Labour needs to take a stand in favour of immigration

In the face of rising xenophobia, the Labour party must embrace pro-migration politics.

Maya Goodfellow
3 August 2016
 Yui Mok / PA Wire/Press Association. All rights reserved

Protesters at a rally against deportations. Photo: Yui Mok / PA Wire/Press Association. All rights reserved Across many parts of Europe countries are lurching to the right. Croatia and Poland have elected aggressively right-wing governments, and anti-migrant parties are loudly making their case in France, Germany, the UK and beyond. The political changes of late are a worrying harbinger: Europe is in danger of sliding into fascism. The UK needs to take its own virulently xenophobic hard-right head on by embracing pro-migrant politics - and it’s up to Labour to lead the charge. Unfortunately, there’s little sign of that happening as things stand.

In the aftermath of the referendum, the result of years of anti-migrant rhetoric made itself visible. Xenophobia and hate spilled out onto our streets. Emboldened by the toxic Brexit campaign, people made their anger for the 'other' known. Labour was nowhere to be found. One of country’s most prominent pro-migrant politicians, Jeremy Corbyn, was embroiled in an internal feud brought about by his own party. Labour MPs broadly divided into two camps – those who had been waiting  (on Peter Mandelson’s advice) to overthrow Corbyn since he was elected and those who were panicked by the referendum result and worried about Corbyn’s leadership – launched a coup against him. Little consideration was given to the countless people who were told directly or indirectly that they weren’t welcome in this country. Thanks to internal feuding, a vital chance for Corbyn to shine a light on the pro-migrant cause was missed. 

Thanks to internal feuding, a vital chance for Corbyn to shine a light on the pro-migrant cause was missed.

Now Labour is focussed on yet another leadership campaign and so has failed to work on a meaningful response to the xenophobia that has built up in recent decades. Last week, leadership contender Owen Smith waded directly into this debate and the result was disappointing to say the least. Asked whether he thought there were too many migrants in Britain he responded:

“It depends where you are...In some places the way in which we saw rapid influx of in particular eastern European migrants after the accession of those countries to Europe definitely caused downward pressure on wages, definitely caused changes to local terms and conditions to some workers in some sectors.”

There was no mention of exploitative employers who are happy to drive down wages by hiring the cheapest labour going – no matter where these people are from. Smith avoided taking on the myth that immigration is bad for this country. In doing so, he seemed to tread the same ground Labour did before the last general election: cravenly accepting that immigration needs to be controlled and legitimising UKIP’s poisonous anti-migrant message in the process. This is the politics that helped create a Britain where hate crimes rose by 57% after the referendum result and where the rising xenophobia could get much, much worse in the years to come.

rising xenophobia could get much, much worse in the years to come.

It’s discouraging that Smith and other Labour MPs don’t seem to have learnt from these grievous past mistakes and that they don’t seem to realise just how quickly xenophobia can turn violent. If Corbyn wins again he has to turn the party in the other direction. There is a wealth of evidence in their favour; research doesn’t support anti-migrant claims. In fact, studies show immigration is good for our economy, and in ethnically diverse areas social cohesion tends to be strong. It’s actually in areas abandoned to economic collapse and low levels of immigration that fear of the “other” takes hold. In a time of post-factual politics, these realities certainly won’t suffice to convince the public of the pro-migrant message – emotion and a narrative are needed for that - but it should embolden Labour to realise what path they should take.

There is this idea that immigration is a near-impossible subject for Labour – people have “legitimate concerns” about immigration, to which the party needs to give way. But public opinion is not static and politics is not always about heading in the most popular direction: Anti-racism, gay rights and gender equality campaigns weren’t popular when they were first brought into the House of Commons. At it’s hardest but also best, politics is about challenging the consensus and persuading people that your argument is best. That means listening to peoples’ fears and responding honestly – and loudly.

Labour shouldn’t turn away and ignore the argument or give into populist pressure – they need to unite behind a pro-migration message. 

The scale of opposition can seem immense. After years of anti-immigration politics, public opinion has hardened: just two years ago 26% of the public said they would like the government to encourage immigrants and their children (even if they are British-born) to leave the country. But Labour shouldn’t turn away and ignore the argument or give into populist pressure – they need to unite behind a pro-migration message. 

In the 1930s, the Labour Party responded to fascism. Before World War II started people from across the Labour movement joined the international brigade to fight fascism in Spain. But because a war is not on the cards at the moment, Labour risks forgetting what the threat of fascism looks like. It doesn’t announce itself with banners and loud hailers; it creeps into our politics, blaming outsiders for our problems and yearning for a nation that never really existed. Labour should remember this history and address anti-migrant sentiment honestly – and they need to do it fast. 

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