Labour’s failure to oppose the Tory Immigration Bill shows that appeasing the right is always a mistake, argues Shabbir Lakha
On Monday, the Tories comfortably passed their latest Immigration bill through Parliament after Labour failed to whip its MPs to oppose it. Apart from anything else, several Tories rebelled against the government which meant if Labour MPs were whipped, the bill probably would have been defeated.
What’s more, Labour initially instructed MPs to abstain from the vote, and only whipped MPs to vote against after a backlash on the day – by which point it was too late. This led to headlines of Labour’s u-turn and Theresa May’s victory.
The reason for initially abstaining on the vote was explained by Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary, as being Labour’s 2017 manifesto committed to ending freedom of movement post-Brexit, and so, in line with that, they would let the Tory bill go through. This is despite Diane Abbott’s column in the Morning Star just 2 days prior explaining why the Immigration bill is so toxic, saying:
“...the white paper [the government] is meant to enact represents one of the most serious threats to all workers for decades.”
This flip flop stems back to the decision to ditch freedom of movement in January 2017 which has now come back to haunt them. Jeremy Corbyn has been clear throughout his leadership that exploitative companies and Tory policy, not immigrants, are responsible for wage suppression and the erosion of workers’ rights, vehemently opposed the Tories’ hostile environment, and promised to unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK after Brexit – so the decision to end freedom of movement is counterintuitive and undermines Corbyn’s positions.
At the time, there was pressure from the Labour right – the same MPs now claiming that Jeremy refusing to back a ‘People’s Vote’ is facilitating a reactionary Tory Brexit – to end freedom of movement.
One of the central positions of Yvette Cooper’s 2015 leadership campaign was that Labour had been too soft on immigration, and in September 2016, Chuka Umunna said:
"If continuation of the free movement we have is the price of Single Market membership then clearly we couldn’t remain in the Single Market”
It’s telling that the Labour right, now criticising Corbyn, mounted a serious operation at the last Labour conference to change Labour policy to accommodate a second referendum, but did nothing to change the policy on freedom of movement.
The lesson for the Labour leadership is that trying to compromise with the right never works. Ditching freedom of movement was an abandonment of the anti-xenophobic platform that Corbyn was overwhelmingly elected on – twice.
It’s a sorry state of affairs when Theresa May can claim a victory, a rare occurrence for her shambolic government, and the Lib Dems and Labour right can criticise the Labour leadership from the left. The right have no principles and couldn’t care less about workers’ or migrants’ rights. The Labour leadership should not be pandering to them nor opening the door for them to claim any kind of moral high ground.
It’s perfectly possible for Labour’s plans for Brexit to include maintaining freedom of movement, and the left must continue arguing for this.
Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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