Challenging the ‘hostile environment’ fallacy is the central key task for Corbyn’s stand on immigration, argues Don Flynn in the latest CHARTIST
Jeremy Corbyn is not short of advisors when it comes to ideas on how Labour can get itself through the next five years with a reinvigorated reputation as a party capable of mounting an effective challenge to the plans of the Conservative government.
It is not likely that many of them will suggest a defence of immigration and support for the rights of migrants is one of the ways he might hope to get a hit in below the waterline of a government which is increasingly certain that it speaks for the entirety of the British people on this issue.
Yet the tone of Home Secretary Theresa May’s speech to the Tory party conference at the beginning of October, and the content of yet another immigration bill (now proceeding through Parliament) suggests that there may be a surprisingly high number of pitfalls in store for the government on this, the unlikeliest issue for the Labour cause. May’s offering of a raw, anti-immigrant message to the hardcore right-wingers who make up the activist strand of her party was calculated to tick all the boxes needed to keep her name on the list of credible challengers for the Tory leadership once the Prime Minister steps down, as promised, before 2020.
Social cohesion impossible
Immigration, she claimed, makes social cohesion impossible within the confines of a nation state. The “pace of change is too fast” she opined, making it “difficult for schools and hospitals and core infrastructure like housing and transport to cope”; neglecting to mention that the arrival of newcomers to localities across the UK was a rather minor source of problems in comparison to the £200 billion that the Chancellor George Osborne is working hard to cut out of public services, capital investment and welfare spending before the next election.
She then went on to say that “for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further while some people are forced out of work altogether.” Yet a report published jointly by her own Home Office and the department for Business, Innovation and Skills in March 2014 found “little evidence that migration has caused statistically significant displacement of UK natives from the labour market in periods when the economy has been strong.”
The assertion that the economy is now strong is one of the central claims made by the Tories about their achievements in government, at least since 2012, when employment levels began to grow again, and even more so in recent times when average wages have been rising after years of stagnation.
The country’s recent record on net migration, the benchmark against which Cameron and co. asked voters to judge him on a ‘no ifs, no buts’ basis in the early days of his first premiership, reflects the way in which immigration fits into a famously open economy like that of the UK. This is during a time when businesses are hiring and doing their best to sell their goods and services in the world marketplace.
Of the ‘unsustainable’ net inflow of 330,000 people who came to the UK in the 12 months prior to March 2015, one-third comprised international students mainly enrolled in higher education establishments. According to Universities UK, the sector organisation representing higher education, this group is responsible for nearly £11 billion annual export earnings for the UK economy and funds 25,000 jobs – around 18% of the 137,000 people in universities and colleges.
The numbers of workers coming into the country also increased, with non-EU nationals being recruited directly into skilled level jobs under the provisions of the Home Office’s points-based scheme. Over 60% of EU nationals who arrived during this period also went straight into jobs, and the vast majority of the remainder placing themselves in employment a short time after their arrival.
None of this is suggestive of a broken system that is undermining social cohesion and driving more into poverty. As a recent report published jointly by Migrants’ Rights Network and the CLASS think tank has shown,* the basic facts about migration to the UK today are there to be marshalled and fed into public conversation by any progressive political movement that is up to the task of challenging the xenophobic myths that are still largely prevalent.
Despite having such a flimsy evidence base to sustain their negative viewpoints on immigration, the Tory government has chosen to embark on yet another round of legislation which derives all its impetus from Mrs May’s insistence on a perspective focused on the supposedly toxic effects it is having on British society.
Labour, somewhat splutteringly, is beginning to recognise that it would make sense to contest an immigration bill that aims to promote a ‘hostile environment’. The stated intention of the government strategy – to send out the message that unwanted migrants should ‘go home ’-points like a dagger at the heart of those diverse urban parts of the country which still vote Labour.
Until now leadership strategists have pondered the anti-immigrant messages they have been picking up on doorsteps as evidence that the centre-left needs to enter into competition with the Conservatives on the issues of who can come up with the toughest rhetoric on how the numbers of newcomers can be driven downwards. The Shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham has represented this approach. His speech at the party conference in Brighton contained a section which set out the claim that migration is ‘widening inequality’ and ‘making life harder in our poorest communities.’
Sucked into a vortex
It is doing neither of these things. The argument that immigration is a zero sum game run at the expense of native workers has been played so often that it seems contrary to common sense to assert otherwise. Yet that is exactly what Labour must do it if is to avoid being sucked into a vortex in which positions on immigration have to be stated with ever-increased negativity in order to keep up with the competition from the Tories and forces even further to their right.
If that is the direction Labour is to go, it will have to compete in a race to the xenophobic bottom which they just cannot win. This will become increasingly evident as the cost of the hostile environment for migrants, requiring landlords to discriminate in letting tenancies, immigration checks on high streets and public transport systems, and increased risk for employers who offer jobs to anyone tainted with the possibility that they might just be ‘foreign’.
The danger that the mania for ‘getting tough’ on migrants now poses for the UK’s ethnically and culturally diverse communities ought to be the clue as to the direction in which Labour now needs to take if it is to mark out a path for itself as a true opposition to Theresa May and her particularly right wing current in the Conservative party. To continue tracking in that direction would mean closing down the option of building a relationship with that significant section of public opinion which has revealed itself over the summer months as wanting to see more done in the field of refugee and migration policy to buttress the rights of mobile people, rather than bring about their further erosion and exposure to the risk of marginalisation and exploitation.
There are good grounds for thinking there are large number of people who are capable, independent thinkers and potentially effective as a new wave of political organisers. With much in common with the grassroots activists who took the discussion about Scottish independence so deep into local communities during the referendum campaign, they are looking for new ways of doing politics and new inspiration as to the future we should be striving for.
Labour should offer a way in which we can live together in diverse, mutually respectful communities as a central part of this future vision. It should proclaim an end to the mean-spirited blame game, which says that immigrants are causing hardship to those already settled in the UK, and its thorough-going opposition to the idea that we need should be aiming for a hostile environment to manage the movement of people.
As the immigration bill breaks down into its segments in the coming months, and is rolled out into programmes for action in local communities the clearest message that the party’s home affairs team need to get out is ‘No!’ to measures which threaten to more deeply divide areas where working class voters are continuing to pledge their support for Labour. That is the mandate that needs to be given to Andy Burnham as long as he has the Home Affairs post: he should be told in no uncertain terms to get on with it.
This article appeared in the latest print issue of CHARTIST, #277. Don Flynn is the Director of the Migrants Rights Network and is a long time member of the Chartist editorial board.