GE2019: Oh no, Mr McCluskey

This week has seen the same old fake news and Tory lies about immigration. Don Flynn does some myth busting

What a state we have got to when immigration is once again being bandied around as an issue which might get a troubled and volatile electorate back into their pens in time for voting on December 12th.

‘Feel afraid – feel very afraid’ is the message the Tories have been trying to get over these past few days, with Michael Gove first writing in The Times that Labour was going to work with the SNP to maintain free movement rights and thereby deprive the UK authorities of the power to stop criminals crossing the country’s borders.

Follow this up with home secretary Priti Patel citing ‘evidence’ that Labour’s policies (as yet unpublished) would drive up migration to the figure of 840,000 people each year for a total of ten years. Fake news doesn’t even begin to cut it.

It seems somewhat shocking that the main centre-right political party should be stirring things up in this manner after a long period of time when public opinion has been registering higher degrees of anxiety as to how whole sectors of industry as well as much valued public services will manage to get by if Britain leaving the EU does lead to a fall-off in immigration.

Hostile environment

This is also a time when it might be hoped that the lessons of the disastrous ‘hostile environment’ policy operated by the home office under the leadership of Conservative secretaries of state might be taking root among voters. The staggering incompetence of a major government department, incapable of even recognising the legal residence status of now elderly Caribbean migrants of the Windrush generation until recently, shone out like a beacon and posed important questions about the way in which immigration has come to be managed over the past decade.

It might have been hoped that any consideration of immigration policy during this election campaign might have centred on the actions that need to be taken to reverse hostile environment policies and orient towards measures that would make the rights of people crossing frontiers more central to the discussion. The deaths of the 39 Vietnamese nationals found in a lorry in an industrial park in Grays, Essex, ought to have been a recent enough event to remind people that radical change is needed if we are to bring an end to tragedies of this kind.

But if it seemed that, for once, the left might have been entering this election period in a good place to advocate for a progressive approach to managing migration it has taken too long to suggest that bubble of hope might have burst. All the early signs, signalled most clearly by Emily Thornberry’s flagging up of the ending of freedom of movement for EU nationals and its replacement with a system of managed migration, suggest that Labour intends to play safe around the issue and not risk being tainted with a stance that can be spun through a further bout of fakeness as too friendly to migrants.

Oh no, Mr McCluskey

Even this seems not good enough for a supposedly close ally to Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Unite trade union Len McCluskey. In an article in the Guardian he makes the bold statement that a victory for Labour in the general election means taking a tough line on ending freedom of movement. Arguing that a policy aimed at preventing the pay and conditions of workers from being undercut meant ending the free movement of labour, he has given a gift to the anti-immigrant right which has spent years blaming newcomers for making things worse for people already present in the UK workforce.

This is a well-established prejudice which ‘myth-busting’ campaigns waged by migrant defenders have not being able to shift, despite the fact that their viewpoint is sustained by the bulk of economic analysis – including that provided by the Migration Advisory Committee, the independent economic expert body which advises the government on the economic impact of its immigration policies. In its report to the government on the options for a labour migration policy to succeed EU freedom of movement it stated that the evidence showed that “migrants have no or little impact on the overall employment and unemployment outcomes of the UK-born workforce” and “migration is not a major determinate of the wages of UK-born workers.”

McCluskey might share the frustration felt by supporters of migrants that it is proving very difficult to get workers to focus on the facts, but that does not seem to be a good reason to abandon the effort and go over to repeating the erroneous views that so many people are continuing to cling to. “Stricter labour market regulation.”

Despite all of this the Tory presumption that immigration is an issue which can be fanned into a major reason for working people to abandon support for Labour does not feel right. Too many things fly in the face of the appeal to place confidence in a Conservative government to ‘take back control’ of UK borders, not least the fact that they have had this for the last nine-and-a-half years and still the movement of people is taking place at historically high levels.

Labour must hold its nerve and counter Tory fake news and scaremongering with its own progressive narrative on migration. Central to this must be the argument, backed with evidence, that the best outcome for all working people is one in which they are empowered to act on their own behalf against exploitation and abuse, whether they are newcomers to the country or native-born.

Don Flynn

Don Flynn is Chartist managing editor and former director of Migrant Rights Network