Here are some thoughts on the remarkable advance made by the Labour Party under in the general election and what opportunities might be opening up for rights-based immigration policies.
This usually commanding and highly-vexed issue has played only a small part in the debates and manifestos published by the parties, with a generally uniform clinging to positions reiterated at other elections over the last couple of decades. The odd frisson of interest showed itself at specific moments, such as when Theresa May re-committed herself to achieve a net migration target of below 100,000, or UKIP proclaiming a preference for a policy limiting the movement of people to one-in/one-out. But, by and large, the real flashpoints of concern for voters were the state of the NHS, student indebtedness, the housing crisis, and who could be trusted to get the best Brexit deal.
The huge trend which secured for Labour a swing of 9.5%, and gained the party 3.5 million more votes over and above its tally in 2015 swamped most efforts to make control of people movement a vote-determining issue. According to Lord Ashcroft’s post-poll analysis, immigration was not listed amongst the five main issue of concern for Labour voters, and even for those who preferred the Tories as a worry it was so for just 9% of respondents.
Of course there is always the ‘elephant in the room’ argument, which likes to tell us that anxieties about newcomers are bound up in expressions of concern for the state of the NHS or the housing market and only rarely manifest itself as outright migrantophobic comment. But the tone of public debate in recent times has scarcely encouraged inhibition amongst people who might believe that the reason why they can’t get an appointment to see a GP in under a week is down to all the ‘health tourists’ who are flooding the country. For the moment it seems plausible to suppose that if people say they are concerned about the state of public services and then go on to vote Labour it is because they have inclined towards that party’s central narrative about austerity rather than wanting to blame migrants.
Bye-bye net migration targets
There has been much proclaiming that the Labour Party’s advance, and the Tory Party’s miserable condition, has meant that a ‘hard Brexit’ has been ditched, or that austerity has been brought to a crashing end. Let’s hope so. I’d also like to propose that all talk of pushing down net migration to meaningless figures that have no relation to the state of the economy is also declared a victim of the Labour surge. Perhaps we will also see an end to the efforts of the university lobby to split what ought to be a united front in support of migrants by claiming that international students should be taken out the totals because they are not really migrants. This was always a weak argument (they certainly do add to aggregate demand for accommodation, health services, public transport and other infrastructure costs) and those standing up for the rights of refugees, family and economic migrants should have been prepared to say so.
The Labour opposition* is now in a good position to push back against many aspects of the Conservative programme for government across a whole range of issues – from the inane Brexit mantra of ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ right the way to the Naylor Review’s plan to flog off large chucks of the NHS, and the stupid scheme to lumber the education system with a new generation of extravagantly wasteful grammar schools. Is there a place for a radical stance on the rights of migrants in this project? Here’s my take on how that might happen.
Firstly, there is the question of securing the bottom line for the rights of migrants. We know what the that involves – the demands have been spelt out by the solidarity groups on many occasions. In this category the following issues are to the forefront:
- Ending indefinite detention of people alleged to be in breach of immigration regulations.
- Allow asylum seekers to take work earlier in the application process.
- Permit access to public funds benefits for all migrants in categories that lead to permanent settlement, especially those with responsibility as carers of children.
- Scrap the excessively high income requirement for the sponsorship of family members.
- Grant secure residence status to all migrants who have been victims of exploitation and abuse.
Labour has committed itself to versions of all these ‘asks’ during the course of its work in Parliament or in the text of its election manifesto in any event and there should be no obstacle to their rapid adoption as a plank in the platform of the re-invigorated Parliamentary opposition.
A second category forms around challenges to the pernicious effect of the clauses of the last two Immigration Acts, of 2014 and 2016. Labour should call for the return of an effective right of appeal against all decisions of immigration enforcement officials that have the effect of refusing entry to would-be migrants or visitors, or curtailing the right of residence of people already in the country. A national, publicly-funded appeal representation service should be re-established to assist people wishing to challenge negative decisions with the process.
In addition, challenging the Tory flagship legislation on immigration control will also mean ditching all its efforts to turn civil society agents – employers, landlords, banks, etc – into immigration officials. Local authorities, GPs, hospitals and schools and universities should likewise relieved of their current obligations to report to the Home Office on whatever immigrants they come into contact with in their provision of public services.
Brexit: Re-state the case for free movement
Lastly, there is the immigration agenda that revolves around the Brexit process. Labour is already committed to providing a secure residence status to all EU nationals already in the country and it doubtless continue to press the government on this issue. But the party did disappoint many people by its opaque perspective on the future of free movement rights in general which have been spelt out over the period since the June referendum and which were reiterated in its election manifesto.
Contrary to what was stated there, it is not obvious that the right of free movement comes to an end as soon as the UK leaves the EU. A ‘soft’ Brexit, which would involve retaining a link to the single market through membership of the European Economic Area, would also require maintaining a right to freedom of movement. Even a loser association agreement along the lines to the arrangements with Switzerland still requires the right of citizens to movement across borders to remain in place.
From its new vantage point of being an opposition with the momentum of public popularity behind it Labour should be planning to hang like a hawk over the Article 50 Brexit negotiations, ready to swoop against any demand coming from any side which is not in the interests of the millions of voters who are now aligning themselves with its pro-people, pro-human rights cause. That must include resisting any retreat from the current position whereby any British citizen has the right to live, work and study on any other EU state, and any EU citizen have the same right in the UK.
Speaking up for the rights of people to move freely no longer looks like a cause for losers, as might have been thought when the Remain side lost the referendum last year. Thinking voters have been obliged to confront the implications of the loss of these rights since then, in the form of British young people saying goodbye to the opportunities to live abroad which they appear to value, and also with the exodus of valued workers from important public services like healthcare and education, right through to those in less prestigious occupations which nevertheless have helped maintain some level of prosperity across Britain in what have otherwise been very lean years.
The case is there to be made that the swirl of people crossing frontiers to improve job prospects, advance careers, and generally have a better life is something that happens when people feel empowered, viewing themselves as having positive assets in the form of their willingness to work, pay taxes, and generally contribute to the new communities they want to join. The use of visa and border controls to counter this wish to be a part of the modern world in which people move between countries runs against this sense of what it means to be free in the twenty-first century. No party that claims to represent the interests of ordinary people should willingly go in that direction.
These are exciting times as far as politics and the potential for change are concerned. If Labour plays its hand right we can bring an end to decades of efforts to implement ill-considered, inept immigration control policies and widen the space in which all people can act on the assurance they have secure rights. Further, Jeremy Corbyn has the chance to advance this progressive, pro-working class programme in the context of a broader assault on austerity and the long, weary dominance of neoliberal economic policies. Let’s hope he and his comrades in Parliament seize the opportunity and make every use of it.
* I have to say that I am no enthusiast for the idea that Jeremy Corbyn should accept any invitation by the Queen to form a minority government on the basis of this election result. Still scores of seats short of a majority and with a Parliamentary party that still harbours too many who resent the idea of leadership from the left, Corbyn would be prey to ambushes and intrigues which would risk bringing his project for a revival of radical democratic socialism to a crashing end, producing mass disillusion amongst those who have been recruited to the cause. Better to let a shattered and demoralised Tory government twist in the wind for a short while longer, whilst discipline and order is reintroduced into party ranks, and momentum built up for a fresh election campaign aimed at securing a clear majority.