No excuses: defend free movement

Policy passed at 2019 Labour Party conference creates an opening for all on the left to argue for open borders, even as the leadership seeks to undermine it, writes Pete Gillard.

Diane Abbott speaking at the refugee solidarity demonstration on the day of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader on 12 September 2015. However, she has recently backtracked on Labour support for freedom of movement. Photo: Steve Eason.

In September 2019, Labour Party Conference passed, almost unanimously, an unprecedented policy in defence of migrants initiated by the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.

The motion began with a statement of principle: ‘Free movement, equality and rights for migrants, are socialist values and benefit us all.’

It continued with a set of demands that sought to implement those principles: extension of free movement from simply within the EU to a global policy; ending the hostile environment with the closing of detention centres, allowing access to public funds and housing, ending migrant charges in the NHS; a reversal of the current Shadow Cabinet policy by stating any immigration controls should not be based on the needs of business, income of migrants, or caps on numbers; and, importantly, stating that migrants should have exactly the same rights as British citizens including voting rights.

This motion, Composite 20, was backed up with similarly unopposed motions from the Women’s Conference, defending migrant women and calling for the end of their detention, and an NHS composite calling again for the abolition of migrant charging.

The Labour leadership did not oppose the motions at Conference. The motions were supported by the NEC. But that did not prevent Diane Abbott, who had been one of the best defenders of migrants in the Shadow Cabinet, going on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the following morning to state that Labour’s policy had not changed. Abbott said: ‘But in terms of who comes in, one of the things that we are suggesting is a new system of work visas, which would be looking at what the needs of the country are…’ Her excuse for this rejection of an almost unanimous Conference policy was: ‘There are a lot of differences about immigration policy.’

Abbott was doing little more than repeating what Jeremy Corbyn said in a speech in Peterborough in 2017:

Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle, but I don’t want that to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out […]

We cannot afford to lose full access to the European markets on which so many British businesses and jobs depend […]

Changes to the way migration rules operate from the EU will be part of the negotiations.

The difference is stark. The Conference motion started from a principle that all migrants had equal rights with people who were born in Britain. Your rights should not be dependent on which bit of dirt you were born on. The Labour leadership, while personally not hostile to migrants, see them as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations.

The ‘chauvinist tradition’

Corbyn was elected as Labour leader with the promise that the membership would decide policy. It now seems this will not always be applied. But why has Corbyn retreated?

The answer probably lies in fear of the electorate – fear that ‘unpopular’ policies will not go down well on the doorstep and people will not vote Labour. The official Vote Leave campaign, run by Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, put hostility to migration at the heart of its message. Corbyn does not want to take a hard and principled stand on the question for fear of alienating Leave voters.

This fear has a long history in the Labour Party. Richard Crossman, a ‘left’ intellectual in Harold Wilson’s Cabinet in the 1960s recounts in his diary how Labour’s immigration policy was developed then:

[The Cabinet Committee] has been gradually dragged out of [its] purely liberalistic attitude to a recognition that we have to combine tight immigration controls … with a policy for integrating into the community the immigrants that are there already… Ever since the Smethwick election it has been quite clear that immigration can be the greatest potential vote-loser if we are seen to be permitting a flood of immigrants to come in and blight the central areas in all our cities.

Corbyn certainly wouldn’t share Crossman’s description of immigrants as blighting cities, but the electoral fear remains.

It becomes justified by the Labour leadership as part of planning for a different society. Corbyn has argued that by tightening up controls on employers, the ‘need’ for migrants would fall. He does not put at the centre of his argument the needs of migrants – people attempting to escape the ravages of global capitalism and climate change.

Paul Foot, the socialist journalist, put it well in an article written about the Harold Wilson government:

The chauvinist tradition in the British Left is today its greatest enemy. It is this tradition which drives ‘extreme’ Left-wingers in Parliament and outside to talk of immigration control as ‘planning’ and something which should therefore be welcomed.

The chauvinism is little changed. The theme of ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ is alive and well amongst the trade union leaderships even if they are sometimes reticent to use the phrase directly.

An opportunity for all of us

But just because the Labour leadership are ignoring Composite 20 does not mean those of us on the left who defend migrant rights should similarly dismiss it as yet another failed attempt to change Labour Party policy. The Composite was not perfect. It seemed to accept some level of immigration controls even though the basis on which they could be instituted was unclear. It was not specifically for ‘open borders’, but by calling for extending free movement and equal rights for migrants it provides a tremendous antidote to the chauvinism in our movement.

