Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott’s interview on Friday morning’s Radio 4 Today programme (2½ hours in) marked a new, abject low in the Labour leadership’s timidity and triangulation over migration policy.
A sharp rise in migrants attempting to cross the Channel in flimsy boats and dinghies – a desperate, dangerous prospect that police have likened to “trying to cross the M25 at rush hour on foot” – has now seen forty people, including children, rescued from boats in the early hours of Christmas Day. The Shadow Home Secretary was asked what response the Labour leadership proposed.
Based on Abbott’s (and Corbyn’s) record as a life-long anti-racist, pro-migrant campaigner prior to taking the front bench, you might imagine that the party leadership would respond to these events by slamming the Conservatives’ violently xenophobic treatment of people fleeing violence, persecution and poverty, and making the case for an alternative policy of solidarity and welcome.
Yet the best our Shadow Home Secretary could muster was: it would be “quite wrong” to intentionally leave people to drown; we have to accept that it would break international law to deny the right to claim asylum once refugees reach British waters; and “maybe” (only maybe!) we should increase patrols to save drowning people. The key thing, Abbott repeated three times, was to dissuade migrants from attempting to come here in the first place, by working with the French government to “advise” them how dangerous the crossing is.
But the Channel crossing to Britain – like the Mediterranean crossing to Europe – is only dangerous because the hostile anti-migrant, anti-refugee policies of the UK and other European governments rule out a simple, legal, safe journey by ferry, train or plane. Instead, they push desperate people to pay thousands of pounds to smugglers for illicit passage. When people are risking life and limb to migrate, the response of socialists, or even just liberal humanitarians, can only be: open the borders, let them come safely, and welcome them on arrival.
Famously, Jeremy Corbyn’s first act on being elected Labour leader was to join a demonstration of tens of thousands of people demanding welcome and aid to refugees. A left-wing Labour leadership ought to be arguing to reject the right-wing narrative that immigration is a problem that needs to be reduced. Corbyn’s rise should be an opportunity to seize initiative from the right and argue, from a perspective of class solidarity, that the problems facing working-class people are not the fault of migrants, but the employers and landlords who exploit us and the governments that assist and enable them. We should be talking about tearing down the policies that constitute Fortress Britain and Fortress Europe and replacing them with rational, humane, welcoming resettlement plans: taxing the rich in order to offer the whole working class, whether migrant or UK-born, decent jobs, homes, services and equality.
Can we really tell ourselves that it is enough to meekly point out that it is wrong to purposefully leave human beings to drown? Is this what we fought for when we twice voted for left-wingers to lead Labour?
When we accept a focus on deterring immigration, and confine ourselves to debating whether it is acceptable to let people die in order to do this, we allow the battle to be fought on our enemies’ terrain. Like the leadership’s acceptance of ending European free movement – which the Lexiteers assured us would create political breathing space for a more radical policy welcoming refugees – this is triangulation and appeasement, born of a timid belief that to stick our necks out any further in defence of migrants would be electoral suicide. That those who hold right-wing ideas cannot be engaged and persuaded as thinking members of our class – only manoeuvred around with an electoral gambit.
Triangulation is not just pathetic, but pointless. The Daily Express swiftly responded by railing against Abbott’s “admission” that she might mildly step up efforts to save drowning humans, and right-wing Twitter exploded with denunciations. Looking back, it is decades of triangulation by Labour on this issue – from Blair’s expansion of detentions and deportations, to Brown’s adoption of the National Front’s “British jobs for British workers” slogan, to Ed Miliband’s “Controls on Immigration” mug – that helped hand control of the narrative to the right and bring us to the point where we are seriously debating whether saving lives is right. For every inch given, the racists took another mile. For every concession granted, another two were demanded. The bloodlust of the racist right cannot be sated: Labour must stop trying.
The ascendance of Abbott and Corbyn, who had stood by their left-wing principles throughout these sordid episodes, was meant to put an end to this. In place of their predecessors’ prostrate grovelling to the right on issues from migration to social security, the new leadership was elected on a promise to fight, to propose a bold alternative and work to win hearts and minds to it.
It is not too late for that promise to be fulfilled. The Labour left must ditch the dangerous and nonsensical idea that disagreement equals disloyalty, rise to the task of holding our leaders to account, and demand better.