The Immigration and Social Security Bill which had its second reading last month is designed to put an end to freedom of movement after Britain leaves the EU.
It makes an entirely arbitrary distinction between “skilled” and “unskilled” migrants and imposes a 12-month limit on the latter, who would not be able to bring in their families or access public funds.
This false division between different groups of workers is designed to divide one group from the other and facilitate the provision of cheap labour for employers. It is consistent with the ramping up of anti-immigrant sentiment throughout Europe.
Labour’s response has been contradictory. On the one hand shadow home secretary Diane Abbott can argue that the government’s policy “amounts to a permanent campaign against migration and migrants as a scapegoat for the effects of their own austerity policy” and will “severely increase the rates of exploitation in work”.
On the other hand, she accepts that when Britain leaves the single market freedom of movement will end.
Consequently, she initially announced that Labour would not oppose the Bill. After an outcry from many rank and file members (and a handful of opportunist right wing MPs) she reversed her position, but only imposed a one-line whip, which meant that a significant number of MPs were absent from the vote.
The Tories prevailed by 297 to 234, a majority of 63 with 78 Labour MP’s missing. In the course of the debate Abbott was fiercely critical of the bill, calling it and the accompanying media narrative “playing to some of the very worst aspects of the Brexit debate”.
Ironically her somewhat confused position was identified by the Tory MP Kenneth Clark, who handed her a backhanded compliment: “She’s actually been making an extremely coherent root and branch criticism of the Bill and she has an excellent record on these matters. She’s denouncing it from beginning to end but is saying the opposition don’t intend to vote against it. This makes the proceedings quite absurd.”
So how can Abbott, with such a magnificent track record of anti-racism and defence of migrants and who has been the most prominent target of vile racism, get herself into such a muddle?
It would be simplistic to lay the blame solely at her door. The problem is rooted in the historical and current policies on immigration of Labour as a whole and promoted as well by much of the trade union leadership.
Anti-racist rhetoric and solidarity for immigrants and refugees sit alongside actual policies that seek to accommodate to immigration control.
Many of the underlying arguments about the detrimental effect of immigration on wages and the “cultural” impact of migration on indigenous communities feeds into the prevailing ideas in society expressed more brutally by the right.
Labour and the whole of the anti-racist movement must make a clean break from this ambivalence. The threat we are confronting is immediate and Europe-wide.
In the words of Donald Tusk in 2015, “Today everything is immigration” — meaning that the central task of the EU was how to control it.
The challenge to all of us, whatever our attitudes to the European Union, is to make the case for free movement of labour without equivocation; to raise the banner of “Migrants Welcome Here” and to build a united fight against all forms of xenophobia and racism.