It’s time for Labour to rebuild a consensus on immigration

The fight to retain Freedom of Movement will play a key role at this year’s Party Conference

This year’s Labour Party Conference will take place in Brighton from the 24th to 27th of September. Following the momentous vindication of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in June’s General Election, Labour will go to Conference united behind its leader for the first time since his successful leadership bid in 2015. And yet, Corbyn has shown a willingness to compromise over Freedom of Movement just as he is moving close to power. Having fought such a principled battle over his ‘new politics’, Corbyn seems to be falling fouling of the racist, xenophobic line on Brexit and immigration.

In an interview with Andrew Marr on the 23rd of July, Corbyn spoke of “the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions” and of immigration “in order to dismiss an existing workforce in the construction industry”. This inflammatory language, akin to the dog-whistle politics of the Daily Mail, plays into the narrative that not only sees migrants as a dangerous ‘Other’ but as a pernicious force on the UK economy.

In a paper released by the LSE in the run-up to last year’s EU Referendum, Jonathan Wadsworth serves to challenge this narrative. He counters the conventional notion that immigrants increase competition for jobs; reducing wages and job prospects for UK-born workers. Instead, migrant labour is shown to enhance demand, thereby increasing job opportunities within the economy. Furthermore, immigrant skills tend to complement those of UK-born workers, while they do not take up a disproportionate share of new jobs and ultimately input more into the welfare state than they take out.

It would of course be remiss to ignore the short-term depressionary effect of focused migration within an industry. Over time, however, production will extend, with only a 0.5% decrease for every 1% of labour migration witnessable across the lowest skilled jobs in the economy. This minimal effect highlights how anti-migrant sentiment has been misdirected and inflated. This misdirection came to head during the time of the Referendum with 56% of the population viewing immigration as one of the “most important issues facing Britain today”, according to Ipsos MORI polling.

Therefore it is comments like those made on the Andrew Marr Show that play into racist, anti-immigrant sentiment. Instead of offering a well evidenced counter-argument, Corbyn’s Labour are succumbing to a divide and rule rhetoric that serves to uphold the class hierarchy. By pitting migrant against UK-born worker, the working class is fractured. Placing the problem on immigration and not failed austerity policy, weakened trade unions and a failure to crackdown on exploitative employers.

Brexit is clearly posing a dilemma for Labour. Fearing the loss of traditional support to UKIP now heading to the Conservatives, as the new party of Brexit, Labour can be seen to have taken a harder stance to appeal to these voters. Yet, the election results showed the UKIP vote split roughly evenly between the two main parties. Perhaps to appease the Parliamentary Labour Party or indeed to offer an obvious alternative to Theresa May’s “no deal is better than a bad deal” bargaining line, Labour has recently committed to a four-year transitional membership of the EU Single Market. As such, it has clearly positioned itself as the party of ‘soft-Brexit’.

However, the Labour Party has still failed to offer any assurance over the retention of Freedom of Movement beyond this transitional period. This is of course, little surprise. Amongst other things, the EU referendum was largely a referendum on immigration. Populist slogans like ‘Take back control’ played into a racist, xenophobic sentiment that feared white nationalism had been eroded not only by a globalist elite, but by foreign migrants. Following the referendum result, racial or religiously motivated hate crime surged by 41%, Brexit can be seen to have in part legitimised this view. Yet Labour has always maintained they will respect the result of the Referendum. Does this mean they have to accept and cater for such a sentiment?

Labour itself cannot necessarily be seen to have always been supportive to migrants and people-of-color. This was the party of Oswald Mosley. The party that tried to stifle the introduction of black caucuses within the trade union movement. Historically the grassroots have had to organise outside of the labour movement in order to challenge racism. At a time when Jeremy Corbyn is finally receiving mainstream support, not least from his own party, it is understandable to be concerned over perceived division within the movement. Challenging racial discrimination has often been seen as discolouring and fracturing the labour movement. Yet it is impossible to separate the two.

Since the 2008 Financial Crash and subsequent austerity, migrants and people of colour have been hit hardest by redundancies. Data from the 2011 Census and Joseph Rowntree Foundation show that black men have had twice the unemployment rate of their white counterparts, and it is a similar story for black caribbean and black african women. Race and class are not two competing disadvantages, they are intertwined and one cannot be truly tackled without the other. Immigrant scapegoating and discussion of the ‘white working class’, as Liz Kendall did in her leadership bid, shifts the problem onto migrants and away from legitimate class discrimination.

Labour cannot afford to play to xenophobic sentiment in the pursuit of power. To do so would be to act with one hand tied behind their back, knowing full well that it is wrong to scapegoat migrants for Britain’s economic woes. Freedom of Movement is an important part of securing workers rights, losing it undermines the concept that migrant labour is a good thing and may well serve to cause crisis in our NHS and agricultural sectors. The recent cleaners’ campaign victory at LSE and workers’ at SOAS shows how migrants have been central to improving low-paid workers’ rights. Furthermore, much of Labour recent electoral success was led by grassroots campaigning, including many young people of colour, Corbyn’s Labour must not sell them short by further vindicating racist, xenophobic sentiment.

Support for Freedom of Movement is building amongst MP’s and activists. The Labour Campaign for Free Movement, backed by Clive Lewis and David Lammy, has organised a draft resolution in order to get this debate on the agenda at Conference. Movement For Justice By Any Means Necessary have organised a demo outside Conference on Sunday 24th September. With Brexit set to eclipse internal reform as the key topic, local constituency parties and the grassroots of the labour movement may well be able to direct party policy. If successful it will be a vital step in addressing the current misinformed, xenophobic narrative on immigration.