An outcry from Labour’s grassroots and a threatened backbench rebellion dragged the leadership back from a disgraceful capitulation on the Tories’ Immigration Bill on 28 January. The Bill will end free movement for EU citizens and, rather than setting out the new regime of immigration controls, will hand over a blank cheque for Ministers to write the law themselves – so-called “Henry VIII” powers.
December 2018’s White Paper indicated their intentions. This is a charter to serve the capitalist class, and to turn more migrants into a segregated, hyper-exploitable layer of workers stripped of rights and security. Hours before the 28 January vote on the Bill’s second reading, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott shamefully announced that Labour would whip its MPs not to oppose it but abstain at this stage, and then table amendments later. Her harsh criticism of some aspects of the Bill was undermined by her saying that Labour accepts that free movement must end.
There was an immediate and substantial backlash on social media, including from prominent pro-Corbyn commentators. MPs from various wings of the party spoke out. Even Blairites who had previously opposed free movement were able to cynically pose as the champions of migrants. The front bench backtracked within two hours and issued a single¬line whip against the Bill. It passed its second reading easily, 297¬234. Many Labour MPs had already left Westminster after the initial instruction to abstain.
Corbyn’s ascent was supposed to mark a break from previous leaders’ “strategic” triangulation to right¬wing politics. Yet here were Abbott and Corbyn, previously life¬long pro-migrant campaigners, proposing an abstention, with the exact same “tactical” argument against which they famously rebelled when Harriet Harman whipped for abstention on the second reading of the Tories’ 2015 Welfare Bill. Off the record, insiders point to the “4 M’s”, in and around the Leader’s Office — Seumas Milne, Andrew Murray, Len McCluskey and Karie Murphy — as pushing the abstention.
The slavish culture of performative “loyalty” that has been built on the Labour left, the fear of dissent and disagreement, and the measures taken – for instance in Momentum – to insulate the leadership and its political decisions from the base, stand indicted.