Labour needs to make a defence of the rights of migrants and refugees a key part of its programme for government, argues Don Flynn
The sound of jaws crashing to the floor in amazement echoed across the country in recent weeks as the entire population looked on at the sight of a government blowing itself up. On the left of the political spectrum, the quivering hope that the Conservative omnishambles will gift the man at the top of the Labour Party an election victory he could scarcely have hoped for even 12 months ago has become irresistible. All they have to do is cleave to the line of being ‘sensible’ and the public will sweep them to power sometime in the next couple of years.
There are many reasons to resist this line of reasoning. The definition of being sensible at the present time seems to be to pledge a commitment to work within the confines of whatever the bond markets are prepared to tolerate when it comes to fiscal policy. That means austerity, and, as Keir Starmer strongly hinted in his speech to the TUC annual congress in October, the Labour leadership will not be raising any objections to that.
Raising resistance to the grim prospect of another decade of stagnant wages and reduced public services will mean coming up with a programme of massive state-led investment in infrastructure and the sort of next-generation industry which the UK hasn’t seen hide nor hair of over the past two decades – and all this while keeping to the mark of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Needed are the funds for what will function as the sort of national enterprise board Labour attempted to establish in the mid-1970s, but in a version that will challenge the assumption that economic growth is all about restoring profitability and ramping up the returns that go to private investors.
That would be the big, bold move needed from Labour that stands a chance of persuading voters that the party in government isn’t just a pinkish version of whatever Jeremy Hunt has already embarked on. But other fronts need to be opened up in order to challenge the orthodoxy of the past years. A high priority here is democratic reform of the constitution, with the House of Lords replaced by an elected second chamber and proportional representation becoming the standard way to elect all political representatives, from MPs to regional and local councillors. A Labour government acting in the interests of ordinary citizens would need to demonstrate to the institutions managing the global economy that its fiscal and industrial reforms enjoy the support of voters, and thereby provide a shield against movements of capital intended to destabilise its programme for change.
In tough times, the skirmishing between the political factions will carry on with intense vigour and a reforming leftist government will have to meet the challenge of the cultural warriors working with the currents of nationalistic identity politics. The areas where the threats will be most direct have been mapped out and the reactionary politics rehearsed enough times to know that the question of immigration will be front and centre in the efforts of the right to claw back a way forward.
Left activism in recent times has made it clear the rights of migrants and refugees is a non-negotiable part of its stance. The implications of ‘hostile environment’ policies, long known to the communities in which migrant people live, long ago broke out of that confined area of privileged knowledge as the realities of control policies which produced the Windrush scandal, among others, saturated the public domain. Since then, the experience of the Covid pandemic, in which we were obliged to consider migrants in the role of key workers making sacrifices to get the country through a bad time, have swung the pendulum further in the direction of a fairer hearing to the people who have been doing the work.
The hard right of the Conservative party have been quick to consider the implications for their political appeal if the general public cease to be animated by the idea of immigrants as unwanted freeloaders. The home secretaryships of Priti Patel and Suella Braverman marked out the ground for a comeback for anti-immigrant sentiment, with their campaign for the fast-track deportation of refugees to Rwanda. But if this earned the approval of their constituency in the Conservative Party, still puce-faced at the very idea that foreigners might assert a right to cross a UK border, there is no clear evidence that it ignited a return to the negative perception of migrants which existed in the final years of the Blair government.
At the time of writing, nothing concrete has been revealed about the so-called ‘relaxation’ of immigration regulations which the hapless Liz Truss was supposed to favour in order to support her dash for growth. The little we do know had to be gleaned from the reaction of Braverman, when in the role of home secretary, to the talk of new entry routes being opened that would have facilitated the entry of, possibly, hundreds of thousands of people wanting to take up jobs in a labour market very keen to receive them. Her petulant resignation and (as it turned out, temporary) return to the backbenches could well serve as a point for the regroupment of the Tory far right, then a future assault on a government which, whether for purely pragmatic reasons to boost growth or a principled defence of migrant and refugee rights, decides to dial down the xenophobic rhetoric and open the space for a rights-based approach to managing the movement of people.
Labour’s position on how it will face up to these questions has so far been dismal. Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has looked to score debating points by condemning the Conservative government over the past period for failing to deal with what she was unfazed about referring to as ‘illegal immigration’. The fact that the ‘illegal’ migrants in the sights of these governments has included Caribbean pensioners with 40 years’ residence in the country, paying taxes and raising families, and tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the effects of the disastrous interventions in the politics of their home countries favoured by British and other western governments, has not registered as an issue that needs considering by the person who is likely to occupy No 11 Downing Street in the event of a Labour victory.
But good news is on the horizon. The TUC congress in Brighton passed a resolution moved with a passionate speech by the PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, condemning the Government’s Nationality and Borders Act, describing it as “a vicious piece of legislation designed to whip up racism”. It went on to condemn policies which strip British people of their nationality, with a disproportionate impact on Black British citizens. The thrust of a principled position capable of withstanding the future assault of an anti-immigrant right attempting a resurgence is being worked out in the labour movement – just not among the Labour Party high-ups who ought to be doing the bulk of the heavy lifting on the issue.