Labour cannot win if we dance to a Tory tune on immigration

As the general election campaign gathers pace, Labour activists are hungry for the launch of our manifesto. Those of us knocking on doors during cold, wet winter nights cannot wait to discuss the radical policies that our party will put forward with the public. We are excited to see the full picture of how a Jeremy Corbyn government can transform society from the ground up.

But we also know that a programme challenging the status quo will spark an enormous backlash. Anything that shifts the balance of power in Britain from the capitalist class to the people will not be accepted without a fight. The Conservatives, as the party that represents the interest of the ruling class, will try to paint a picture of Labour as the party “out of touch” with ‘ordinary people’.

As an organiser with the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, I am very aware that immigration is one of these areas where the Conservatives seek to pit the working class against each other. If we are not fed lies about the negative impact of immigrants on wages – low wages are very much the fault of greedy employers who put profit before anything else – Conservatives feed the flames of a racist ‘culture war’. Just this week, Michael Gove branded our conference policy to maintain and extend free movement “dangerous”. Stereotyping immigrants as criminals and a safety threat is xenophobia, pure and simple.

We know from the overwhelming support our motion has received at conference that our activists support a new direction on immigration. A policy that sees the end of the hostile environment, the violent practise of detention and no recourse to public funds will finally put humanity at the centre of our treatment of immigrants. Together we can advance worker’s rights for everyone if we stop tying someone’s right to live in the country to an employer – which makes workers less likely to join strike action or leave exploitative environments.

There will be those who worry that this policy will be a difficult sell on the doorstep. To these comrades I say: Labour cannot win – on anything – if we are not brave enough to challenge the dominant narrative. Britain has been in the claws of neoliberal thinkers for decades. Thatcherism was successful in eroding the post-war social democratic consensus and replaced it with an ideology of individualism.

This Thatcherite narrative has been entrenched in the psyche of our society to such an extent that even elements of the labour movement adopted it – Blairism, for example, promoted the false promise of aspiration of the individual rather than collective advancement of the working class. And we are still seeing this today when union leaders pander to xenophobes by implying that “tougher borders” is a working-class concern.

Labour will not win if we dance to the Conservative’s tune. As campaigners we have to start telling a different story – a story of how all our policies will change everyone’s lives for the better. What, then, can activists do when immigration comes up on the doorstep?

It is fine to acknowledge that immigrants generally have paid in more than they take out in social services, if the old “benefit scrounger” argument comes up. But we should not dwell on this point. A person’s worth shouldn’t be determined by their objective material contributions, whether that is the type of job they have, the salary they earn or how much they can pay in tax. Immigrants are not just commodities in the labour market – we are your friends, neighbours and families too.

We should be confident enough to have a conversation about how people contribute to society in different ways. There are many reasons why someone might not work. Some people are unable to because of health reasons. Some have caring responsibilities. We should strive towards a society in which maximisation of profit, accumulation of wealth and large-scale consumption are not seen as the defining measure of success or a person’s worth.

Capitalism’s exploitative nature is the root cause of the demonisation of not only immigrants, but also those with disabilities or chronic health conditions, or people without a job. Currently our economy is not designed to enable everyone to use their talents and interests to participate in communities fully. And why is that? Because only labour that increases profit for our employers is considered valuable. For as long as this dictate of the profit motive dominates how we organise our society, this will not change.

This focus on profit maximisation for those who own companies, assets or property is also what squeezes our public services, makes housing unaffordable and destroys our planet. Our economy is geared towards lining the pockets of the powerful who sit at the top table, on the expense of everyone else. Labour will change this. That is the story we need to tell.

If we talk about immigration and communities, we should also make clear that our visa system is underpinned by the same issues. Visa conditions make it harder to have a family life or settle permanently. Migrant workers who are dependent on their employer will not join the fight for better conditions if it means risking their status. A visa system that restricts people’s rights is what can negatively impact pay and conditions, not the mere presence of migrant workers.

The visa system is the way it is because it is run in the interest of profit. All capitalists want is a second-class workforce it can extract value from as easily as possible, to then dispose of them when they are not needed anymore.  What stands between some migrant communities and their more permanent settlement in Britain isn’t an unwillingness to become a part of their local area, but a deliberate policy choice. The ruling class wants to keep them at arm’s length from everyone else, so solidarity and class consciousness cannot be built among all workers.

We can take this story doorstep and chip away at the Tory narrative. Labour can win if we tell people of the possibility of a different kind of life.

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