The last week has seen Jeremy Corbyn solidify his position as the centre-left, democratic socialist leader of a Labour party still dizzy after decades locked in an anechoic chamber. After wasting months on a pointless second leadership election, a vocal minority within the party are now steering sharply to the right of Corbyn on the issue of immigration.
Stephen Kinnock, Labour MP for Aberavon, claims in his recent essay for the Fabian Society: “Immigration that reaches levels beyond a society’s capacity to cope can lead, in extremes, to racism.” Kinnock’s contention is that too much immigration is itself the cause of anti-immigrant violence and hatred. Later in the same essay, he lets his mask slip a little further. “The impact of immigration is not measured, it’s experienced,” says Kinnock, indicating that when talking about the negative impact of immigration, we’re never referring to facts but perceptions. Whether these perceptions are separable from the execrable living conditions people currently experience in the UK, he does not posit.
Kinnock goes on to use a favoured trick of the media-savvy conservative: deploying social justice lingo to duck criticism while defending the maintenance of the current social hierarchy: “To deny the reality of the experience of white working class people, quite frankly, smacks of ‘class privilege’ and ignores the responsibility of government for the structure and success of society.” To hell with the black and brown people of the working class; to care about them is a privilege we can’t afford.
If Kinnock’s mask is askew, the Labour MP for Leeds West, Rachel Reeves, has by now ripped hers off and thrown it under a bus along with all of the dreaded immigrants in her constituency. “The trouble is I’m just not surprised,” she said at a conference fringe event, addressing recent racist attacks in Leeds. “There are bubbling tensions in this country that I just think could explode.” The Huffington Post was right to compare her comments to the shit-stirring typical of Nigel Farage. She’s lucky they didn’t go further.
In between the racist apologia, Kinnock and Reeves advocate a magic number approach to immigration, in which any number of immigrants fewer than the magic number are begrudgingly accepted as kindling to the fires of the economy; any greater number though, is likely to cause an incident of mass racism for which, apparently, the immigrants themselves must be held responsible.
Infuriatingly, Reeves has identified a real challenge for Labour. Concerning the referendum on European Union membership:
[Labour] had little to say to working class voters with whom we, above all the other parties, should have been able to communicate. We did not offer any solutions to those who felt locked out from opportunities.
The solution, though, is not to simply agree with anti-immigration sentiment but to do something that seems much more like hard work. Labour must demonstrate to voters that it understands the systemic causes of their hardship and can offer solutions that will benefit everyone in society, immigrants included.
The sad truth is that nobody could thrive under the conditions immigrants currently face, in which their very existence is treated as the cause of their own misery. Immigrants are trapped in a cycle of abuse. At best, they are tolerated; at worst, they are beaten to a pulp in the street. But aren’t they supposed to feel grateful?
Chuka Umunna, Labour MP for Streatham, thinks so and decided to try a little chastising. “Not getting involved in the community is not an option”, said Umunna in a speech at another conference fringe event, this one also organised by the Fabian Society. “If we give the impression that it somehow doesn’t matter if you get involved in your community, that’s a problem.”
More revealing was Umunna’s dismissal of moral issues in his recent article for the Observer. “[Labour] can’t win under [first past the post] if any one strand of the Labour tradition is forced out of the party for not being slavishly ‘on message’,” he complained, reducing era-defining issues that currently separate the various Labour factions down to a matter of salesmanship. Jeremy Gilbert calls this outlook “politics as marketing”, in which the role of a politician is defined as one who takes notes on public opinion and then builds a marketable political product to match. Can we interest you in ImmigrantBlocker™?
Stephen Kinnock’s essay goes as far as to claim that “immigration itself is not a left wing value,” and he is partially correct, in that we never explicitly fought for it. Sam Kriss puts it succinctly:
The free movement of people within the European Union is not a humanitarian gesture, and it’s not dissociable from the free movement of goods and the free movement of capital; together these three form a single exploitative apparatus.
Freedom of movement as a condition of European market access was designed to create a massive, malleable workforce, but it has had inarguable consequences for those of us who have been able to exercise that freedom at will. We must defend freedom of movement, because we know it to be the only thing that allows us to imagine a future outside of the crushing inequity of capitalism. We want the people outside of our deadly borders to imagine that future too.