By Nick Clark
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McCluskey’s opposition to Labour’s free movement policy gives into racist myths

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Issue 2681
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey is putting pressure on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey is putting pressure on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (Pic: James O’Hanlon/Flickr)

As Labour prepares its election manifesto, Unite union general secretary Len McCluskey has insisted that freedom of movement for migrants won’t be in it.

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, McCluskey said Labour’s policy to defend and extend freedom of movement should not be in the manifesto.

He claimed this was because people living in “forgotten towns and cities” want a cut in immigration. He added that people voted to leave the European Union because of “migrant labour coming to the UK from Europe”.

“If you don’t understand those concerns, you fail to grasp the divisions that exist,” he said.

Yet a recent YouGov poll found that 56 percent of people would back continuing freedom of movement with the EU after Brexit.

McCluskey’s outburst means Unite’s delegates on Labour’s ruling national executive committee will try to block freedom of movement when it meets tomorrow to agree the manifesto.

That puts Unite directly at odds with party members, who voted in favour of freedom of movement at the party’s annual conference in September.

“I don’t think what conference voted for is a sensible approach and I will be expressing that view,” McCluskey said.

The interview sent Labour’s leading politicians into a spin.

None were willing to defend freedom of movement, or argue that the party’s policy should make it into the manifesto. Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott claimed the policy actually referred to extending free movement rights only “to those legally entitled to be here”.

But they also wanted to claim that Labour supports migrants.

Labour released a video that rightly argues migrants aren’t to blame for low wages, unemployment, lack of affordable housing or NHS waiting times.

But its politicians do claim that bosses “exploit” migrants in order to lower wages—and that therefore there must be “stricter regulations”.


Shadow employment rights minister Laura Pidcock said, “It isn’t right that we place the blame on numbers of immigrants for wages. Actually those employers that seek to undermine those national agreements are to blame for the exploitation of all workers.”

She claimed that McCluskey had been misrepresented, pointing to the fact that he also said, “Migrant workers are to blame for absolutely nothing in this country. They are just trying to better their lives and the lives of their families. It’s the greedy bosses that are using them to undercut pay and conditions.”

In practice “tougher regulations”—such as work visas or a “skills-based” system—still mean restricting migrants’ rights and ultimately making them more insecure.

When it comes down to it, Labour is essentially telling migrants, “We don’t blame you personally—but we don’t want you to come here either.”

It’s not true that migration lowers wages. Studies—such as the most recent report from university of Oxford’s Migration Observatory—have repeatedly shown that migration “has small impacts on average wages of UK workers”.

Research also shows “a very small impact of overall immigration on employment and unemployment of UK-born workers”.

The research claims migration has a more noticeable effect on lower-paid work. But restrictions on migrant workers makes it easier for bosses to underpay them.

Migrants living in Britain on a work visa are at the mercy of bosses as their right to stay depends on whether they have a job.

The real solution to low wages is to organise all workers in unions to fight for higher wages. Some of the recent, most successful, struggles to win higher pay have been led by a mostly migrant workforce. These include strikes by PCS union members at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Those struggles are made harder by claims that a section of workers are to blame for the low wages of another. It is a concession to racist myths.

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