The Tory immigration bill was passed by the House of Commons at second reading last night, with 351 votes in favour and 252 against. The move will end EU freedom of movement and introduce a new, as yet undefined, immigration system. This is the reality of an 80-seat majority for the Conservatives: amid a pandemic, they can prioritise rushing through legislation to punish many of those on the frontline and many of those most at risk of losing their lives to the virus. Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary focused his arguments on this point: the bill sends a signal to key workers, many of whom earn under £25,600, that they are “unskilled and unwelcome”.
Labour MPs were on a three-line whip to vote against the bill. None voted in favour, but 15 had no vote recorded. A number of them – including frontbencher Rachel Reeves and backbencher Clive Lewis – said they had technical difficulties, because this vote was done remotely. But chair of the home affairs select committee Yvette Cooper announced in the chamber that “in cross-party spirit” she would not vote against the bill. “I believe that this bill is flawed, but I recognise that legislation on immigration is now needed,” Cooper said.
The former Labour leadership candidate has long taken the view that the UK needs “more honest public debate about immigration”, which from her perspective means not setting unachievable net migration targets but also being tough on illegal immigration. The party membership is overwhelmingly supportive of a more pro-immigration approach, however, and 2019 conference backed extending free movement. Some online activists expressed concern that Cooper’s move marked a return to the days of immigration mugs, but that the party unequivocally set a three-line whip against the bill stands in contrast to the indecision we saw when Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour ordered abstentions before performing a U-turn.
Labour’s national executive committee will meet virtually today. Members will discuss party conference, the next set of NEC elections and the voting system used for those contests. On conference, the leadership is understood to be keen on holding it in some kind of virtual form, which will allow for a speech by Keir Starmer and perhaps the passing of rule changes made necessary by the EHRC antisemitism investigation. Local parties have not been able to pass motions – though that suits the leadership just fine when it wants to go slow on policy-making at the start of a parliamentary term. There is broad consensus on conference arrangements.
There is less consensus on NEC elections. The moderates are keen for the contests to take place this summer, while the left members are less so – they say local parties have not been able to nominate candidates and the process should be put off until next year. A similar divide is seen on the issue of a switch to a preferential voting system for NEC elections, with Labour First/Progress-aligned NEC members happy with the change and Momentum-aligned reps not. However, Labour left figures such as Clive Lewis – more associated with Compass and electoral reform – are also in favour of STV, and it is thought Jon Lansman himself could vote for it. And of course the soft left are leading the STV campaign. You can read my preview of the NEC meeting here. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.