by Adam Peggs
Anti-immigration politics has been an ever growing threat for the British left for more than a decade. Over the last few years its threat to the left, and to the Labour Party specifically, has rapidly grown with virtually no-one in Labour denying that it presents an electoral problem to the party. Firstly as an inclusive party with egalitarian ideals it is Labour’s duty to fight xenophobia. But secondly the party represents constituencies like Bristol West and Streatham which voted to remain by huge margins as well as seats like Burnley and Hartlepool which overwhelmingly voted the other way.
In order to win (or even to retain its 232 seats) Labour will have to appeal to both ends of the Brexit spectrum, acknowledging that skepticism and disapproval over freedom of movement and “mass” migration were pivotal reasons for Brexit.
Labour’s left is understandably concerned with defending free movement and the rights of migrants. The more difficult question will no doubt be how Labour can regain the confidence of voters who backed Brexit whilst avoiding (and actively fighting against) xenophobia.
Recently Stephen Kinnock and Emma Reynolds came up with a proposal which they described as a ‘fair and managed two-tier migration system’, in which higher-skilled migrants would be given priority and less skilled migrants would be classified in the lower tier. It was echoed today in the Brexit Together proposals supported by Caroline Flint. These will have close to zero appeal to Labour’s liberally-inclined voters, to the young or to the children and families of migrants.
What Labour desperately needs is an immigration policy which respects both the EU referendum result and the rights and interests of migrants in Britain.
Labour should be staunchly opposing quotas for immigration, two tier systems which favour richer migrants, attempts by the Tories to erode migrant rights or attempts by UKIP and the Tories to pull up the drawbridge.
However we will need to offer concrete policies on immigration which will make leave voters feel as though Labour is listening to them.
Jeremy Corbyn has already spoken about bringing back the migrant impact fund which would channel extra funds into areas with high levels of migration, in order to ensure that migration does not lead to strain on public services.
Labour should pledge to restore the migrant impact fund but must do two additional things. First the fund should be significantly enlarged, perhaps as big as 1-2 billion but certainly much larger than the similar fund established by Gordon Brown or the similar proposals set out by the Tories last October (140 million). Additionally the funding could be sourced by taxes designed to curb executive pay – e.g. an extra rise in income tax for those who earn over £200,000. Secondly Corbyn and the Shadow Cabinet need to talk about the fund regularly and publicise the proposal in order to actually win the confidence of leave voters.
Corbyn has also rightly talked about tackling the undercutting of wages. It’s worth noting that the argument that immigration reduces wages is largely rubbish and that Labour needs to publicise this. However it is also necessary to take the concerns seriously and to tackle the exploitation of migrant workers. In order to actually resonate Labour will be required not just to talk about tackling undercutting, but to come up with a bold comprehensive package of reforms to prevent the undercutting of wages and the exploitation of all workers. One element of this could be a proposal suggested by Clive Lewis which would be to discourage agencies from hiring non-unionised workers from abroad. While Labour could also beef up Miliband’s proposals to impose tougher penalties for workplaces which fail to pay the minimum wage.
For those on the other side of the argument it is becoming more and more necessary that Labour offers red lines on its defense of migrant’s rights. Members, liberally-inclined voters and most importantly migrants themselves deserve assurance that migrants will be respected and that an open approach to immigration will be preserved.
This means Labour and the left need to steer clear of Kinnock and Reynold’s ‘two tier’ system. It means Labour must fight against any attempts to reduce the rights of migrants, or migrant’s access to public services or the welfare state. Furthermore the left should fight to oppose any attempt to impose an arbitrary immigration target be it 50,000 per year, 100,000 year per year or whatever. A parliamentary motion has at least passed stating that EU migrants already in Britain will be granted a right to remain. Labour will need to hold the government to this commitment.
The debate about immigration isn’t just about the preferences of white voters or ‘indigenous’ Brits , it’s also about human rights, civil rights and real fairness. Some of this piece might sound like triangulation, but the ideas are borne out of an acknowledgement that the status quo on immigration is unpopular and that the rights and interests of migrants are genuinely under fire.
Adam Peggs is a blogger and Labour Party activist