Labour fails to oppose Conservatives’ racist immigration bill

Jeremy Corbyn

On 28 January 2019, Parliament held the second reading of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill, which sets out the government’s proposed post-Brexit immigration regime. The Bill was passed 297 to 234.

In the run-up to the vote, the Parliamentary Labour Party appeared beset by confusion. Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott MP – who has condemned the overt racism and injustice of the Conservative ‘hostile environment’ for migrants – announced to the House of Commons on the afternoon of the vote that Labour would not vote against the Bill: ‘The Labour party is clear that when Britain leaves the single market, freedom of movement ends, and we set this out in our 2017 manifesto. I am a slavish devotee of that magnificent document: so on that basis, the frontbench of the Labour party will not be opposing this bill this evening.’  (Quoted in The Guardian 28 January 2019)

Abbott claimed that Labour intended to propose ‘substantial’ amendments to the Bill at the next stage.  On this basis the party had given 256 Labour MPs permission to miss the vote.  But hours later, following a backlash from some Labour MPs and Corbynistas on social media, the party did a U-turn and announced a one-line whip to oppose the Bill. However, by this point, only 178 Labour MPs were left in Westminster to attend the vote.

This floundering meant that Labour failed to oppose the clearly racist and repressive planned legislation, which among other measures creates a ‘temporary’ route for ‘unskilled’ migrants, who will be totally at the disposal of the needs of British capital – only allowed to work for a year with no access to any right to benefits, to settle, or change their visa, then removed for a ‘cooling off period’ of a further year. As a result, the supposedly anti-racist credentials of Labour’s ‘principled left-wing’ under Jeremy Corbyn were publicly called into question.

The purpose of this Bill, which was introduced in December 2018, accompanied by a White Paper (see FRFI 268), is to continue Britain’s racist immigration system by subjecting EU migrants to the same restrictive immigration controls which currently apply to non-EU migrants when ‘freedom of movement’ ends after Britain exits the EU.

It was Theresa May as Conservative Home Secretary who coined the term ‘hostile environment’ and brought in the current regime whereby immigration control pervades every facet of life, with landlords, doctors, teachers and others compelled to carry out immigration checks or face sanction. But much of the infrastructure of the hostile environment was brought in by the 1997-2010 Labour government. It was Labour in power which:

  • increased the number of dedicated Immigration Removal Centres from one to 12 and expanded immigration detention to over 3,000 places;
  • Passed six repressive immigration acts and introduced the Points Based System for non-EU migrants;
  • Exploited migrant labour from Eastern Europe, placing restrictions on access to benefits and on where migrants could work;
  • Created the forced dispersal system for asylum seekers, often housing them in appalling conditions, removing their right to work and placing them on a separate welfare system with poverty level benefits;
  • Deported tens of thousands of people, many to war zones that were the direct result of British interventions, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was Labour Immigration Minister Phil Woolas who boasted in 2008 of how his government was deporting one person every eight minutes and Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith who in 2009 issued an unequivocal declaration of war against immigrants: ‘The message is clear – whether you’re a visa overstayer, a foreign criminal or a failed asylum seeker, the UK Border Agency is determined to track you down and remove you from Britain.’ 

The current Labour Party leadership has pledged to end the worst injustices of the ‘hostile environment’, ban indefinite detention, and end the use of exorbitant Home Office fees, such as the £1,012 registration fee for under-18s to obtain citizenship. Yet the fundamentals remain the same: whichever party is in power, migration will be tailored to the needs of British capitalism. Labour’s 2017 manifesto promises ‘fair rules and reasonable management of migration’, whilst pledging to ensure migrants have no recourse to public funds and promising to hire 500-1,000 extra border guards ‘to add to our safeguards and controls’.

Anti-racists can have no illusions in the Labour Party, with its history of defending British imperialism and attacking the international working class. Resisting the racist British state and its anti-migration apparatus depends on the building of an independent, anti-racist working class movement.

Ruby Most


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