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21 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

Diane Abbott has shown she wants to change Labour’s conversation about immigration

But will the party’s Brexit conundrums let her?

By Michael Chessum

At a press conference in Kings College London this morning, Diane Abbott fired a starting gun for what may be remembered as the left’s fightback against a harsher border regime. In her first major speech on immigration since the election – attended, tellingly, by a host of human rights organisations and migrant rights campaigners as well as the press – the Shadow Home Secretary struck a tone of defiance against the prevailing anti-immigration tide in Labour and wider British politics.

At the 2017 snap election, Labour ran on an unapologetically radical platform, and inspired millions of voters with a programme of social housing, public ownership and higher wages. Immigration was the exception. Here, Jeremy Corbyn, a man who has been a consistent advocate for migrants’ rights, went to the electorate with a manifesto that promised to end free movement with Europe, and even to restrict access to public funds for immigrants. This sudden triangulation was part of Labour’s “change the subject strategy on Brexit, a move which ultimately proved successful.

In pure policy terms, Abbott’s announcements do not go much further than the 2017 manifesto in terms of humanising Britain’s immigration and asylum systems. Labour has already promised to end indefinite detention and to scrap the net migration target, for instance. There were some additional policies today – such as the right for children to keep their parents in the country if they have been granted the right to stay, and vice versa. Abbott also committed to giving EU nationals currently in the UK their full current rights in a post-Brexit settlement, including to new family unions; and to ending charter flight deportation.   

But the really important thing about this morning’s speech was its tone and trajectory. Abbott slammed the idea, which can still be heard in some parts of the trade union movement as well as from the Right, that immigration drives down wages. Globalisation, predatory employers, and the weakening of the trade union movement were to blame for falling rates of pay, and government cuts for the undermining of public services – not immigrants. “Of course”, she said “there is pressure on schools, on the NHS and on housing from a growing population. But these are problems associated with [population] growth, which should be met with investment.”

This morning’s announcements took place, as was pointed out, 50 years on from Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood speech. “We must go back,” Abbott said in response to one question, “to before the 1962 Immigration Act, and talk about immigrants as people”. Abbott is articulating a home truth for the left – uttered in sharp contrast to those wanting to make “sensible” concessions on migration in the wake of Brexit – that the debate on immigration is, more often than not, a proxy for spoken and unspoken racism. In the year after the Brexit vote, hate crime surged by 23 per cent – much of it against non-white British people.

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Abbott is setting out, in her own words, “to change the conversation” about migration – and is bringing to the fore an alternative narrative, which, even with Corbyn at the helm of the Labour Party, has been largely confined to the activist left and migrants’ rights campaigners. Firstly, she said, governments cannot seriously limit the flow of people across borders. Secondly, the “push” factors that force people to move almost always outweigh the “pull” factors from their destination country. When you recognise these two very basic facts, being “tough on immigration” does not make sense.

Just how much of this alternative narrative might transmute into policy is not yet clear. There is no doubt that Abbott’s intentions are to fundamentally and irreversibly shift the immigration debate, and that she could be the most progressive Home Secretary in British history. She does not just slam Theresa May’s “hostile environment policy – this morning she also briefly criticised Labour’s record in government, which restricted immigration “not always in the most humane way, or the most sensible way”.

The terrible irony of Labour’s current position is that Abbott, perhaps the most radical MP ever to be given the Home Affairs brief, could end up implementing the biggest expansion in border controls in living memory. Ending free movement with Europe would amount to just that, however anyone tries to dress it up, and free movement remains the pivotal issue in Labour’s internal debate. On it hinges not only Labour’s immigration policy, but the clarity of its overall narrative. If the Party gives credence to the idea that migrants are to blame for falling living standards, it will lose out in the long run.

Like most figures on the left of the party, Abbott has been an outspoken supporter of free movement for years. But just as Corbyn needs political space to push radical policy on the economy or tuition fees, Diane Abbott will need pressure from the grassroots of the party if she is to transform the immigration debate. In that effort, everyone in Labour has a part to play.