Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to bow to the demand for tougher immigration controls is a rebuttal, not just of the calls made by right wing Labour MPs such as Rachel Reeves, Chuka Umunna, Stephen Kinnock and shadow Brexit minister Sir Keir Starmer. It is also a rebuttal of Labour’s dreadful past.
Labour’s stance on immigration is best summed up by the Labour MP of the 1950s-70s, Richard Crossman, who wrote in his diaries: “Ever since the [notoriously racist, 1964] Smethwick election it has been quite clear that immigrants can be the greatest potential vote-loser for the Labour Party…if we are seen to be permitting a flood of immigrants to come in and blight the central areas of our cities.”
Such a position flows from Labour's central aim: to win parliamentary power. To that end it has always presented itself as a party prepared to defend not only the interests of the working class but those of the nation-state too, and that has meant defending the barrage of immigration policy and border controls that successive governments have enacted.
Often such policies are couched in terms of preventing disharmony, such as Reeves’s claim that tougher controls would “prevent rioting breaking out”, or former Labour MP Roy Hattersley’s case that they were needed to preserve “good race relations”. Other times Labour has argued controls are needed to ensure “British jobs for British workers”, notoriously proclaimed by then prime minister Gordon Brown in 2009, and echoed by others since.
The effect, however, has always been the same — to encourage racists to demand even tougher controls and even repatriation. This can be seen by the logic that immigration control has followed:
» Labour claimed it would repeal the Tories’ Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, but ended up toughening its provisions when it assumed power in 1964-68 with its own Act in 1968.
» During this period Labour ordered gynaecological examinations of migrant women to be carried out at airports to determine their virginity and, in a forerunner to Jack Straw’s backing for dental checks, hazardous X-rays on youngsters to decide their age.
» Following the arrival of 250 Asians who had been expelled from Malawi Labour’s then home secretary Roy Jenkins promised to maintain “strict immigration control and “root out” illegal immigrants and overstayers in 1974. Labour’s next home secretary Merlin Rees went on to declare in 1978 that all controls were aimed at stopping “coloured” immigration.
» Labour’s 1977 Green Paper British Nationality Law formed the basis of the Tories’ 1979 and 1981 Nationality Acts.
» Labour succeeded in enacting four Acts restricting the right to asylum between 1997 and 2010, and has voted for every one of the Tories’ further restrictions since they took office in all but name since then.