments relied much more on defence of the Commonwealth and a paternalistic attitude to people in Britain’s former colonies. Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell was sympathetic to Commonwealth migrants because “They look on us as the mother country in a very real sense.”

Barbara Castle, a Labour MP, said, “I do not care whether or not fighting this Commonwealth Immigration Bill will lose me my seat, for I am sure that this bill will lose this country the Commonwealth.”

Yet as it turned out, fear of losing seats is exactly what turned Labour towards backing immigration controls. In a climate of rising racism, Labour started to drop its opposition to immigration controls ahead of a general election in 1964.

Twice as many Labour candidates as Tory mentioned immigration in their leaflets.

Labour won that election. But Gordon Walker lost his seat in Smethwick to the Tory Peter Griffiths, whose campaign was based on racism against Commonwealth migrants. This was the election with the infamous slogan “If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour”.

Walker’s response was to furiously deny that he was in favour of unrestricted immigration.

But when he lost his seat anyway, Labour’s conclusion was that it had to make concessions to anti-migrant racism, not challenge it.

The new Labour government began introducing the sort of immigration controls it had opposed when out of office.

Labour MP Richard Crossman wrote, “Since the Smethwick election it has been quite clear that immigration can be the greatest potential vote-loser for the Labour Party if we are seen to be permitting a flood of immigrants in to blight the central areas of our cities.”

Ever since, Labour’s attitude to immigration has always been decided either by the needs of capitalism, or the pressure of elections—never the needs of migrants or the unity of the working class. Harold Wilson’s Labour government rammed through its own Commonwealth Immigration Act in 1968. This stopped Kenyan Asians with British passports entering Britain.

Under James Callaghan’s 1976-9 Labour government, laws were passed that said women coming to live in Britain didn’t need a visa as long as they were planning to marry. In practice that meant that Asian women were forced to undergo appalling  “virginity tests” at airports.

The New Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown allowed in some migrants because they believed it would boost the economy but simultaneously carried out anti-migrant measures.

The economic crash in 2007—and Labour’s unpopularity—saw Brown adopt the slogan “British jobs for British workers”.

Ed Miliband, who led Labour after him, tried to win the party back to office with a promise of “controls on immigration”—infamously printed on a mug.

Labour now has a left wing leadership. It was a good sign that Corbyn’s first act as Labour leader was to address a 50,000-strong pro-refugee rally in central London.

Fight for a world without racist border controls
Fight for a world without racist border controls
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But even Corbyn and Abbott, who have resisted anti-migrant racism, face the same pressure as previous Labour leaderships.

There’s a constant pull on them to give in. Ever since his leadership election there’s been a steady pressure on him and his allies to retreat from defending migrants’ rights.

Right wing Labour MPs and some trade union leaders repeat a version of the myth that migrants lower wages.

They talk of bosses “importing” migrant workers to undercut workers.

It’s not true. Bosses might want to drive down wages in this way—but all the evidence shows that migration has had little impact wages in Britain.

And some of the most inspiring campaigns for higher pay have been those organised by migrants.

Yet for all that Labour MPs and trade union leaders continually pressure Corbyn to adopt a policy of introducing new immigration controls.

Unlike the Labour right, the left couch their anti-migrant arguments more overtly in the language of workers’ rights.

In speeches Corbyn often insists that migrants aren’t to blame for low wages—then promises to stop “undercutting”.

That’s a fudge that comes from Labour’s eternal attempts to look for left and right votes at the same time.

The people who benefit most from anti-migrant racism are the Tories and the racists. Labour and trade union leaders have to be made to challenge anti-migrant racism and defend freedom of movement and migrants’ rights. It’s in the interests of the whole of the working class to unite against racism.

But in Labour, resisting that pressure to give in means cutting against the problems that have been built into the party since the very beginning.

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