Labour must respect free movement vote
Labour members and trade unionists have called on party leaders to implement the radical migrants’ rights policy adopted by a landslide vote at last week’s party conference.
The resolution, written by the Labour Campaign for Free Movement (LCFM), represents possibly the most dramatic leap leftwards on immigration in the party’s history. But just a day after the vote, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott contradicted it, telling Radio 4 that in renegotiating Brexit, a Labour government would replace free movement with restrictions such as work visas. An immediate backlash took the form of an open letter that accrued over 1,000 signatures in just a day.
The Labour party has a poor history on migrants’ rights. In 1968, the Wilson government rushed through the Commonwealth Immigration Act to lock out thousands of Asian Kenyans who had British passports and were fleeing a hostile Kenyan government, with a Cabinet memo arguing: “the Asian community in East Africa are not nationals of this country in any racial sense”. In the 2000s, the Blair government oversaw the dramatic expansion of the UK’s detention centres.
And though Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto shifted left on other issues, it pledged to end free movement with Brexit and extend NRPF (“no recourse to public funds” policies, which deny migrants access to major elements of social security, including many benefits, social housing, and free school meals).
Instead of challenging racist sentiments and xenophobic myths, substantial parts of the labour movement have tried to cynically manoeuvre around them. Worse, many have taken up these politics with enthusiasm, becoming champions of nationalist and racist poison that divides and weakens the working class.
The new policy ought to draw a line under that. It commits Labour to defending and extending free movement; rejecting any immigration system based on incomes, migrants’ utility to business, and/or number caps and targets; closing all detention centres; guaranteeing the right to family reunion; abolishing detention centres; ending the Hostile Environment; ensuring migrants’ NHS access; and extending equal voting rights to all UK residents. It comes after two years of work by LCFM, a network that Workers’ Liberty activists worked with others to found, and in which we remain centrally involved.
If the Labour leadership try to sweep the conference vote into the memory hole and continue the party’s history of concessions to xenophobia, the grassroots must mobilise to hold them to our policy.
The letter of protest is a start. Supporters must take the argument into local party branches and into our trade unions too. Propose motions, invite speakers to discuss and debate the issue, and most importantly start putting the policy into action now.
We don’t have to wait for an election. Let’s throw our Labour and union branches into the heart of the campaigns against detention centres and against borders in the NHS, and demand that our local councils kick out embedded Home Office staff and give school lunches to hungry children deprived by NRPF. Where workers involved in implementing any aspect of the anti-migrant policy regime are sufficiently strong and organised, we should be considering industrial action to refuse these duties.
By getting active now, we can win immediate (if partial) gains, and simultaneously create the momentum that will push labour movement leaders to follow through.