With Rudd Gone, Can Labour Shift The Terms Of The Immigration Debate?

Labour has a golden opportunity to show that unity rather than division represents the foundations of an alternative politics
Henry Nicholls / Reuters

UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd resigned on Sunday, following more than a week of mounting pressure over the Windrush scandal. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of migrants to the UK have been effectively persecuted by the Home Office during (and before) her tenure. They have been asked to provide the impossible – detailed documentation proving their continued presence in the UK since their arrival in the 1970s.

The Tories are desperate to portray Rudd’s departure as a consequence of an honest mistake. According to this narrative, Rudd inadvertently misled MP’s over targets for removing supposedly illegal immigrants from the UK, hence it is a question of administrative oversight, rather than of policy formulation and execution.

The Tories’ want to make this the dominant narrative because it is clear to many observers, and those that suffered from Home Office actions, that its removal targets policy was part and parcel of the creation of a ‘very hostile environment’ for supposedly illegal immigrants. That policy was formulated by UK Prime Minister Theresa May. If it can be shown that May’s actions as Home Secretary and as Prime Minister contributed to the suffering endured by migrants to the UK, then her position will come under intense pressure.

Much of media commentary is concerned precisely with the immediate impact upon May’s stature, and her ability to ride the current political turmoil. However, there is another much deeper issue at play here. That is how immigration plays out in national politics.

Traditionally the Tories have been considered to be strong on issues such as the economy, crime and immigration. However, a decade of austerity and a major increase in knife crime in London have dealt heavy blows to their legitimacy in these areas. Whenever the next general election occurs the issue of immigration will be one of the central debates over which Labour and Tories clash. The question is, what will be the terms of the debate?

Under Jeremy Corbyn Labour have begun shifting the terms of the public debate over the economy, with clear majorities of the public wanting higher taxes on the rich to fund public services and limits on the gap between high and low earners. Can they shift the terms of debate over immigration?

Labour fought the 2015 general election arguing that, just like the Tories, it would be tough on immigration. Infamously, it produced red mugs with “controls on immigration” above the words “I’m voting Labour on 7 May”.

The hard Brexit agenda being pursued by the Tories is based on the claim that they will ‘take back control’ over the UK’s borders and thereby cut immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’ a year. This commitment is rolled up into a Europhobic agenda, with hard Brexiteers clearly aiming to reboot Britain’s competitiveness based upon a low-regulation, low-taxation, and low wage economic model.

The question of immigration has always been used by the Tories, and often by Labour as a mechanism of divide and rule. Foreign workers have borne the brunt of the blame for low wages, even when they perform essential work for the economy, without which economic growth would be slower and wages lower. Former Labour leader Gordon Brown infamously pledged ‘British jobs for British workers’ as part of his attempts to deflect the blame for the 2008 crisis away from Labour’s ‘light touch’ approach to financial regulation.

The Tories and their backers in the press have been able to identify Labour’s supposed softness over immigration as revealing that it cares more for foreign workers rather than native British workers. More importantly, they have used anti-immigrant sentiment to deflect attention away from their permanent austerity agenda based upon pushing down wages and the implementation of swinging cuts to public services.

The Windrush scandal has revealed to many people the inhuman treatment by the Tory administration of legal and ‘non-legal’ immigrants. Labour now has the opportunity to advance a genuinely human agenda on immigration.

It can show how inhuman anti-immigrant sentiment was but one side of the coin of the Tory austerity agenda. And it can argue for an alternative based upon a real living wage for all workers, regardless of their origin.

The gripe about immigrants amongst labour supporting voters is not based upon racism but is about fear of cheap labour undercutting local labour. The previous Labour government under Tony Blair failed to address these issues. A campaign for the implementation of a genuine living wage, of at least £10 per hour, paid to all workers regardless of their nationality would make a significant contribution towards shifting the terms of the immigration debate.

Labour has also floated the idea of a migrant impact fund. The idea is that the central government would levy money from visa applications, and channel it to regions that are most in need of extra funds to support rising populations caused by immigration. Extra funds would be made available for nurses, doctors, public transport, social housing and other public services.

In addition to Labour’s case for a changed immigration agenda, there is a strong business case for greater freedom of migration. It is becoming increasingly obvious that migrant labour is essential for many parts of the UK economy.

Most profoundly, however, there is the question whether national governments should enable free movement of capital, whilst constraining free movement of labour? Put differently, if capital is free to enter and exit national economies based on economic calculations, leading to either economic growth of decline, then why should workers not be free to move?

Amber Rudd’s resignation represents a golden opportunity for Labour. It can show how Theresa May’s formulation of the ‘very hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants represented an act of inhuman politics, the consequences of which are now being uncovered. In turning up the pressure on May it can confidently set out an alternative agenda on immigration. This can contribute to Labour setting the broad terms of the debate at the next election, and assist it in going on the offensive on all fronts rather than feeling that it needs to adhere the fear-mongering of the right wing press and Tory party.

As with its other policies, Labour is now in a position to show that unity rather than division represents the foundations of an alternative politics.


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