Letter from a Corbynista: Labour needs to rethink its rhetoric on immigration

The left of the party has to say it. Corbyn’s rhetoric on immigration is becoming a serious problem.

This week’s so-called ‘scandal’ around student debt is the latest in the misrepresentation of Corbyn. But while it’s right to point out when Labour are being misrepresented, we also need to listen and to be able to critique the leadership where necessary. And Corbyn’s rhetoric on immigration is becoming a serious problem.

In a recent interview with Andrew Marr, the Labour leader suggested that under Labour:

“What there wouldn’t be is the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry.”

This follows him stating numerous times that freedom of movement now ‘obviously ends’. It seems to stand in contrast to past statements – John McDonnell back in December argued that migration was not to blame for low pay and bad conditions, and that in fact the ‘whole economy’ was the problem. Corbyn himself has said in the past he would be ‘relaxed’ about immigration figures rising, claiming that he would not ‘sow division or fan the flames of fear’.

Even in the same interview Corbyn does allude to companies being the ones that profit out of poor treatment of labour – but he doesn’t carry through into a focus on regulation, as opposed to curbing immigration. And while claims that Labour are now ‘hating’ on immigrants or dabbling in xenophobic language are overstated, by giving any credence to arguments about the negative role of immigration, Corbyn both lets down and alienates many who would otherwise look to Labour as a champion.

Abandoning freedom of movement and talking of basing immigration on our skills needs also ignores the needs of migrants – and reduces worth to a purely economic calculation. It also shifts focus from the employers and, on a macro scale, the policies that are really to blame for exploitation. Labour’s approach to immigration is at best muddled, at a time when our defence of freedom of movement should be clear and unequivocal.

So let’s be clear: most evidence suggests that, economically speaking, Britain is better off due to immigration. The evidence just isn’t there to support claims that migration has led to a deterioration in wages or working conditions, or a loss of jobs. That these myths seem to be sustained on little more than hot air is not surprising- what is, is that now the Labour leadership is dabbling in this rhetoric too.

Which brings us to the real issue: the problem when it comes to workers’ rights, conditions and pay is not freedom of movement – it’s the power of capital. Free movement of capital, with its ability to invest around the world and often exploit developing countries and their populations, has done far more both at home and abroad to destroy conditions and pay than freedom of movement has.

Domestically too, the ascendancy of the business class since the 1970’s and their intellectual consolidation behind neoliberal ideology has been behind the assault on unions, the financialisaton of the economy and the explosion in inequality, as increasingly the declining benefits of growth are concentrated in less and less hands.

Corbyn stems from a political tradition that has this understanding etched into its bones. Ultimately, if immigration did share a negative relationship with pay, conditions and employment in Britain (which, we must constantly point out, there is very little evidence for) then it wouldn’t be a fact inherent to immigration – it would be due to poorly regulated labour markets, a hallmark of the power business and the rich have on our democracy. When workers are exploited and conditions worsen, there is only ever one group to blame, and it’s not low-paid migrants themselves.

What makes this all the more baffling is that there is so little need for Corbyn’s comments: we have substantial, viable plans to improve pay and working conditions for the majority of the country, from a £10 an hour minimum wage to strengthening union rights and creating secure jobs. And Labour are doing fantastically in the polls. We simply don’t need to stoop to this level.

I joined the Labour Party in order to fight for a sort of politics that did away with lazy stereotypes and offered real, radical solutions to the problems we face, solutions that craft a better country for everyone. If we cannot create a dynamic, socialist political and economic system that works for everyone, including those forced to or who choose to come to this country, then we frankly don’t deserve to be in power.

Labour needs to rethink its emerging narrative on immigration – and ensure our focus is on the exploitation by capital. We’re better than this.

Bradley Allsop is a Labour member and PhD student studying youth political engagement at the University of Lincoln. Follow him on Twitter.

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6 Responses to “Letter from a Corbynista: Labour needs to rethink its rhetoric on immigration”

  1. Craig Mackay

    I agree very strongly with this excellent piece. Jeremy Corbyn really must resist the urge to rehearse his rigid and dogmatic views on various aspects of Brexit. Mass immigration has been blamed for many of the ills in our society when in fact they have been a convenient whipping boy for a right-wing government. Happy to take the taxes paid by the immigrants but not prepared to reinvest that money in the regions where they work. All this idea about training up British people to take these jobs is nonsense. There aren’t that many British people left who are jobless and prepared to take on many of the jobs that immigrants do.

