When I first read about the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill in the immigration white paper, it immediately worried me. Partly because it’s a crucial piece of legislation affecting my life as an EU citizen in this country, but also because I was worried about the Labour Party’s response to the bill.
Although the scapegoating of migrants was common during the EU referendum campaign, large parts of the labour movement refused to acknowledge the role of immigration in Vote Leave’s success. Keen to move the national debate on from Brexit as soon as possible, Labour focused on a domestic agenda, where it performs strongly with voters. Labour promised to invest in the NHS, education and housing to tackle the underlying economic issues of Brexit during the 2017 snap election campaign, rather than give much away on its Brexit position.
The fact that anti-immigration sentiment played a large part in the decision of many voters to support Brexit was brushed aside. Rather than developing strong pro-immigration arguments, Labour has spent the past two years ducking the question out of fear of alienating one of its core voter bases – northern, post-industrial working class areas that voted leave or liberal pro-EU cosmopolitans.
But as the chaos sparked on Monday night by the Immigration Bill shows, despite all the talk of Brexit being caused first and foremost by economic deprivation, the leadership clearly interprets the vote to leave the European Union as a public call to strengthen border controls. That brings us uncomfortably close to the logic followed by the Prime Minister.
At the second reading of the Immigration Bill last night, Diane Abbott stood at the despatch box and told the House of Commons that Labour had decided not to oppose the bill because the party was committed to ending free movement of people, as it pledged to do in 2017. Although Diane went on to criticise many aspects of the Immigration White Paper in her speech, the underlying argument was consistent with that of Conservative members sitting on the opposing side of the chamber: respecting the Brexit vote means controlling immigration and strengthening borders.
This is a disappointing statement from a left-wing Labour Party – and in particular from Diane Abbott, a life-long champion of migrants’ rights. It has exposed once more one of the fundamental problems of Corbynism: as the leadership prepares for a general election, former radicals turn to triangulation to appease what they think the electorate wants. This is understandable, given the significant pressures on Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell at the helm of a mass party such as Labour. But these pressures will only intensify if we ever make it into Number 10.
There is only one way to tackle this challenge. We must politicise the movement behind Corbyn, finally break away from the ‘loyalist’ approach that says the leadership can do no wrong, and argue within society and the party for what is right. After all, if we don’t buy into our own progressive ideas, why would the general public?
If Labour wants to be bold, brave and radical in government – if it truly wants to transform the state and challenge the existing power structures – our problems won’t stop with immigration. Be it law and order and policing or foreign policy, Labour will face an uphill struggle to convince the electorate of socialist ideas in many of these areas, especially as Labour is not perceived as “trustworthy” on many of these issues.
One of the positives that emerged from the Immigration Bill chaos last night was the outpouring of support from Labour activists for a pro-immigration agenda. This gives hope that members are starting to realise that sitting on their hands under the guise of loyalty is no way forward to build socialism in Britain. The movement needs to organise and speak up – even when it means challenging the leadership.
Sabrina Huck is a young Labour and Momentum activist.