The Labour Party and migration – disappointment and sadness

This is a blog post which has been on my mind for months, possibly more than a year. I am typically quite tribal in my politics and have a history of supporting the Labour Party. Following the General Election in 2010, I joined the Labour Party; I wanted to add my support in monetary terms rather than with just my vote and some minor social media campaigning. I was proud to join the Party and, around the same time, became active in my trade union. Although Ed Miliband was not my first (second or third!) choice for Leader, I have found him impressive at times. Increasingly, with the prospect of winning the next General Election and the emergence of some unsavory forces in British politics, I have become concerned with the direction taken by the Labour party. There are many blog posts I would like to write as a series of open letters to Ed Miliband. The dogged commitment to austerity and cutting public services may well be the focus of a future post. I’m also disturbed by comments around disability. For this first post, I decided to write about migration. I have no hope that this blog will change anything or even that it will be read by many (or any) people. Mostly, I am attempting to find a way out of my own muddled thoughts – not about migration and the unsettling turn taken in British politics. Rather, my current intention is to vote Labour in the next GE but not without reservation. This post and any subsequent are an effort to work though my concerns with the Labour party’s current position and how, if at all, these can be reconciled with my voting intentions. Migration has become a key aspect of British politics. That migration is a problem has become a truism – rarely do we see any senior figure within politics or the media challenging this dominant discourse. I was disappointed this week to see Channel 4 news, usually a reliable source of some serious news, choose to turn to Nigel Farage for commentary on the Charlie Hebdo murders. Giving voice to a man whose political success has been firmly rooted in a false narrative of being a ‘bloke down the pub’ while feeding off (and feeding) paranoia and fear of the Other. As the campaigns for the May 2015 General Election officially start, we can expect to see more of migrants being used to score political points. All parties (with perhaps the exception of the Green Party, more on that later) assume that the electorate is concerned about migration. To promise to curb migration, only let the ‘good’ migrants in, get rid of the ‘bad’ migrants, is to win votes. This is as true of the Labour Party, as it is of the parties on the traditional right. Some migrants are more equal than others In 2013, Ed Miliband promised to cut the number of low skilled migrants coming to the UK from outside the EU; in 2014, this same narrative persisted, only this time with some argued concern for the well-being of migrant workers and the protection of the minimum wage. These efforts are apparently made to combat the growing appeal of UKIP and to retain the working class (male?) vote. Attitude surveys suggest that Miliband’s reading of the electorate is not inaccurate. Approximately 75% favour reducing migration, although this is not new, and attitudes towards different ‘types’ of migrants varies. For example, we see far less resistance to highly skilled migrants than low skilled. My own research shows that highly skilled (white, male) migrants experience some considerable privilege and indeed may even be privileged through the migration process (Sang et al., 2013). Are these the migrants who politicians and the media mean? Blinder and Jeannet (2014) demonstrate that not only do most people think of ‘illegal’ migrants/asylum seekers when discussing migration, the media has an important role to play in these attitudes. Subtle changes in the wording of survey items designed to measure attitudes towards migration result in significant changes in responses. They ask what the impact on attitudes towards migration is when the media perpetually portrays migration and migrants in particular ways. Migration is not going to ‘go away’. Humans migrate for a multitude of reasons. We see huge numbers of people fleeing Syria to escape the civil war. Certain countries are caring for the majority of these refugees, while other, wealthier countries are taking few. Lebanon, already experiencing its own difficulties, expects to host over one million refugees. Fewer than 100 Syrian refugees have been settled into the UK. Upsettingly, the UK Government has also taken the step to withdraw support for search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean. A policy decision has been made to let people drown to discourage others from attempting the journey. A veneer of concern for the well-being for vulnerable people used to push forward an anti-migration agenda. Do we have a responsibility towards those fleeing hardship, war, disease? I would argue we do. This responsibility can be seen from a number of perspectives. Are we (the UK) responsible for the situation that many refugees/asylum seekers face? Would this mean we should feel greater responsibility to support them? What do I want from the Labour Party in regard to migration? I want them to stop perpetuating a narrative – and then a reality – that migrants and migration are problematic. Underpinning this is the notion that there are ‘good’ (white/educated?) migrants and ‘bad’ migrants (not white, uneducated, refugees) whose ‘right’ to be in the UK or value as human beings can be evidenced by economic contribution via the labour market or entrepreneurship. The latest Labour Party pledge begins with a nod towards the value of migration, moving to Britain needs immigration rules that are tough and fair. Labour’s election promise includes denying migrants access to the welfare state for two years. The consequences of this are gendered, as women would be unable to access state economic support to leave abusive husbands if they have ‘no recourse to public funds’. Those who are subjected to domestic violence can apply for leave to remain in the UK, but only if they are not living with their partner. Given that there is no access to welfare support, where would women live in order to be able to apply for leave to remain? Interestingly, the Green Party also calls for less migration (albeit more obliquely). However, they take a different perspective to other parties, who call for limits to the number of migrants entering the country. The Green Party’s focus is to reduce the need for migration through the creation of a ‘fairer world’, while recognising that the C21st is likely to see mass migration as a result of climate change. As such they argue that equality between nation states and efforts to reduce climate change should result in a reduction in migration. There is a recognition of global inequality. We can argue for migration for economic and cultural reasons. I certainly did in a recent (as yet unanswered) letter to Theresa May and Yvette Cooper; however, I wasn’t comfortable doing so. What is lost in the debates around migration is that we are talking about people. People who are fleeing war, looking for more opportunities, seeking relative safety and political freedom, moving to be with family members or are on an adventure. Are we really saying that a person’s value, a right to healthcare, a home, freedom from violence, access to human rights can be determined by which side of a line they were born on? I am disappointed that the Labour party has chosen to follow the herd, perpetuating a discourse of problematic migration with so-called good and bad migrants. Unlike the Green party, there is little engagement with the causes of migration. Despite this, I still want the Labour party to win the next General Election. Sadly, part of this is because I fear greatly the consequences of the alternative – a Conservative government. It’s uninspiring to be voting for the ‘less bad’ option. However, I do find encouragement in promises to abolish the bedroom tax, support for renters and pledges for the NHS. For these reasons I continue my membership of the Labour party and my voting intentions. However, I am disappointed with Labour and am reluctant to enthusiastically support them in the next few months. I hope Labour can find a way to retain its core values while winning the next UK General Election.

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