On 21 July 2015 Harriet Harman, then acting Labour leader, whipped the party to abstain on the second reading of the Welfare Bill.
It became the turning point of the ongoing leadership election. Andy Burnham argued that the bill would “penalise working families and increase child poverty”, but then still abstained. So did Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. Only Jeremy Corbyn stood firm with 47 other Labour MPs and voted against the Tories’ benefit cuts. The old Labour establishment thought it was being canny and “sending a message” to the electorate; but in the voting lobbies that night it was breathing its last breath.
Last night, the Corbyn project narrowly avoided the same fate. Having opposed every line of the government’s Immigration Bill, Labour was set to abstain on it. At the last minute, the front bench U-turned to oppose the bill, though with only a one-line whip. The result was a government majority of 63, with 78 Labour MPs absent and, probably, a number of Tories holding back from rebellion on the basis that Labour wasn’t going to show up properly.
One of the big lessons of the Immigration Bill fiasco, from the perspective of the Labour grassroots, is the power of members and moral pressure. The sudden switch in the Labour whip was driven by a storm of online outrage, internal fighting from various MPs, and a flurry of desperate private lobbying from anti-Brexit and pro-free movement activists. Those of us who will rely on Labour to one day whip in favour of a new Brexit referendum should take heart, if not confidence.
How did this happen? There are all kinds of “clever” arguments to abstain. Was Labour just trying to hide the numbers and force the Tories to negotiate over amendments? Was this about trying to end indefinite detention? (Well no, because there is nothing to stop you from whipping against and then amending later anyway.)
Labour’s plan to abstain was certainly not at the behest of Diane Abbott, a long-time defender of free movement. Neither was it indifference to the bill’s contents. Here was a piece of legislation that threatened to extend the hostile environment, introduce an income threshold that would exclude millions of people, and create a system of short term visas which would, according to the Joint Committee for the Welfare of Immigrants, “create an underclass of workers open to exploitation by employers”.
The truth is that core parts of Labour’s principled left-wing offer under Jeremy Corbyn are now on the slide, driven by a mixture of triangulation towards right wing arguments against free movement on one hand, and Westminster bubble syndrome on the other.
Among some parts of the Labour leadership, there is now an ingrained obsession with needing to “deliver Brexit” and be seen to do so. Against the weight of party members and Labour voters, who overwhelmingly now want a new referendum, a small group of politicians and strategists are briefing incessantly the other way, seeking to construct a narrative that Labour might lose front benchers if it follows through on its own policy. Last night, the same tendency tried to use the Immigration Bill to “send a message” to voters that Labour would deliver the end of free movement. The thundering condemnation of the grassroots held them back.
All of the left-wing party activists who were outraged at the possibility of Labour abstaining on the Immigration Bill now need to take a long, hard look at where we are headed. What we are witnessing is a race to the bottom – both in terms of the rights of migrants in the wake of Brexit, and in terms of the left’s principles. The most radical Labour leadership since George Lansbury is standing aside from crucial questions of principle that Corbyn would have died in a ditch over just a few years ago. Unless its supporters wake up to that fact, we will lose.
Brexit has cut deep divisions across British politics, including on the left. But what we need now is radicalism: the determination to reject right wing narratives on nationalism, immigration and “the will of the people”, and put forward real solutions to Britain’s social crisis instead. Corbyn’s Labour will not get through this moment with its activists on board and its soul intact, by triangulating in the hope that difficult issues will just go away. That is, after all, what Harriet Harman was trying to do in 2015. And look where that got her.