Labour must rethink its approach to migrant rights

Don Flynn explains what Labour needs to do if it is to change minds and challenge the right wing consensus

The coalition government’s Immigration Bill is wending its way through the last stages of Parliamentary procedure, the expectation is that it will be in force by the early summer. Its passage has been a bruising experience for the Prime Minister and his Home Secretary. When it was announced as the centrepiece of its legislative programme back in May 2013, Mr Cameron must have envisaged a timely measure aimed at showing his supporters that he was on top of all the talk about fresh influxes of migrants from Bulgaria and Romania and had everything in place to ‘stem the tide’. This would have been a strong card to play against the threat from UKIP in the run-up to local government and European Parliamentary elections in May 2014 and the top man could have hoped for some credit for having engineered this outcome.

Appeal rights

But the contest over the Bill turned out to be less about its obnoxious details – intended by the Home Secretary to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants – and more on big vision stuff relating to Europe, human rights and welfare abuse. It has turned out that the relentless raising of these issues by Conservative right wingers of the stature of Nigel Mills and Dominic Raab did far more to define opposition to the Bill than anything that came from the Labour benches. To her credit, the opposition home affairs shadow, Yvette Cooper, cottoned on to the importance of opposing the abolition of appeal rights in matters concerning the correct application of the immigration regulations and Labour did its best to force a division on this issue during its final day in the Commons. This aside, on important issues like the requirement for landlord checks on the immigration status of prospective tenants, and the imposition of health charges on anyone not settled as a long term resident, the Labour position harped on the theme that ‘the Government hasn’t explained how this will actually work.’ It often seemed that if a satisfactory answer could be provided on that score, Labour would have been quite content to vote in favour of the measure, rather than merely abstain, which is what they did in the end (with only 12 Labour MPs voting against). Because of this the official opposition to Government policy on immigration policy now seems to come from a bunch of a hundred or so rabid right wingers on the malcontent wing of the Tory party. Added to this are a half dozen votes from Labour’s has-been tendency, rather incompetently led by the likes of David Blunkett and Jack Straw. The party leadership probably thinks that this is a perfectly decent exercise of the triangulation tactic, which involves grabbing your opponents’ star policies and reconfiguring them as your own. Rumour has it that Cooper talks to those in her circle of not wanting to see space large enough for the insertion of a cigarette paper between her position on immigration and that of the Tories. It seems likely that Ed Miliband wants to push the boundaries of difference a little beyond this glum point. His few speeches on immigration since winning the leadership contest have explored the theme of migrant exploitation and have played with it as the real reason why the wages of newcomers are often so low. This opens up a line of defence against many of his party’s working class supporters, who blame immigration for their wage levels being held in check through most of the last decade. There is space for saying that this could be turned around if only the minimum wage inspectorate were beefed up and bad employers made to stump up. Labour’s best allies on these points tend to be the researchers who work away at the data in such bodies with acronyms like NIESR, IFS, CReAM, IPPR and the more helpfully entitled Migration Observatory. The stunningly obvious fact that emerges from much of their commentary is that migrants don’t actually like being paid less for their daily labours than other folk. A helping hand to get them the rate for the job tends to earn their gratitude. But is this an explicit enough message to make its mark on the thinking of the 60-70% of public opinion poll respondents who worry that immigration is out of control and its making its detrimental mark on their standard of living?

Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband Speaks At The Scottish Labour conference

Bigger picture

Almost certainly it is not. This line of defence leaves intact the powerful sense across that large section of the population which lives week-by-week, or month-by-month, on its pay packet and operates with the profound belief that its way of life is being abolished. Once it was holidays in Spain that were leveraged from credit companies and tallymen: now it is the business of paying the rent and having food on the table during that last week before the wages go in the bank, which needs to be covered. Where does migration fit into this bigger picture? Notions of globalisation and the footloose nature of modern business begin to swirl around here. Companies don’t want to pay the taxes that were once used to finance the education and health services that played the useful role of securing their supply of fit, able and literate workers to help make their profits. In conditions of open markets and the free movement of labour and services the cost of producing the modern proletariat can be pushed further down the line, stripping out the need for welfare and public service budgets. Instead the cost will draw on the scant resources of families abroad and their willingness to make greater sacrifices to give their kids a start in the jobs market, either in their home regions or, increasingly likely, in some far off place abroad. For the right wing the issue of immigration is situated in the crisis of the national state and its capacity to act with sufficiently severe measures to allow its native working class to be disciplined and dragooned into labour markets. The European Union and the paraphernalia of human rights appear to be major obstacles to achieving this end, giving more mobile and enterprising workers the ability to up the value of their labour power by moving far and wide to other places where the wages are higher. For employers who have to deal with the perceived rubbish that is left behind, EU regulation and human rights pops up to restrain the use of the whip and lash which is really needed to get them back in line and clocking on. Labour to date has failed to challenge the essential features of this vision. Its ideologues have their own explanations as to why the welfare state is in crisis, often rooted in claims about the erosion of common values which once sustained the communal sense of fairness, which is itself a victim of the increased social diversity that immigration has brought. They hold out the hope that it might still be possible to produce a ‘modernised’ version of the class settlement that was put in place after World War II, with social fairness being handed out to those whose ration cards show that they have made the necessary contributions. Yet there is an alternative to the political stances which form the poles of the harshness of free market realism and the nostalgic hankering for common values that guides the social democratic centrists. Its starting point has to be a better understanding of the conditions in which the contemporary working class is produced by global capitalism and the nodes of resistance which emerge to the dispossession and exploitation that this inevitably involves. The formation of communities and the forging of values of mutual aid and solidarity takes place within these processes as much as they did in the European 18th and 19th centuries, when a militant working class emerged in the poisoned and overcrowded cities of early industrial capitalism.

Issues of welfare

Issues of welfare and social insurance, nowadays scorned as nothing more than the feather-bedding of the bone-idle, will come back onto the agenda as the new working class finds ways to protect themselves from the worst of the risks they are newly exposed to in the context of mobility and migration. The portion of welfare that globalisation has clawed out of the hands of wage earners and placed at the disposal of the holders of assets who seek increased rents and dividends will be eyed once again by leaders of the new working class, and strategies will be found to summon up and consolidate the potential power of wage earners in ways which mirror capitalism’s own ability to mobilise resources across national frontiers.

The efforts of working class people

If Labour is to play a useful role in supporting the efforts of working class people to realise their potential for power and self-determination then it will have to undergo a profound change in its attitude to immigration. Its policies should cease to be guided by the project it shares with the right wing, to control and discipline the movement of people as they cross frontiers, and instead work with the fact that mobility has the potential to empower wage earners in resisting the dominance of capitalism. The current interest in countering the exploitation which migrants are exposed to is a sign of at least early steps in the right direction. It needs to be followed up with much more strategic thinking on how we move from migration regimes which express the dominance of capital to ones which are based on the rights of migrants and work to strengthen the capacity of the whole of working class and act in defence of its own interests.

This article is taken from the latest issue of CHARTIST. Don Flynn is the Director of Migrants Rights Network.