Jeremy Corbyn Is Caught in Labour’s Immigration Wars

Voters want to close borders. Activists want to open them.

British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, second from right, sits on a panel at a conference on refugees in Paris on July 8, 2016. Patrick Kovarik/AFP via Getty Images

The free movement of people within the European Union is arguably one of the most progressive pieces of legislation of recent decades. In a continent that was ravaged by war and locked down by totalitarianism for much of the 20th century, people of all social classes are now—in theory at least—free to travel, live, and work where they please.

That’s the theory at least. In many working-class parts of Britain, free movement is viewed—rightly or wrongly—as a one-way street. Visit towns like Stoke, Rugeley, or Boston and the experience of free movement for working-class residents is perceived as one of intense competition for poorly paying jobs with workers from poorer countries such as Romania and Bulgaria.

This split—between progressive opinion and working-class belief—has invariably found its way into the U.K. Labour Party. Back in September of this year, delegates at Labour’s annual conference voted to support a position of extending free movement to non-EU countries and to allow EU citizens to vote in U.K. general elections.

The debate between Labour’s pro-free movement wing and its protectionist wing is often characterized as middle-class versus working-class Labour. There is some truth to this. In a recent book on what he calls the “hobbyist left,” the historian and writer David Swift took aim at “left-wing hobbyists” for whom “the original sins of slavery and imperialism mean that countries such as Britain do not have a right to a selective immigration policy, and should open their borders to as many people as wish to come.” As demonstrated by the opprobrium directed at the Labour politician Ed Miliband’s “Controls on immigration” mugs in 2015, there is a sizable constituency of Labour activists for whom border controls are racist by definition.

In the context of U.K. politics, this was certainly a radical proposal. The British public’s attitude toward immigration may have softened since the referendum on leaving the EU in June 2016, but a majority of the public still believes that levels of migration to Britain are too high. A YouGov poll conducted in April 2018 found that 63 percent of Brits thought that immigration into Britain over the last 10 years had been too high. Just 4 percent of the public thought that immigration had been a little too low or much too low. Any political party that chose to go into an election in Britain on a platform of entirely open borders would almost certainly lose heavily—regardless of the merits or otherwise of their position.

Under New Labour, conference votes were something of a sham and were stitched up or invariably ignored by the party leadership. When Jeremy Corbyn was elected party leader in 2015, he promised to increase internal party democracy. Yet the push by conference delegates to extend free movement has proved too far even for Corbyn. As reported by the Guardian this week: “Labour will unveil a compromise position on immigration in its manifesto on Thursday that would not commit fully to free movement after Brexit.”

This is a three-way compromise to be sure. It is a compromise with the electorate, but it is also a compromise with the trade unions. The leader of Labour’s biggest union backer, Unite the Union, said in a recent interview with the Guardian that he would oppose any attempt to extend free movement as voted for by delegates at party conference. “We will have to see what’s in the manifesto, but I don’t think [what conference voted for] is a sensible approach and I will be expressing that view,” Unite’s Len McCluskey said.

McCluskey himself has gone further and has linked free movement to the undercutting of wages for British workers. But there is little hard evidence to show that an “influx of cheap labor,” as McCluskey puts it, has had a substantial impact on the employment opportunities and wage levels of British workers—although there is widespread perception among the public that it has

The trade union movement in Britain has often been a less than accommodating place for migrant workers. After World War II, when Britain recruited migrants to help rebuild the ruined economy, the Trades Union Congress opposed the recruitment of migrant workers unless no British workers were available. At the turn of the 20th century, the Seamen’s Union opposed the employment of Chinese seamen on the basis that they undercut wages. Jewish immigration was often opposed on a similar basis.

Conclusively measuring the impact of immigration on pay and conditions at work is difficult. Several studies have suggested that free movement impacts the lowest-paid workers in the U.K. negatively, while it benefits medium- and high-paid workers the most. However the effects are slight and may be offset over the longer term by the wealth generated in the wider economy. The downward pressure that does exist on wages also disproportionately impacts other migrant workers rather than specifically the white working class, often portrayed by the right in Britain as victims of mass immigration.

The tabloids in Britain have done a great deal to popularize the notion that migrants—rather than bad bosses—are responsible for poverty pay. Indeed, migrants represent a useful scapegoat at a time of increasing precarity in the labor market. As gig economy working practices have spread over the past decade—think zero-hours contracts, temporary work, and the recategorization of many employees as independent contractors, depriving them of sick pay, annual leave, and the minimum wage—the political climate has become increasingly propitious to headlines in the gutter press railing against migrant workers.

Even under a Labour government, Britain is likely to leave the European Union—making any extension of free movement unlikely in the long run. But McCluskey’s objection is to free movement as it has existed in the EU since the accession of former Eastern Bloc countries 15 years ago. He referred in the same interview to an “influx of cheap labor.” Moreover, during his campaign to be reelected general secretary of Unite back in 2016, McCluskey said that Unite must “listen to the concerns of working people” on immigration, adding that “workers have always done best when the labor supply is controlled and communities are stable.”

McCluskey’s opposition to free movement is more sophisticated than just crude nativism. In the Guardian interview, the Unite boss said it was “wrong” to extend free movement “unless you get stricter labor market regulation.” Most Labour Party activists also want stricter labor market regulation, but this part of the McCluskey interview was subsequently drowned out by headlines emphasizing a Labour “split” over immigration.

But the row demonstrates how intertwined issues of immigration and workers’ rights are. Even EU migrants, with the right to work in Britain, face language and cultural barriers that mean they’re less able to defend themselves, especially if they come from poorer countries. A more vulnerable workforce affects everyone and fuels the suspicions that migrant workers are undercutting wages, as does the rampant insecurity at the bottom of the labor market. I went undercover at an Amazon warehouse in 2016 and found bosses getting away with more than I believe they would have been able to had a majority of workers been British. Locals felt this too, and it played into a wider narrative of migrant workers undermining pay and conditions for British workers.

McCluskey may not be right about the need to roll back free movement. Yet if more progressives—both inside and outside the Labour Party—pushed to strengthen Britain’s labor laws as the Unite chief has argued, it would be easier to make the case for free movement with the wider public. This in turn would help to undercut the arguments of those who opportunistically feign concern for workers’ rights in order to bash migrants. That would be a truly progressive immigration policy.

James Bloodworth is an English journalist and writer. He is the author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.

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