By Jeremy Dewar
SHADOW Home Secretary Diane Abbott was in the words of the hymn ‘a kindly light amid the encircling gloom’ of the Brexit referendum; more so than any Labour front bencher, with the exception of Jeremy Corbyn, Abbott stood up for immigrants and the invaluable contribution they make to our society. As a result the Brexit gutter press abused her in a brazenly racist, sexist and disgustingly personal manner.
Abbott argued for the economic benefits of migration, the suffering of those caught in Theresa May’s “hostile environment” and the racism fostered, not just against EU migrants, but also against Black, Muslim and the other ethnic minority communities.
The Windrush scandal vindicated her. 100%.
As Shadow Home Secretary she has just made a speech outlining a Labour government’s policies on immigration.
Her first point is to end the inequality of our system – the product of Labour as well as Tory governments, responding to press scares going back to the 1960s and beyond.
It is excellent to hear a Labour spokesperson promise that:
“there’ll be no deportations of family members, no exclusion of family members. And no Minimum Income Requirement for those seeking to come here to be reunited with their family members.”
It is equally welcome to hear:
“…the entire cohort of the Windrush generation as they should be treated – as British citizens.” And to promise to return those who were deported and compensate those whose jobs and lives were ruined by this.
She also promises that:
“Under Labour, the Immigration Act 2014 will go. The hostile environment will go. ‘Deport first, appeal later’ will go. Yarl’s Wood and Brook House detention centres will go. Indefinite detention will go.”
Abbott rightly criticises the two-tier immigration system that favours EU migrants over others. But while many will welcome the idea that migrants from Poland and Pakistan will be treated equally, it is clear that Dianne and Labour accepts the end of “free movement” for European workers. Labour would introduce a system of work visas, based on individual employers’ applications and a careful calculation of skills shortages in specific parts of the labour market. Abbott protests of course that this does not means blaming EU workers:
“We are not interested in scapegoating migrants. We despise all forms of scapegoating.
Instead, Labour begins from what is best for this country. As we have said many times, we will put prosperity and jobs first. To accept the immigrants we need, and those who are entitled to be here. To manage migration in a way that benefits us all. To treat all migrants fairly, humanely, decently and equally. And yes, to swiftly and humanely remove those migrants who are not entitled to be here.”
Here “what is best for the country” trumps what is best for workers in Britain, in Europe and beyond. Work visas are a system that works for the few, not the many. True Abbott gives a long list from construction workers to doctors to care workers of sectors where immigration is ‘needed’. But what if you cannot prove these skills? Many of the most desperate migrants cannot. They will be turned away, nowhere to go.
And who decides who is needed? The bosses and politicians. The former have an eye on super-exploitation and can – or can threaten to – withdraw workers’ residency rights merely by sacking them. The latter can whip up a reactionary electoral and party base for themselves by lashing out at migrants and then turning off the visa tap completely.
Diane Abbott reveal the potential for this when she says Labour will limit the work visas to migrants “coming to take up specific job offers, where it can be shown that those jobs cannot be filled by workers already resident here”.
This is a nod towards Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers”. It would divide the working class between UK-born workers – first in the queue – and workers who are either migrants through no fault of their own.
Abbott promises a “consultation” on the length of time a migrant worker would have to be employed before having the right to welfare in case of sickness or unemployment. Although it is couched in “months, not years”, it remains another chip off the universal principle the welfare state was founded on.
Who could benefit from this policy? Not the working class, not the solidarity we need between “native” and “immigrant workers against exploiting bosses and racists.
Of course there are parts of Diane Abbot’s proposals, that will be warmly welcomed; Yarl’s Wood and Brooke House detention centres will close, though how long the others the others will remain, and the illegal detention of children, are not dealt with. Indefinite detention will end, but this must not mean swifter deportations for those without the documentation. It should mean giving individuals and families access to decent work and housing. They will soon be making a full contribution to society.
Immigrants’ families will be able to join them here, and that is a big step forward, but the permanence of the visas is never mentioned, leaving it fair to assume that they are time limited, probably some shorter then others – fruit pickers compared to doctors.
There will be the restoration of rights for the “entire Windrush generation”. Good. But what about those arriving after 1970? They too have children and grandchildren. They too have roots here. Others are just beginning to settle or are making big decisions on their future. Are they good to go?
A Labour government would repeal the 2014 Immigration Act. But Diane admits that the things like the “hostile environment” preceded this or that racist legislation is “decades-long”. So why not repeal all the anti-immigrant Acts, every one of them?
Despite the progressive measures, there is one policy in Labour’s new package that underwrites all the others. Deportations will continue.
Labour feels, even under Diane’s leadership, the need to be seen as tough on “illegal” immigration. Tough but fair… but if it’s a choice, tough.
Those who suffer – and deportation is a cruel, often murderous regime – are working class people, often fleeing dictatorships or countries whose economies have been ravaged by imperialism. Just because they can’t vote shouldn’t mean sacrificing their rights is just collateral damage to get Labour into office.
The leadership’s office has obviously calculated that they can achieve a couple of objectives with this turn. They can placate the PLP right; they can be seen to be “listening” to concerns of workers who have swallowed the propaganda of the right; they can present Brexit and the ending of free movement of labour as having a progressive outcome.
It will achieve none of these. The right, inside and outside Parliament will simply bay for more blood. It will not challenge anti-immigrant racism, but feed it because it concedes the false premise that immigration is a problem and needs to be controlled, i.e. minimised. And it will not lead to a fairer, less racist, more integrated and prosperous society for all after Brexit.
If Jeremy and Diane want “straight talking, honest politics” they should open up the debate about immigration and all other areas of policy to the party membership, and allow conference to decide the policies. We cannot appease racism; we have to confront it and see it off. n