Labour’s shameful failure to defend migrant workers

In a Catch-22-esque twist, Dave Kellaway highlights the Labour party's perpetual absence on the issue of migrant rights. Like Yossarian trying to escape the paradoxical conundrum of war, the party seems to be stuck in an endless loop of inaction, failing to champion the rights of migrants and leaving them exposed to the Tories "Hostile Environment".


There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

from Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22

You have to be crazy to risk drowning in a small boat in the Channel. But anyway we will detain and expel you to somewhere you have never been or want to go to like Rwanda. It will be illegal to seek refuge in the UK. If you are rational you can find legal routes for asylum. Our government will not provide legal routes for you people on the boats.

This is the Tory government’s Catch-22 for today’s migrants and asylum seekers risking death every week in the Channel.

We know the Tories are comfortable with this inhumane approach. They are revving up their campaign against migrants and asylum seekers. Today’s data report in the New Statesman indicates over half those surveyed support Sunak and Braverman’s plan to flout international law on asylum and to send back everyone arriving “illegally”. Only 30% oppose this denial of humanitarian asylum rights. Along with cranking up the culture wars Sunak thinks that it will help him to reduce the twenty point lead Labour currently has in the polls. He is already having a positive bounce in the personal standing polls as a result of the deal around the Northern Ireland protocol.

Labour’s official response is playing into the Tories’ by not fundamentally challenging the narrative about the boats that Sunak is promoting and which most of the mainstream media are amplifying.  Diana Johnstone, Labour Chair of the select committee on Home affairs was interviewed on TV just the other day and not once defended the right of desperate people from Iran or elsewhere to seek asylum here. She could have mentioned the fact that over 70% of people arriving on boats and asking for refuge actually achieve that right.

Johnstone failed to remind viewers that people risk their lives on overloaded boats because they are fleeing wars, repressive regimes or home countries devastated by climate change. Instead you heard the same trope about the evil people traffickers that need to be stopped.  As if these people smugglers were the cause rather than a symptom of the crisis. They are exploiting the “normal” capitalist rules of supply and demand. In fact they are profiting from the secondary market caused by the disruption produced by the international capitalism and the imperialist system.

Wes Streeting, Labour shadow Foreign secretary, then comes on to comment on another morning news programme loudly denouncing the incompetence of the Tories in not reducing the backlog of over a 100,000 asylum claims. The problem is not with the refusal to welcome asylum seekers and to follow international law and United Nations guidance but the government being inefficient. Indeed anyone watching would deduce that Streeting and Labour were just as keen as the Tories in blocking migrants or kicking them out.

Indeed anyone watching would deduce that Streeting and Labour were just as keen as the Tories in blocking migrants or kicking them out.

To her credit one TV reporter asked Johnstone what are the legal means or routes to asylum if you lived in Iran and wanted to flee repression there. She was left speechless and them blabbered on about not being responsible for the migrant’s brief. Labour scarcely mentions any real alternative that would provide safe alternative and legal routes. They want voters to think that it will control the “migrant problem” more effectively

Failing to properly respond to the Tory offensive against migrants means that you give them an open goal. They control the narrative and if they manage to reduce the flow of migrants the government will reap the benefit. It becomes increasingly difficult to respond with an internationalist, principled alternative. Emphasising incompetence and repeating that their schemes, like Rwanda, have not worked up to now and this will be the same again could be a risky strategy. Even if the Tories do not make much progress on their plans they can continue to foreground this issue and go into an election saying Labour, the lawyers and the bleeding heart human rights organisations are too soft and people should vote for still tougher measures.

Labour put out a document two days ago about the government’s plans. It emphasises the fact that the latest plans are not really different from previous Tory ones. Labour researchers must have spent some hours working out the profits that the criminal gangs made over the last year or so. It supposedly adds up to £183 million if you are interested, although their calculations must be fairly speculative.

The Labour List website, that provides daily information about all things Labour and is not particularly critical of Starmer, does highlight the following:

Labour has concentrated on the inefficiency of the plans and attacked the government for the situation worsening on their watch. It has stayed away, however, from the kind of moral outrage that animates the response of many charities and migrants’ organisations to the new proposals. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) called the government’s plans “abominable”, and the chief executive of the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, said that the “plans shatter the UK’s longstanding commitment under the UN convention to give people a fair hearing regardless of the path they have taken to reach our shores. They will simply add more cost and chaos to the system

Labour List 6 March

Streeting rejects the Rwanda scheme but from the usual point of view of wasting money. He does not propose measures to provide safe routes or a better support system for migrants. No his big idea is to pour it into the National Crime Agency so that it can catch those damned criminal gangs. The latter provides a handy scapegoat and diversion for both Tories and Labour.

Streeting rejects the Rwanda scheme but from the usual point of view of wasting money. He does not propose measures to provide safe routes or a better support system for migrants.

Labour prefers to endlessly shout about Tory failure rather than setting out a progressive agenda on this issue. It is important for socialists to set out an alternative programme that rejects the idea that workers coming here to seek asylum or a better life are the problem. A socialist government would substantially increase aid to poorer countries, encourage anti-capitalist solutions internationally and welcome migrants or asylum seekers as our fellow workers, the only source of society’s wealth

An immediate task for the left is to counter the fascists and racists’ current offensive against migrants, specifically the threats against migrant residences. Stand up to Racism provides information about ongoing protests.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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