Labour has U-turned on its decision to abstain on the second reading of the government’s Immigration Bill after the move sparked a backlash from disappointed MPs and party activists.
The bill being voted on tonight ends free movement after Brexit, a pledge made in Labour’s 2017 manifesto, but also repeals other rights of EU citizens and hands over control of the future UK immigration system to the Home Secretary.
Party whips informed Labour MPs earlier today that they would be ordered to abstain on the second reading “as we accept that a new immigration system is required post-Brexit, but do not support the government such wide powers to introduce a new system”.
The message continued: “We will seek substantial amendments in committee stage to restrict the powers granted to the government by itself and require that the immigration system eventually introduced is based on evidence.”
But MPs soon expressed their opposition to the move via Twitter, with many saying they would defy the party whip to vote against the bill.
Chris Leslie tweeted: “Why have Labour frontbench just dropped a three line whip down to one line whip against tonight’s Immigration Bill 2nd reading? This Govt Bill ends free movement, fails to secure U.K./EU citizens rights & delegates future immigration rules to Ministers. Surely needs opposing?!”
Labour activists, groups such as Another Europe is Possible, TSSA leader Manuel Cortes and high-profile Corbynite commentators including Owen Jones and Ash Sarkar all criticised the call for abstention.
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott defended the measure in a tweet:
Re Immigration Bill, LAB accepts Common Travel Area must be restored with Ireland & Free Movement ends if we Leave Single Market. But this Bill puts cart before the horse. We need settled relationship with EU first. LAB wants to amend Bill substantially. Today isn’t a final vote!
— Diane Abbott (@HackneyAbbott) January 28, 2019
The explanation that a second reading is not a final vote on the bill was widely compared today to Harriet Harman opting to abstain on Tory welfare legislation when acting as interim leader in 2015.
Following a Parliamentary Labour Party meeting this evening, which saw MPs express anger over the whipping decision, the one-line whip to abstain has been replaced by a one-line whip to vote against the bill.