‘Legal’ Immigration? How Labour Shadows the Tory Party

Labour takes much of its approach to immigration from the Conservative Party, letting the political right define the terms of discussion. Dave Kellaway explores why, and how we can do better.


Shockingly high… this was Labour Leader Keir Starmer’s response to the latest figures for net migration which rose to 745,000. The tone was clear, it was outrage. Today even the legal migrants are seen as a problem.  For Sir Keir these people are taking jobs from British workers. The Labour leadership likes to project itself as forward looking, tech savvy and with modern missions but this sort of approach is not much different from Gordon Brown’s British jobs for British workers at the back end of the Blair era.  Fascist groups have chorused the same line in the 70s.

Far from being a ‘drain’ on British society these migrants are net contributors – Students pay huge fees and by definition these visa holders are not unemployed but are super exploited in low wage sectors and pay their taxes. Generally they are all of working age and use the health, welfare and care sectors less than the host population. They have no right to social housing.

Labour’s response to the ‘shock and horror’ of this figure is to ride along with the Tory and media panic. As Liberal Democrat spokesperson Layla Moran pointed out on Thursday’s BBC Question Time the NHS and the care sector would collapse very quickly if this migration was cut back. In fact these half million or so migrant workers far from being a ‘problem’ are actually providing a very profitable solution for the state and the increasingly privatised care sector.

Moran to her credit refused to give a number that supposedly sets a ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ level of immigration. Labour spokespeople have touted a figure of around 200,000.  By talking in such numbers they are basically accepting that the relative proportion of migrant workers in the labour force is a problem or a threat. Even the revised statement on the Labour party membership card makes no distinction between British origin and overseas born workers when it talks about ‘a common endeavour’, the ‘many’ or the ‘community’.

The headline slogan on the card ‘putting the country first’ is what really underlies the migration policy since the Labour leadership sees these migrant workers not as brothers and sisters in a common endeavour for socialism but somehow as not really part of our country. Ultimately not equal to British born workers and are disposable.

 Incidentally these days it often happens that the Lib Dems take more progressive positions than Labour, on the same show Moran called for a ceasefire in Palestine unlike Steven Reed, shadow secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, who just piously wrung his hands about the humanitarian crisis.

In some document somewhere Labour are formally against the 20% differential in wages that the Tories business friends are allowed to pay their migrant workers in these shortage sectors. However this is never really foregrounded by them in the discussion.  Since the Labour leadership has rejected their membership’s support for a significantly higher minimum wage and are watering down their proposed new labour rights from day one of employment it is hard to see how they are really going to tackle the scandal of poverty pay in this sector.  Of course like the Tories they talk about upskilling British workers to do these jobs.

The issue is not just training people up – nobody disagrees with giving new status and a decent career structure for care workers – but significantly increasing their salaries. You can call for better training without framing it as a way of reducing ‘legal’ migration.  Last time I looked Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor spends all her time saying how little extra social spending there will be on her watch.  Labour also seems relaxed about the effective privatisation and capture by private equity companies of large swathes of the sector.

Money could be saved by diverting profits from shareholders’ pockets into increasing social spending. Upskilling and improved quality is much more easily achieved if there is common ownership of the care sector where accountability and user involvement can be achieved.  Such a radical line would come up against the Labour leader’s partnership with business approach, proclaiming that they are the real party for business, not the Tories.

Sunak’s response to the uptick in net migration is to severely limit the number of dependents that students or migrant workers can bring in to the country. Remember these are essential workers who are doing the jobs that British workers are currently reluctant to do like giving personal care to our aged relatives. It is particularly callous to categorize them differently to British workers.  Foreign-born care workers pay their taxes and make a key contribution to our welfare system but their well-being is going to be limited by banning them from living in their family units. We await a vigorous denunciation of this inhumanity from the Labour leadership.

As even some Tories have pointed out about a third of these legal migrants are students.  Both Labour and Tories have being commercialising university education. Overseas students’ fees are greater than British ones and therefore are vital for the university budgets. Capitalism needs advanced research and creativity to keep its companies competitive. Antagonising students who may wish to study and then work here seems pretty stupid but then Brexit has produced a whole number of contradictions for the more ‘rational’ capitalists.

A complementary contradiction is that the chaotic and cruel response to Covid and the deepening crisis of a cash-strapped NHS has meant that Britain has one of the most unhealthy, sick populations in the developed capitalist world.  Profitable production of cheap ultra-processed food that provides the basic diet for many people creates an obesity crisis.  Doing little about the pollution of our air further destroys our health.  Capitalists are quite happy to have a reserve army of labour which competes for available work and keeps wages down but they do not want to finance a huge population unable to work through sickness or chronic ill health.

Sunak wants to get the reserve sick army of labour back to work.  One obvious problem is that quite seriously ill people have to wait for months or years to get surgery or other help that can let them go back to work.  Rather than finance the NHS the Tories want to prioritise tax cuts and to toughen up the work capability assessment and new sanctions against people who do not find work quickly enough.  Again there is no sign of a Labour campaign against such measures.  Indeed front bench spokespeople like Liz Kendall are quite happy to join in this so called tough approach to the unemployed and sick.

The Labour leadership line on these legal migrant figures follows the stance they have taken on so called illegal migration – the crusade to stop the boats. Their opposition to government on this focuses on incompetence not principled defence of all workers’ rights. Labour argues for faster processing of asylum claims – again we are not opposed to that. But they shrink from pushing for the one sure way to stop the boats – providing many more accessible and safe asylum gateways.

When do you ever hear a Labour spokesperson demanding safe legal asylum routes? They just use the same simplistic discourse as the Tories that it is all the fault of the evil gangsters who organise the boats. Even their opposition to the Rwanda operation is on the level of competence and how little impact it has on overall figures than a principled stand against relocating asylum seekers to third countries.

Starmer’s political project is based on getting elected by proving he is a safe pair of hands for managing capitalist interests, and winning Tory voters by adapting to their support for low tax and reactionary policies on migrants, democratic rights, welfare or the ‘culture’ wars.  Better living standards and a desire for a fairer society by the many are sacrificed to his commitment to maintain the power and the interests of the few.  The many needs to be organised to resist capitalism’s reserve team and fight for a socialist alternative.

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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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