In the era of Brexit attacks on immigration won't help Labour

Labour MPs who play the race card are taking the easy way out and reinforcing prejudices based on myths By Rebecca Anderson

JEREMY CORBYN told the Labour Party Conference, “It isn’t migrants that drive down wages, it’s exploitative employers and the politicians who deregulate the labour market and rip up trade union rights. It isn’t migrants who put a strain on our NHS; it only keeps going because of the migrant nurses and doctors who come here filling the gaps left by politicians who have failed to invest in training.”

This led to “fury” among some Labour MPs. In fact this fury is a cold calculation. They sense that playing the immigration card (the 21st Century race card) can undermine Corbyn’s leadership.

Chuka Umunna, regularly touted as a possible future challenger to Corbyn, argues that immigrants should stop leading “parallel lives” and that “not getting involved in the community is not an option. There should be an expectation that you become part of the community.”

Stephen Kinnock went straight to the BBC’s Andrew Neil to denounce Corbyn:

“We must make it clear to people that we respect their desire for having control over our borders, control over the way our labour market works, so we can build the kind of society we want to build.”

His answer? Quotas.

“I believe we should be talking about a sector by sector approach… Setting a number that is appropriate and when we reach that number say, ‘that’s it, that’s all we need’.”

Rachel Reeves also attacked Corbyn’s “relaxed” approach, claiming we have to “face up fully to this fact – millions of our lifelong supporters voted to leave the EU and voted for change on immigration”. Channeling Enoch Powell, Reeves warned that the situation could become “explosive” and “riots could break out across the country unless a Brexit deal curbs immigration”.

Those who play with patriotism, English nationalism and anti-immigrant racism will get their fingers burned.

What none of them can provide is a shred of evidence that Britain’s record level of immigration has harmed British job opportunities, British wages, British welfare services or the British economy. Because there is no evidence.

More British-born workers are currently employed than ever before – both in actual figures and as a percentage. Wages for very many of us are too low, but migrants’ wages are also too low; they’re not grabbing higher paid jobs.

Every study proves that migrants, as a whole, pay more in taxes than they take out in welfare benefits, NHS treatments or school places. The Labour Party can’t outflank the Tories or UKIP on immigration, it will backfire. Those Labour supporters who are taken in by the racists’ lies about migrant labour will vote for the real racist parties: Ukip or the Tories. On the other hand it will also undermine Labour’s support in areas with a higher proportion of people from a non-British background.

Labour MPs who want to play the race card to score points and triangulate are worse than useless. Instead of exposing the myths about immigration promoted by the Tories and the media, they reinforce them – taking the easy way out.

Alternative

What we need are voices in parliament and in our communities who confront the prejudices of workers who accept the racist lies promoted in the media: migrants aren’t to blame for poor quality housing landlords (and councils) are. Migrants aren’t to blame for the lack of teachers – privatisation, overwork and lack of investment is. Migrants aren’t to blame for low pay and unemployment – bosses are.

A Labour opposition should be pointing all these things out and building a campaign to change this situation. A labour movement campaign could unite British and migrant workers in a common struggle for decent housing, a real Living Wage and a programme of investment to create jobs by building the new schools, hospitals and homes we desperately need.

Leading a powerful working class struggle over these issues would do more for Labour’s general election prospects than Reeves’ or Umunna’s racist triangulation.

If Labour MPs don’t want to stand up for class unity as the principled response to racist scapegoating then they should resign and make way for candidates who will.

In the meantime, let’s take the initiative. Labour Party CLPs across the country should work with their affiliated unions to launch campaigns that

  • unionise migrant workers, especially in low paid and unorganised sectors like hospitality, care and cleaning
  • expose the abuses of slum landlords and exploitative bosses, whose victims include migrants
  • coordinate efforts to ensure Labour remains committed to free movement and fights for a labour movement campaign to provide decent pay and living conditions for all
  • support labour movement forces internationally to build a Europe-wide resistance to austerity

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