How Brexit Britain Can Reset the Immigration Debate

A crowd gathered to see Jeremy Corbyn at a Labour Party rally in July in Telford, England. Credit Jim Wood/Barcroft Media, via Getty Images

The Labour Party is surging in British polls. That’s after a June general election in which it unexpectedly won a remarkable 40 percent of the vote under the leadership of the much-derided Jeremy Corbyn. Young and previously disengaged voters were galvanized by a left-wing policy platform that pledged to deal with the wealth inequalities and economic hardships that affect so many people today.

You could say Labour has tugged the national political map to the left. But now, this progressive spirit may be checked by Britain’s referendum decision last year to leave the European Union — in particular, to the extent that the Brexit vote was motivated by hostility to immigration. According to a recent British Social Attitudes survey, 73 percent of those worried about immigration voted for Britain to leave the union.

The challenge for the Labour Party is to devise a policy that honors Brexit voters’ decision but doesn’t dishonor its own values. That’s an especially tough circle to square when it comes to immigration. During the recent general election campaign, Labour conceded that the right to free movement within the European Union for member-state citizens would end post-Brexit. But the party leadership also championed migrants’ vital contributions to Britain, while promising to scrap the “bogus immigration targets” that have been set by the Conservative government and to guarantee the rights of European Union citizens living in Britain.

This balancing act seemed to work for Labour’s alliance of Leave and Remain voters, consolidating support. But it involves delicate positioning.

That much was made clear last month when Mr. Corbyn said in a TV interview that Brexit would end “the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from Central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry.” Although Mr. Corbyn clarified that he blamed employment agencies for this, and not migrants themselves, the formulation, reminiscent of right-wing populist rhetoric about “migrants coming here and taking our jobs,” did not go down well with many people. It is also not true: Research has consistently shown that overall, migrants have little, if any, negative effect on wages or conditions (you can instead blame the recession for that).

In sectors where migrants are used to drive down wages and destroy conditions, this is through a European Union initiative called the Posted Workers Directive, which has been used by unscrupulous employers to bring lower-paid migrants with fewer rights into the workplace. The solution here is not to end the free movement of workers, but to strengthen union rights and enforce existing employment laws; both measures were in the Labour Party’s recent election manifesto.

It’s easy to see why Labour is choosing to focus on this aspect of immigration: Attacking exploitative bosses is a fit with the party’s framing of wider economic injustice. It’s also understandable why supporters cut Mr. Corbyn some slack on the issue. The veteran left-winger and his allies now in leadership positions have a yearslong record of campaigning on immigrants’ rights — even as previous Labour Party leaders seemingly competed with the Conservatives over who was “tougher” on immigration. That tradition of Labour’s triangulating on the issue was encapsulated by a horrible promotional mug during the 2015 election campaign that bore the slogan “Controls on Immigration,” issued under the former leader, Ed Miliband.

Some sections of the party are still urging Mr. Corbyn to harden his stance on the issue to appease the party’s traditional working-class base — which, according to this analysis, is never as ethnically diverse as, in actual fact, it is. Nevertheless, Labour will need to show how removing from millions of people the right to move and work freely across the European Union is a progressive policy.

This is not impossible. Arguably, free movement of labor has made migration harder for those outside the European Union, whereas a Labour Brexit policy could equalize the criteria for all. But this approach might go awry if the European Union makes preferential trade access for Britain contingent on preferential treatment of migrants from within the union. Plus, of course, Labour would still have to sell the policy to a public that wants more immigration controls. So we’re back to where we started.

And that’s the squeeze Labour is in. It faces a hostile national mood on immigration that has taken hold over decades and has many causes. The country’s inability to process its imperial past is compounded by constant migrant-bashing from the media and politicians. In 2008, an economic crash largely brought about by unfettered finance capitalism plunged people into nearly a decade of precarious work with low wages and minimal protections. That created a fertile breeding ground for the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the far right. And Brexit, stoked by a nationalist campaign that demonized migrants, fostered a climate in which race hate surged after the referendum.

The solution for Labour must be to be as bold in its desire to shift the migration narrative as it has been to move the national debate on economic issues. If the party is riding a progressive wave, there is an opportunity to bring more of the public on board — including people worried about immigration.

To an extent, this is already happening. Immigration was the dog that didn’t bark in the recent general election. Recent polls of the British public’s top concerns show immigration, which had consistently polled first, slipping down the list. One explanation could be that people now expect that Brexit will cause migration to drop; another could be that, with leaving the European Union now polling as people’s leading concern, Brexit is partly acting as a proxy for immigration. Yet, other polling suggests that in the Brexit negotiations themselves, people place a higher priority on their health services and the economy than on reducing immigration. The public may finally be receptive to the idea that without migrants, Britain’s economy will suffer.

With policies like the nationalization of rail and energy companies, a higher minimum wage and higher taxes on the top 5 percent of earners, the Labour Party succeeded in recapturing some voters who had been won over by the pro-Brexit, anti-immigrant U.K. Independence Party. Thousands of Labour campaigners, enthused by the Corbyn leadership, engaged in doorstep discussions that destigmatized migrants by shifting blame for people’s hardships onto a more deserving target: the government.

Of course, racism is an animating force of its own. Bigotry is not tied to economic fortunes, and some will always resent hearing languages other than English spoken on their street. But those who hold such sentiments are a minority and not likely to support progressive parties, in any case. So it makes no sense for Labour to formulate its strategy with this cohort in mind.

Along with Britain’s labor unions, the Labour Party could work to promote the solidarity that already exists between British and non-British workers by drawing attention to recent campaigns fronted by migrants that, far from depressing wages, have secured better pay and conditions for all. A drive to unionize more migrant workers would help develop collectivist sympathies. Labour could push its manifesto pledges again after Parliament’s summer recess. An obvious example would be to follow through on its proposal to remove students from the overall migration numbers, a practice that pointlessly inflates figures, as well as depicting vital overseas students as a nuisance.

Most crucial in a hostile climate, the party’s language should stick with its manifesto promise that Labour “will not scapegoat migrants nor blame them for economic failures” — and sound less like Mr. Corbyn’s recent comments about foreign workers. Even optimistic experts agree that on the issue of immigration, long-incubated antipathies take time to change. But if it is possible to shift the mood on this, it is surely within the power of Labour’s current leadership, with its populist left-wing platform and an army of enthusiastic, progressive and campaign-ready supporters.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author.

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