Don Flynn welcomes Labour’s decision to oppose the Bill, but says a serious campaign is needed to get the public onside for the alternative
The government’s immigration bill got through a key stage in its journey to becoming the law of the land on Monday night in a Parliamentary vote of 351 in favour to 252 against.
Despite rumblings of disquiet even in Tory ranks over provisions which will have a draconian impact on migrants earning below the £25,600 salary threshold, cutting out the sort of key workers now proclaimed as heroes during the health emergency, the bill now moves on to more stages of parliamentary scrutiny.
Labour’s new shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, attacked the government’s plan with a line that will have the approval of a party membership which generally supports freedom of movement for workers. He pressed home the point that public attitudes towards migrants had shifted during the course of the Covid-19 health emergency as news reports gave vivid accounts of low paid migrant health and care workers on the frontline in the fight against the pandemic.
He pointed to the hypocrisy of government ministers, eager to clap for carers each Thursday evening, but who “are only too happy to vote through a bill today that will send a powerful message to those same people – that they are not considered by this government to be skilled workers.”
Thomas-Symonds made the point that much of the real work of the bill would be done through what he described as “sweeping powers” delegated to government ministers who would be setting up the new rules through statutory instruments, which traditionally command little oversight from parliament. Given the government record over the past ten years in adopting the disastrously ill-judged measures which gave rise to the hostile environment, the prospect of a further period of ineptly pursued immigration control measures is bound to generate more apprehension.
For once in a vote over immigration legislation discipline was maintained over the parliamentary party and most MPs voted against the bill, though 15 had no vote recorded, possibly on the grounds of difficulty with the remote electronic voting system. The one Labour MP who made a public declaration of her intention to defy the party whip was Yvette Cooper. She stated the view that “cross-party spirit” ought to be extended to the bill on the grounds that the ending of EU freedom of movement meant a need for new legislation. She felt the bill as proposed was flawed but her refusal to vote against it suggests a belief it could be improved to meet her standards for immigration control.
Opposition to the bill makes a welcome contrast with the often incoherent stance on the issue taken by the Labour front bench team under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Confused directions given to Labour MPs to abstain in a vote on the 2017 Immigration bill, countermanded in a last-minute instruction to oppose the measure, made it clear that although hearts might have been in the right place, Corbynite heads had no clear vision of the rights-based approach to policy which they should have been championing.
The party’s activist rank-and-file has the strong sense that public moods are changing with regard to immigration and this view is being backed up with evidence from opinion polls. Yvette Cooper undoubtedly has sympathisers in the parliamentary party with her view that Labour cannot depart too far from the ‘firm but fair’ mantra that sees the need for the sort of tough enforcement policy that means tens of thousands of people are detained under immigration rules each year and deported from the country. Starmer and his shadow home secretary have a job to do to hold to the current line in future parliamentary votes.
The new leadership team has the enormous good fortune to be working with a public mood which, for the first time in decades, is showing majority support for an immigration management system that acknowledges both the human value and the rights of the people who come to make their futures in this country. It would be a tragedy if they waste this opportunity to convert sympathy into committed backing for a root-and-branch reform of immigration policy. More work is needed to make a really solid case for a system which has the rights of migrants at its heart.