The lack of imagination at the top of the Labour Party was on display for all to see last week. Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday 12 February, Deputy Party Leader Tom Watson announced that Labour was considering a regional immigration policy: “I think you can actually say London requires more liberal immigration policies but there are other parts of the country where immigration may be putting pressure on public services like schools and hospitals.
“That’s why I think when we come out of the European Union we can have an immigration policy that maybe addresses both those issues.”
According to the Independent, that would involve “some kind of work or housing permit system to be introduced as the UK has no internal border controls to stop people settling where they want”.
Watson went on to insinuate that Labour would follow the Tories down the road of strict immigration controls:
"We understand what people were telling us in the referendum. We want to replace freedom of movement with controlled borders, to be able to count people in and count people out.”
Racist immigration controls
Although, under pressure, Watson admitted that these were “nascent ideas” and nothing had been finalised, it clearly shows the direction of travel, especially since there has been no counterstatement from Jeremy Corbyn’s office or even Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott.
And that direction is towards deepening racist prejudices, the break-up of the UK along national and regional lines, and national chauvinism against the European Union. At no point has any of this policy drift been opened up to Labour’s 600,000 members for contributions or discussion, let alone decision-making. Not a “new kind of politics”, but a very old kind indeed.
First let’s deal with the deliberate untruths that are being peddled by Watson. There are no “parts of the country where immigration may be putting pressure on public services like schools and hospitals”. Schools and hospitals are paid for by national taxes. Where there is a surge in demand, resources should be shifted to meet it. Labour’s policy for a migrant impact fund to meet need on a temporary basis until new wards and schools can be built fully meets any short term “crisis”.
Watson’s solution, however, is simply to revert to type. Faced with the problem that two-thirds of Labour members (and probably voters) were Remainers, while two-thirds of Labour MPs represent constituencies that voted majority Leave, the Deputy Leader is advocating two contradictory policies: one for London (and presumably other metropolitan cities, Scotland and Northern Ireland); another for the rest of the country.
The whole idea is absurd and unworkable. But then it isn’t meant to be taken seriously. For all their talk about “listening to people’s concerns”, professional politicians like Watson don’t actually take people seriously.
Watson knows Labour has no intention of introducing regional immigration controls. The whole point is simply to float a soundbite that gives the impression that Labour is “listening” in the hope that this blunts the Ukip menace.
This is the most blinkered short term electoral opportunism imaginable. Labour has never won support by being tough on immigration - because the Tories and Ukip will always be able to present themselves as the best parties for those who really consider immigrants a problem.
Imitating right wing myths about immigration for electoral gain is the political equivalent of drinking salt water. Unpleasant in small doses, it is invariably fatal in large. The political fallout will simply be a further shift to the right as Labour competes with the Tories and Ukip in a race to be more alarmist and racist about migrants: a race, as Diane Abbott pointed out before she was muzzled, Labour cannot win.
The fact that Tom Watson can waste his time during two important by-election campaigns promoting unworkable ideas that aren’t even official policy, shows Labour are allowing the racists to set the political agenda - and lead them by the nose.
Internationalism, not nationalism
Instead of this short-sighted short-termism, Labour needs to prepare for a serious fight against the rising tide of nationalism and social-chauvinism. Socialists need to reassert that the free movement of labour is a principle for the working class movement.
Why? Because we do not accept that the ruling class has the right to label workers ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ based on their nationality. Even more strongly do we oppose labour movement participation in this reactionary process of divide and rule.
The working class’s greatest victories were achieved under the slogan ‘unity is strength’. That slogan was used to oppose English workers’ racism against Irish and Black workers, and then to win support from male workers when women fought for the right to work, to join trade unions and to vote.
In an era when the ruling class of all the major powers are whipping up racism and nationalism, talking up the threat of war, and hammering away at the need to cut public services, punish welfare claimants and defend the ‘national interest’ we need to defend the principle of working class unity across borders.
We should back it up by voting against the Tories’ plans for Brexit at every point, including the triggering of Article 50 and by launching a mass campaign to expose the myths around the effects of immigration.
Will it be possible to turn the tide of public opinion in some parts of the country where Ukip’s message is gaining a hearing in time for the general election? Maybe, maybe not. But we fought this battle in the 1970s and ’80s and we won. If you fight you might lose, if you don’t fight you will lose. We say that if we fight, we can win again.
It requires standing up to narrow-minded nationalism and for internationalism. Tom Watson revealed the dangers of draping ourselves in the Union Jack when he started aping the slogans of Donald Trump:
“I would reject the notion that the Labour Party is not a patriotic party. We are very proud of our country and we are very proud of singing the national anthem. I hope that people know that the Labour Party is the party of aspirations. We offer hope and opportunity. We want this country to be great.”
Speaking recently at a Co-Operative Party conference, Watson went even further, saying:
“If Trump says ‘buy American’, our rational response is ‘buy British’. Yet to say ‘buy British’ these days risks sneering derision from much of Britain’s commentariat and chattering classes, few of whom have been on a factory floor lately. When did you last hear Theresa May say it?”
Do we really want a deputy leader who taunts the Tories over who can imitate Trump the best?
The answer is not to despair at the current state of the debate in the Labour Party, but renew and redouble efforts to organise a campaigning left wing that can intervene into the anti-Trump and anti-Brexit movements, fight for the democratic control of policy decisions, and oppose racism of every type by arguing for open borders, not just to EU migrants but all who want to come and work or settle here.