British state racism: Labour offers no solutions

In February 120 women in Yarls Wood Immigration Removal Centre went on indefinite hunger strike, the latest in a long list of acts of resistance from within Britain’s racist immigration prisons. The strikers launched a set of demands that included: an end to indefinite detention; amnesty for everybody who has been living in the UK for over 10 years; an end to the employment of detainees to carry out menial tasks within detention centre for £1 an hour; ‘an end to charter flights and the snatching of people from their beds in the night and herding them like animals’. (The full list of demands is available at: Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott and Shadow Attorney General Shami Chakrabarti were given permission by the Home Office to meet with some of the striking women. They expressed their solidarity. Yet in practice Labour is putting forward its own racist plans for how they would run the racist British state.

The latest Yarls Wood hunger strike adds to the pressure to end Britain’s practice of detaining migrants for an unlimited period. Criticisms of this policy have been made by religious leaders, the UN Human Rights Council, and former Conservative Cabinet members including Andrew Mitchell, the former International Development Secretary, who described indefinite detention as a ‘stain on our democracy’. The Home Office says it has paid out £21.2m in the last five years as compensation for unlawful detention of migrants. In March the latest damning report on immigration detention was published, following an inspection of Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre by the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons in October 2017. The inspection found: over half of detainees feel unsafe; support for detainees identified as at risk of self-harm is inconsistent; use of force is excessive; segregation is used punitively; some detainees are held for long periods, even where they have histories of being subjected to torture. The previous inspection in 2015 made 23 recommendations, of which only one had been implemented by 2017.

On 21 February, Diane Abbott gave a speech at Kings College London, which she described as the first in a series of lectures on the immigration policy for a future Labour government. Abbott noted that many of Britain’s laws to restrict immigration were created by Labour governments. She reiterated the commitments of the 2017 Labour manifesto, which included the ‘management of migration’ in the service of ‘growth, jobs and prosperity’. In opposition to the Conservative government’s cap on net migration, Abbott proposed more selective filtering, ‘of who we accept and reject. We can adopt policies to attract some people such as nurses or engineers, we can adopt policies to apprehend others such as criminals, people traffickers, terrorists…. There are many sectors of the economy where we need people from overseas, whether it’s in agriculture, or astrophysics, teaching, IT, or sandwich making.’ This ‘management’ of migration is to be enforced through 1,000 extra border guards.

Abbott also promised an end to indefinite detention on immigration grounds, an end to the deportation of those granted temporary leave to remain once they turn 18, and increased protections for migrants on the grounds of family connections. This represents an attempt to continue to manage immigration in the interests of British capital, making migrants’ presence in Britain conditional on their usefulness to British employers, but to attempt to do so more ‘humanely’. This is wishful thinking: subordinating human beings to the needs of capital is a necessarily violent process, and the violence cannot be wished away whatever ‘values’ are applied to the management of that process. We have been here before. The Liberal Democrats pledged to end detention of children prior to the 2010 General Election. After entering a coalition with the Conservative Party and discovering the usefulness of detention for effective migration management, they abandoned their commitment in practice, and the number of children detained each year increased.

Abbott spoke against the idea that migrants are responsible for low wages, pointing instead to a combination of ‘globalisation’, weak trade unions, and ‘predatory employers’. But she also proposed measures that specifically target the ‘exploitation of migrant labour by unscrupulous employers’ and claimed that this ‘serves to undercut wages for all’. She promised an end to the current ‘hostile environment’ for migrants and rightly placed the blame for the crisis in schools, housing and the NHS on austerity rather than immigration, yet went on to state that ‘We do accept that a rising population creates challenges in education, health care and housing’ and proposed the reinstatement of a Migration Impact Fund as a solution. This is an attempt to placate opposition to the insidious racism of the government’s hostile environment, while at the same time maintaining the idea that migrants are a threat to ‘British workers’ that require punitive action.

This was put more bluntly by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn a few weeks later, in a speech to the Scottish Labour conference, when he stated: ‘We cannot be held back inside or outside the EU from taking the steps we need to develop and invest in cutting edge industries and local business, stop the tide of privatisation and outsourcing, or from preventing employers being able to import cheap agency labour to undercut existing pay and conditions in the name of free market orthodoxy.’ This is a protectionist fantasy that imagines it will be possible to escape the British economy’s structural reliance the financial sector and low-paid migrant labour and overcome the capitalist crisis without breaking from capitalism.

The only way to challenge falling wages and inadequate services is to demand equal treatment and the allocation of resources to meet the needs of the whole population, regardless of nationality, country of origin, or any other measure for rationing. This requires a direct challenge to the idea that migrants and British workers have contradictory interests. For hundreds of years Britain has been dependent on wealth extracted from around the world, and this continues today. The oppression and exploitation of working class people in Britain is directly connected to the exploitation and oppression carried out in other countries for the benefit of British capital. Corbyn and Abbott will not include this in their discussion of migration because it would immediately expose their arguments for controls as chauvinist. The Labour Party is the racist, imperialist party that it always has been, and will remain so unless it challenges the roots of Britain’s wealth. Labour is part of the problem, internationalism is the solution.

Tom Vickers


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