When the news came out that Dominic Cummings broke the lockdown to visit his wife and son, Tory MPs were falling over themselves to defend him, preaching family values. Yet on the very same day – contradicting a promise made earlier this year – the Home Office drew up plans to terminate the system of reuniting unaccompanied child refugees with their families in the UK.
And it was not the first time that the Tories have used the cover of the pandemic to impose draconian anti-migrant laws. Just a week earlier, parliament voted for the immigration bill, which will close the borders with Europe and give the Home Secretary sweeping powers to rewrite immigration rules. The government is planning to label low-paid migrants as “unskilled” and bar them from entering the country. This, of course, includes many key workers who are now hailed as heroes. The Tories apparently see no contradiction between clapping for them on Thursday and voting their rights away the following Monday.
Tory attacks on immigrants, awful as they are, come as no surprise. We all remember Theresa May’s ‘Go Home’ vans and the Windrush scandal tearing families and communities apart. Despite performative apologies, no lessons have been learned: the government continues to deport lifelong UK residents with no connections to their country of origin, and the ‘hostile environment’ remains intact.
However, much as Labour likes to pride itself on being an ‘anti-racist party’, its record is mixed at best. From Jim Callaghan’s Commonwealth Immigrants Act, often described as one of the most nakedly racist pieces of legislation in recent memory, to New Labour’s scapegoating of asylum seekers and Ed Miliband’s infamous “controls on immigration” mugs, our party has a long history of triangulating to deeply xenophobic ideas.
Under Jeremy Corbyn, the rhetoric quickly shifted and the leadership had a lot of important things to say about the need to support refugees, and the positive contributions that migrants make to our society. But a meaningful change in policy was slower to follow. The 2017 manifesto, although in many ways inspiring, still committed to ending free movement and extending the “no recourse to public funds” policy that leaves many migrants destitute and homeless, and had little to say on many aspects of the hostile environment agenda.
It took members organising from the grassroots up to make sure that Labour had a policy that reflected our values. In 2017, I helped set up the Labour Campaign for Free Movement with the aim of championing the rights of all migrants. We spoke at Constituency Labour Party meetings, organised events, wrote articles and passed motions. In January 2019, when Labour was planning to abstain on the Tory immigration bill, it was party members who caused a U-turn. At last year’s Labour conference, party members and trade union delegates voted on our motion to defend and extend free movement, close detention centres, end all hostile environment measures, give migrants equal access to the NHS and social security, and extend voting rights to all UK residents. It passed near-unanimously, to a standing ovation.
Throughout these years, Momentum shied away from the topic. It had little to say on immigration, didn’t recommend prioritising our motion and waited until the last minute before endorsing it – despite many Momentum activists feeling passionately about the need to support and defend migrants. While it was a positive development that Momentum, for the first time, campaigned for policy at last year’s Labour conference, most members had no say over the policies that their organisation chose to support. We at Forward Momentum believe this needs to change, and that members must be trusted to have the decisive say on the policies for which Momentum campaigns.
Now that we have shifted Labour’s policy on migrants’ rights, the left needs to defend it. But not just that – it is time to also turn outwards to wider society. In the last decade, public opinion has already been moving in the right direction, and a recent Ipsos MORI survey found discussions about the contributions of migrants to be the main reason. Imagine how much more we can achieve if Momentum throws its energy into dispelling myths, raising awareness and building solidarity.
With the fallout from Covid-19 set to define politics for the foreseeable future, this work is more vital than ever. All Forward Momentum candidates for the upcoming national coordinating group elections are standing on a policy platform that calls for Momentum to “link up with socialists across the world to develop an internationalist response to Covid-19, centred on migrants’ rights and combating nationalism”. As we have set out, Momentum should “support community struggles and push the Labour Party to advocate for free movement of people, safe passage for refugees, universal access to public services and funds, the closure of detention centres, and the full voting rights for all residents”.
It is not the role of socialists to pander to a stereotypical idea of a “traditional working-class voter”, often patronisingly portrayed as closed-minded and bigoted. It is our job to organise with and speak to the communities we live in, to change hearts and minds and convince the majority that things can change for the better. Let’s organise national days of action, let’s use Momentum’s resources and platforms to support migrants’ rights campaigns, let’s join migrant workers on picket lines. We know that a British builder, nurse or delivery driver has more in common with their Romanian or Jamaican colleagues than they do with Boris Johnson and his Etonian friends. Let’s have the courage to make that case.