Author: Rachel Shabi
We’re here, then. The point at which a Labour leadership that won support for being different ends up being the same. The stage that jaded observers warned was an inevitability of politics, no matter who was in charge. The day that a political project with impeccably pro-migration credentials triangulated into abstention on a miserable, destructive Conservative immigration bill.
OK, so it didn’t fully triangulate in the end. Let’s start at the beginning. On Monday, the government’s immigration bill, their flagship legislation for what the country’s immigration policy would be after Brexit, was due a second reading. The Labour party announced in the afternoon that it would be abstaining, in other words, not voting it down. Within hours, after an excoriating backlash from Labour MPs and Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters alike, the party shifted from abstention to a one-line whip – and the government bill passed with 76 Labour MPs absent. This bill, among other things, ends freedom of movement and strips 3 million EU citizens of their rights in the UK, while threatening them with the hostile environment that others are already cruelly subjected to. It also cavalierly hands immigration powers to ministers and puts a £30,000 salary threshold on skilled worker visas for EU citizens – making it unattainable for skilled workers in key areas such as the NHS, social care and beyond. In this context, Labour’s approach to this bad bill really is staggering.
Politics-watchers pointed out that Labour abstaining on a bad immigration bill for the sake of later amendments (as the leadership had claimed) was much like Labour abstaining on a bad welfare bill for the sake of later amendments in 2015. That’s important, because the 2015 moment – not unreasonably – is a defining one for supporters of the Corbyn project. It is invoked both as indication of how far the pre-Corbyn leadership had moved away from core Labour values and as a testament to the current leader’s sticking to his principles – he opposed the welfare bill. This tenet has come unstuck somewhat with the immigration blunder.
Corbyn supporters have thus far been accommodating, perhaps because in tone, at least, the party has been more pro-migration since he took the helm. The Corbyn-backing grassroots cut him some slack when he spouted bad takes on migrants suppressing wages – such as on the Andrew Marr Show during the 2017 election campaign, when he pledged to stop the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe”. Corbyn supporters seemed prepared even to go along with Labour’s horrible, nothing-to-do-with-us-guv, passive-voice desertion of principle in stating “freedom of movement will end when we leave the EU”. Why? Because it was impossible to believe that the leadership team, individuals who had over many years repeatedly supported migrants and immigration, could ever abandon all that. It’s a theory I’ve heard many times from pro-Corbyn voices: that if the leadership accepted the end of freedom of movement, it was because they had something better in mind as a replacement.
Well, maybe there is a better immigration plan – and Labour’s proposal already includes plans to scrap the hostile environment and try to level up non-EU arrivals to receive the same treatment as EU migrants, rather than levelling everyone downwards, as the Conservatives set out. Perhaps there exists an incredible scheme by which ending freedom of movement does not, by definition, create more hostile border controls. But until Labour gets into government to enact its own plan, a bare minimum is opposition to any cruel, regressive stupidity the Conservatives come up with on the issue. Over immigration, much like Brexit, the argument you hear is that the Labour leadership is building consensus within a disparate party of MPs who disagree over these issues. But the backlash from the frontbench and the parliamentary Labour party over the immigration bill has shown that the leadership has more wriggle room than it imagined – perhaps a combination of the Windrush scandal, Brexit and shortages of workers in positions previously filled by migrants has produced a shift within the party in parliament.
Still, beyond that, there is the tougher task of shifting a poisonous national conversation on immigration. Labour managed exactly that over economic narratives, but the starting point was different: counter to assumptions from the political and commentariat classes alike, there has long been public support for key Corbynist policies such as renationalisation, infrastructure investment and higher tax. The test of any Labour leadership’s self-styled radicalism is the capacity to change the political climate when the polling isn’t on its side (although attitudes to immigration have softened, post-Brexit vote). Taking on this challenge means letting go of any lingering old-left beliefs that economics will magically eliminate prejudice; that redistributive policies alone will tamp down anti-immigration sentiments.
But there is another problem here, too, to do with a narrowing of vision at the top. However quick it was to rectify its approach to the immigration bill vote (and a one-line whip is hardly a full-throated correction), only a leadership that has grown detached from its support base could produce such a failure of judgment in the first place. It doesn’t bode well because, put simply, without letting in the lifeblood of its grassroots, this Labour leadership will atrophy. In this context, maybe the migration blunder has been a wake-up call to the Labour movement. Corbyn supporters have seen that, in being vocally critical rather than unquestioningly loyal, they helped force a change in position. That’s something to keep in mind if the leadership strays again from principles it is supposed to hold dear.
• Rachel Shabi is a writer and regular broadcast news commentator
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