Thursday, 22 December 2016

The labour movement and the migration debate

Andy Burnham's recent call for increased immigration controls was a harbinger of what we can expect from politicians on the Labour Party's right wing in 2017. His article was as cogently and persuasively expressed a piece as you will ever get from someone arguing for restrictions on freedom of movement, using left wing and pro-working class rhetoric.

Burnham predictably treated the Leave vote in this summer's referendum on EU membership as the basis for a 'rethink' on freedom of movement. However, his targets and conclusions are wrong.

Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell have all put forward much better views. They acknowledge there is exploitation of migrant labour (and yes, they say, this is part of pushing down pay and conditions for all workers). But we won't deal with that by restricting migration.
Migrants themselves are not responsible for pushing down wages or cutting public services. It is governments and employers using immigration as an excuse to pursue a race to the bottom or make cuts. We need to deal with the exploitation and also enhance workers' rights, increase the living wage, invest in jobs, and so on. In the process of putting forward such demands and policies we can challenge the prevalent scapegoating and redirect attention to the real causes of poverty, inequality and social injustice.

As these leading Labour figures recognise, a solid and persuasive response to the migration debate requires more than just the reiteration of anti-racist positions on migrants' rights, freedom of movement etc (vital as that is!). It's also necessary to articulate a positive economic alternative to failed Tory austerity, resonating with millions of people's concerns and needs.
Labour is in a mess on this issue because for every good utterance by the aforementioned leading figures there is an undermining intervention from someone like Burnham or Stephen Kinnock. Most people don't have a clue where Labour stands and the party looks divided and directionless (because it is). Lots of people enthused by Corbyn - many of whom have joined the Labour Party - are disoriented and anxious as a result.

There is a closely related debate in the trade union movement. This reflects the logic of Labour electoralism (among a layer of Labour-affiliated union officials), but also the limits of trade union consciousness (seeing things in narrow economic terms, trying to reflect the mixed consciousness of union members etc).

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey may have been mis-represented to some extent by the Guardian, but his real views are nonetheless ambiguous, offering too much ground to those characterising immigration as a threat. Such fudge offers no way forward.
The section of McCluskey's piece to do with immigration was a mess because he was fudging the issue and desperately trying to appeal to conflicting tendencies at the same time. He is a sincere anti-racist who wants to resist the scapegoating of migrants, but he's also highly vulnerable to the pressures of both Labour electoralism (which dictate 'you must abandon freedom of movement to appeal to voters') and being general secretary of a large trade union whose members have very diverse views.

Such a confused and contradictory stance satisfies nobody and achieves nothing. He needs political clarity and consistency, sticking to a position of defending freedom of movement on clear anti-racist, class-based and internationalist grounds.
The left can chart a way forward, but it requires a principled, coherent approach. It starts with acceptance of the referendum result (irrespective of how you voted), as anything else would be a great boost to the hard Right, and a sharp focus on what kind of Brexit we have. This is a deeply contested process, with the Tories weak and incoherent, presenting the left with opportunities as well as dangers.

It requires a principled anti-racist politics that defends migrants' rights and freedom of movement, challenges exploitation of migrant workers, and confronts the exclusion of people from beyond Fortress Europe.
This anti-racism can be combined with the championing of a positive alternative around jobs, public services, pay and housing. The labour movement - both the Labour Party and a more combative trade union movement - has to offer real material change, using the rupture of Brexit as an opportunity to promote a rupture with several years of Tory austerity and decades of neoliberal policies.


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