    Under the current immigration rules there is an awful lot more that could have been done but was not done by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary. There is more about it here: http://outsidethebubble.net/2016/12/06/massive-negligence-by-theresa-may-when-home-secretary/

    It is important that Labour recognise that the “centre of gravity” of British public opinion is still drifting quite markedly on many aspects of Brexit. Public opinion very much favours pragmatic flexibility and sadly Jeremy Corbyn is projecting just the opposite. Jeremy Corbyn’s recent statements about what amount to a hard-right attitude to Brexit are really unhelpful. The approach of Keir Starmer and John McConnell is much more sound. Labour have to be much more careful about what their strategies are surrounding Brexit or indeed anything else. Theresa May is doing very badly with her hard red lines for example on the European Court of Justice. Labour must avoid apparent inflexibility in their approach to Brexit. The overconfidence that is being exuded by Labour following their near victory recently should not blind them to the fact that the next election will be a struggle. They need to keep as many voters on the side, particularly the young activists who are overwhelmingly pro-EU and pro-remain. There is more about that here: http://outsidethebubble.net/2017/07/24/can-jeremy-corbyn-walk-upon-the-water/

  2. Michael

    Craig, I thoroughly agree. If we take the same line as the Tories, what is the point of the Labour Party, of which I have been a member for many years?

  3. Alasdair Macdonald

    This is a good article and I agree with the thrust of it. I was alarmed by Mr Corbyn’s statement. Perhaps, it can be excused as a one-off, ill-thought out statement, which has been somewhat isolated from the rest of the interview. I acknowledge, I am being charitable in the previous sentence. Looking at the whole of Mr Corbyn’s leadership and the GE campaign, it is clear that he has facilitated a change in the neoliberal hegemony, to which New Labour was as strongly thirled as the Tories and Lib Dems. So, I think he deserves the benefit of doubt.

    I voted Labour at every election from my first vote in 1968 and, for a time was a member of the Labour Party. However, while I acknowledge that New Labour had some significant redistributive achievements, it did not change the hegemony and seldom articulated the kinds of arguments which Harold Wilson or James Callaghan would have made uninhibitedly. In this regard, Mr Gordon Brown was quite cynically mendacious, presenting himself as the ‘guardian of the flame’ while deregulating markets and supervision and then, with Mr Darling handed shedloads of cash to the financiers. Mr Darling was simply defending his class interest and has been duly rewarded. Mr Brown betrayed his background and (this from an atheist, raised as a Calvinist) and his Christianity. I had become increasingly suspicious of Labour following the death of John Smith and the Iraq War was the final ‘misdeed.’

    I have not voted Labour since and it is unlikely that I will do so again until there is a socialist/Social Democratic/Green(ish) party in a post independence Scotland. However, I have been given a frisson of optimism by the success of Mr Corbyn and his supporters. It seems to signal a political reawakening of the majority of decent people of England. The kinds of things being raised, discussed and proposed, while still nebulous, indicate that real change is possible. I think that change has to include the ending of the United Kingdom, or at least a thoroughgoing federalisation which entails the significant and irreversible devolution of almost all powers to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland (and, if it unites with the Irish Republic, takes its due proportion of assets) and England (and, if England decides, further devolves these to its regions.)

    We in Scotland need significant immigration, as do Wales and Northern Ireland. While I voted Remain and continue to wish to be a European, we have to see the Brexit process as an opportunity to redefine things in a more equitable, respectful and humane way.

    The anti-immigration rhetoric of so many Labour MPs, such as Caroline Flint, is concerning. It is the anti-immigration genie, let out of the bottle by the EU referendum which led to the murder of Ms Jo Cox MP. Can Ms Flint and those other Labour MPs control these baleful forces which have been loosed? With the ‘revived’ Tory party in Scotland increasingly publicly associating itself with the Orange Order and reawakening the latent and marginalised sectarianism there are genuine fears. I hope Mr Corbyn’s statement has not given comfort to such reactionary nastiness.

  4. Eric

    Huh? Corbyn’s comment was about exploitation by capital. Specifically the exploitation of immigrant labour. I don’t think we should surrender on this simply because it involves questions about immigration

    Well rehearsed liberal arguments about immigration being “good for the nation” should not cut it with the left. There isn’t a simple national interest that we can all rally behind despite nationalist fantasies to the contrary. What’s good for “the nation” isn’t necessarily good for most of its civilians. This should be ABC.

  5. Luke Styles

    While I agree that as a whole immigration is a good thing. There is no doubt that immigration has hit a lot of self-employed tradespeople and small businesses; Mechanics, plumbers, builders etc… I think Jeremy is right to say that wages have been undercut in certain areas of our economy . May I suggest that Jeremy has probably met quite a few more self-employed people and small business owners than we have and to suggest that immigration has no effect on wages is simplistic. I think he has struck a good balance.

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