Labour On Immigration: Caught between doing something and doing nothing

Don Flynn

Chatham House, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The solution seems to be do something, but do it badly, argues Don Flynn

Labour’s announcement of a stance on immigration policy earlier this month is best viewed as a placeholder until something better comes along.

Doing or saying nothing on the issue was never an option given the culture wars being stoked up by the right at the present time.  Doing something that might actually be fairer for the people most in need of supportive policies, namely, migrants and refugees – seems to be viewed as unacceptably risky by the party hierarchy.  So, the way out of the dilemma is to do something, but do it badly.

The proposals which make up Starmer’s initiative have been worked through election campaign units and focus groups. It appears approval has been given for a package which requires those crossing borders be treated as terrorists (possibly including, according to ambiguous statements made by Starmer in a television interview with Trevor Phillips, asylum seekers and their dependent family members). In addition a new bout of cooperation with EU states will include a deal allowing some refugees to come to the UK whilst others are returned across the Channel. 

Squaring circles

The plan is clearly intended to square not one but a whole set of awkward circles which have crowded around immigration policy. How can it  register a degree of repugnance against the government’s extreme illiberalism in relation to its treatment of refugees whilst also manage its relationship with the voters in the ‘red wall’ seats who, it is claimed, react against any suggestion that the party is soft on both immigration? 

The Conservatives and their allies in the media have not been slow in cashing in on the elements of Starmer’s position that might provoke exactly this reaction.  According to GB News and its echo box, the commitment to exchanges of refugees with the EU states could lead to between 100,000 and 180,000 people in need of asylum arriving in the UK each year.  Labour of course denies this with the message that the actual figure will be 30,000 or less, which is smaller than the numbers crossing the Channel in small boats over the last few years. But if the mood of the red wall sets the parameters for Labour policy, Starmer has to face up to the fact that, once it has been worked over by the Tory-supporting media, even one extra refugee will be seen as one too many.

The response of the refugee supporting charities and NGOs has been mixed. Freedom from Torture and the Refugee Council have welcomed the fact that one of the major parties is now talking about safe routes and the reception of at least some of people wanting or needing to come to the UK. On the other hand, Care4Calais, which earned its stripes working with people stranded in the ‘jungle’ camps on the other side of the Channel the best part of ten years ago, has been more critical.  Supporters of its work have denounced Labour’s plan as amounting to nothing more than slogans about ‘smashing gangs’ rather than a serious attempts to formulate a humanitarian policy.

Real policy context

For the rest of us, the supposed “refugee crisis” has been a feature of our lives from infancy to dotage. Neither Labour’s attempt at rational migration management in the ‘noughties or the Conservative’s hostile environment from 2010 onwards have raised the hope of a final resolution by one iota. What is changing is the context in which we are having to think through the challenges of people movement, which will only grow greater in the coming years as the disaster of human-induced climate change and the stifling of economic development in the Global South continues to entrench impoverishment. 

The social democratic hope for a sensible middle course between a well-managed, prosperous home economy and the obligation towards global equality is being crushed by the failings of the neoliberal system which it bought into being in the 1990s. The belief that trade conducted on the basis of globalised free markets was the way forward is vanishing across entire regions of the planet and with it has gone the belief that a version of capitalism is the best way of achieving progress.

Immigration across the world today arises in large part from the failures of this system.  A clear statement of this fact would be the starting point for a policy of any party that claims to represent the interests of Labour. With that setting the framework for our thinking it is just possible that policies supporting the movement of people across the planet can be formulated that complement the imperative need to force a break with neoliberal capitalism.  In doing this migration might be formulated as a right available to people acting on a credible plan to escape poverty and insecurity. But don’t expect to find anything of that in Labour’s plan to brand migrants as allies of terrorists and the bogus effort to “smash the gangs”.   

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