The struggle for migrants’ rights – beyond the NHS surcharge U-turn

The Labour frontbench last week celebrated a victory as the government confirmed its U-turn on the health surcharge for migrant NHS and care workers. Whilst certainly good news for those workers affected by the charge, it is worth remembering that this is a small, very partial victory.

The health surcharge rightly caused outrage in context of the coronavirus pandemic. But the fact that so many people will not have heard of it before shows how weak public consciousness is when it comes to migrants’ rights issues. The Prime Minister himself did not even seem to know about the policy of ‘no recourse to public funds’ when he was grilled by the Commons liaison committee last night. Those of us fighting for full equal rights for migrants know we still have a long way to go.

Labour conference 2019 passed a motion from the Labour Campaign for Free Movement that called for the abolition of the health surcharge and other hostile environment measures. It also pledged to defend and extend free movement, which means that Labour should oppose attempts from the Tories to replace EU free movement with more regressive immigration legislation, whilst putting forward new policy that would level up the rights of non-EU migrants.

Although a clear commitment to free movement rights was missing from the 2019 manifesto, some important advances were made: the party pledged to scrap the 2014 Immigration Act that legislated for hostile environment measures such as right to rent checks. We vowed to close two of the most notorious detention centres, and to give full voting rights for migrants that are UK residents.

During his leadership campaign, Keir Starmer released a set of pledges that included a section on immigration. It reaffirmed Labour’s commitment to closing detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood and ending indefinite detention. It went back on the 2019 manifesto promise to enfranchise all UK residents and offered only to extend voting rights to EU citizens. It also offered support for EU free movement, but fell short of outlining a more comprehensive immigration policy. The pledge simply stated that Labour would argue for an immigration system “based on compassion and dignity”.

Since the referendum, immigration policy debates have often been treated as a proxy for questions on Brexit. This has harmed our ability to organise for migrant justice and solidarity. And it meant that one of the most important demands of the motion was largely overlooked: its warning against the implementation of a new immigration system based on incomes, migrants’ utility to business and numerical targets and thresholds. The motion rejects a points or skills-based work visa system. And it opposes a framing that sees migrant workers’ roles as that of filling gaps in the UK labour market. This part of the motion was ignored both under Jeremy Corbyn and, seemingly, under Starmer too.

Unfortunately, the health surcharge victory continues to feed into the same harmful narrative, which says a migrant is only worthy if they have gone above and beyond to ‘contribute’ to society. Only if this extra contribution is recognised by the government will they be given the same rights as British-born citizens. The policy change on the health surcharge therefore came from a place of weakness, not strength.

Wrestling minimal concessions from the government for people who have literally put their lives on the line does not point towards a wider shift of the narrative on immigration. Whilst some campaigners hope that this can be a stepping stone for further reform, it seems unlikely. Priti Patel will continue to push through a new immigration system with minimal oversight from parliament.

It’s understandable that migrants’ rights campaigners in Labour still want to push for these small victories wherever possible. But instead of focusing only on tactical advances, we must also work on the big picture questions. The ‘worthiness’ framing is relevant not just for access to the welfare state. It is easier for bosses to exploit migrant workers because it is considered more socially acceptable to pay them less than a British-born worker.

Campaigning on migrants’ rights issues can often feel very reactive and defensive – there is a constant onslaught of harmful legislation. This will intensify as the government continues immigration reform as the Brexit transition period comes to an end. It is still valid for some of us to take part in the parliamentary wrangling over amendments and legislation, and to highlight the consequences of government policy. And this goes hand-in-hand with keeping up pressure on our own leadership to not backtrack on the conference motion.

But, as long as the view that migrants have to contribute more than British-born citizens prevails in society, we will not be able to make meaningful changes through lobbying on policy alone. Why should the government concede? They know that their policies – of othering – will not harm them. The electorate, which largely excludes migrants, will believe that people have to ‘contribute’. It is hard to imagine that this will change just because we pass motions in our Constituency Labour Parties or have Labour MPs speak in the Commons – it doesn’t have enough reach.

Labour activists must find a way to combine firefighting legislation with engaging on the struggles that are happening outside of Westminster. They have to think about how more meaningful solidarity can be developed with migrant-led struggles – on wages and working conditions or activists fighting against deportations, for example. If the last years have taught us anything, it is that on immigration, change has to come from the grassroots. We have to take the struggle into civil society first to create the space for the Labour Party to step through and advocate for policy – it won’t be the other way around.

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