Labour must do more to challenge Britain’s toxic immigration debate

Sabrina Huck

When I first moved to Britain in February 2014, I was excited to live in a country that I perceived to be socially liberal, open-minded and proud of its multiculturalism. I did not expect a particularly strong anti-migrant sentiment in the country. Living in a community with a strong UKIP vote quickly made me realise that it wasn’t all as I had imagined.

During my first six months in the country I was unemployed. This was in itself a hard experience, but it was made worse by the fact that I was in a foreign country. It was harder to settle in, meet people and establish a new life. Whilst I was trying to power through job applications and stay motivated and positive every day, the airwaves were filled with anti-immigrant rhetoric. The European parliament elections were around the corner, and with the referendum being Conservative party policy for the general elections, the media was getting in gear to shape public opinion negatively towards the EU.

Europeans, particularly Eastern Europeans, were held responsible for struggling schools, lack of housing, the overstretched NHS – nothing positive was said about the contribution we make on a daily basis. As an unemployed European citizen, it hurt to walk through the shop isles with the Mail, Express and Sun headlines shouting abuse at people like me: useless, scroungers, go home.

I got involved with the Labour party the same year, particularly to counter this narrative. Essex, where I lived, had a strong UKIP vote. Campaigning with my local party, I spoke to many people struggling. For those who couldn’t get a job in the city and commute to London every day, perspectives were bleak. Local jobs that paid a decent wage were rare, public transport in a sorry state and people were worried about the quality of education their children could receive. Additionally, with many Londoners moving out to Essex to snap up cheaper homes along the commuter belt, the prices for housing soon outstripped the incomes of local families.

I recognised all of these as fundamental problems – but none of these could be solved by leaving the European Union or getting rid of European citizens. The number of non-British citizens living in my area was incredibly low, too low to make a significant impact on public services. Nevertheless, some of my comrades would not want to send me on the doorstep to speak about these issues to UKIP voters – not so much because they were worried for my personal experience, but because they feared that Labour being represented by a foreigner would cost them votes in the local council elections.

When Jeremy Corbyn stood for the Labour leadership, I felt hopeful again. He had a strong reputation as an internationalist, pro-migrant campaigner. I was excited to have someone lead the party who would not compromise on migrants’ rights. This is why the leadership’s position on Freedom of Movement is such a huge disappointment.

By feeding the narrative that European migrant workers in low-skill sectors are to be held responsible for bosses undercutting the minimum wage, Labour is shifting its argument on the same logical line than right-wing commentators and politicians. Yes, undercutting of wages in low-skill sectors happens and is a huge problem for workers. But we will not achieve improvements for all workers by singling out Europeans, instead of challenging employers to pay fair wages for hard work.

Britain’s immigration debate has been toxic for a long time: the government has perused a “hostile environment strategy” on immigration, aiming to create an environment as unwelcoming, hostile and humiliating for people as possible, to deter others from moving here. By turning on European workers and their rights under the Freedom of Movement, Labour is taking the easy way out on a political challenge, instead of providing the radical solutions many hoped Corbyn stood for.

Recently, a shift in Labour’s immigration policy started to transpire: Labour members and supporters from across the party, including high-profile MPs, MEPs and Union officials, came together in the Labour Campaign for Free Movement to challenge the narrative of laying blame for low wages on European workers. This is a promising initiative which made it easier for me as a European citizen and member to feel welcome in the party again. Combined with the recent shift in Labour’s Brexit policy towards favouring a transition period of membership of the single market and customs union, it gives me hope that our party, after all, will take a lead in standing up for all workers, regardless of where they are from.

Sabrina Huck is London representative on the national Young Labour committee. 

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