The leadership’s response to Composite 20 reveals a contradiction at the heart of Corbynism. Is this a new kind of politics or not? Photo: Steve Eason (12 September 2015).

There was real anger when this policy was immediately downplayed by the Labour leadership. Using quirks of a LP Rule Book created by the right in the past to allow them to ignore Conference decisions, the current Labour leadership are playing a similar game.

Over 1,000 Labour Party members, organised by the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, immediately signed an open letter to the Labour leadership calling on the party to ‘respect the conference vote on free movement’ and saying: ‘if conference is to be sovereign, there cannot be any picking and choosing which motions are adopted and which democratic decisions cast aside’.

Unfortunately, the letter is likely to be ignored. A Labour leadership wedded to social democratic electoral politics where policies have to be fitted to what people are believed to support, not what should be supported, does not see its primary job as going out attempting to change people’s ideas.

It is quite probable that there would be less hostility to the content of Composite 20 than the Labour leadership fear. Certainly, campaigns against migrant charges in the NHS have won broad support. Opinion polls have shown immigration to be a declining issue of importance for people.

Composite 20 presents us with a great opportunity to test this out. Any Labour Party member can go out canvassing with a consistent Labour Party policy on immigration and discuss it on the doorstep. Fears can be alleviated and blame for bad housing, cuts in services and inadequate healthcare can be placed squarely where the responsibility lies – capitalism and its most ardent supporter, the Tory Party. Making any concessions that immigration might be a problem lets the real enemies off the hook.

It does not need to be just activity for individual LP members. CLPs can produce leaflets explaining the policy, hold public meetings in communities, and in general promote the policy.

But this is not just an opportunity for the Labour Party. The trade union leaderships who allowed the motion through Labour Party Conference would, in many cases, be horrified if such a motion was raised in their own unions. Union activists can promote the policies in their workplaces and union bodies with the authority of a Labour Party Conference behind them. Trades Councils can call public meetings and organise for explanatory leaflets to be distributed in every workplace. Campaigns against the effects of austerity can ensure that the effects on migrants and defence of their rights are central.

Migrant rights are not just another, and possibly less important, issue. They go to the heart of what the fight for a socialist society is all about. Paul Foot again:

Immigration control is chauvinist legislation. It cannot be contemplated by an international socialist, for its whole rationale is founded on the nation state and the feverish competition in which that nation state is engaged. This struggle between nation states … splits and divides workers from their main objectives, and, in the long run, weakens their strength all over the world.

Composite 20 can provide an opening for all on the left to ensure that the arguments for open borders gain a much wider audience in the working class if we take the opportunity.


  1. […] What makes McCluskey’s remarks even more outrageous is that he is arguing for the Labour leadership to ignore policy passed at Labour Party conference with Unite support. Corbyn has tried to make Labour more democratic, but there were already worries that the Labour leadership would revert to a more traditional approach, as suggested by Diane Abbott’s comments. […]

  2. I certainly agree that ‘people’s support for border regimes isn’t motivated by their utility for capital’ – but what I’m trying to emphasise is the ideological role the border plays. It’s probably more accurate to say that the border regulates the working class through enforced precarity by means of creating and demarcating boundaries. Concerning the relation between capital and labour, the border is a means by which the state organises the labour market in the interests of capital, but it does this in the form of creating ideological distinctions between different groups, such as citizen and non-citizen. This is how it relates to what you describe as ‘boundary setting’ – although there is a relative degree of independence regarding which ‘boundaries’ people ‘set’ dependent on their own estimations of their subjective interests. The fact remains though, that the ideological role the border plays is to naturalise the idea of the nationstate as a logical organising principle for these ‘boundaries’.

    You might be right that in this case it is excusable to emphasise the subjective element and how that relates to arguments within the left in this article, but I still personally think it’s a dereliction to present the ‘chauvinist tradition’ as if it emerges from the minds and prejudices of the CP, trade union bureaucracy, or members of the public and neglect to mention the structural reasons why ‘immigration control’ presents itself as a solution in the first place.

    If we consider the vast ideological power and effort that goes into regimenting the border and state-enforced ‘boundary setting’ in the first place, I think it offers us a far clearer picture of the sites of struggle. In this regard I think we have to recognise the way in which the border works in tandem with other repressive functions of the state apparatus, for instance Prevent and racialised policing, to constitute divisions around focal points such as ‘national security’ ‘criminality’ and ‘national sovereignty’. These ideological mechanisms don’t reresent all of the ‘origins’ of racism in society, but they are decisive in it’s perpetuation and reproduction. Simply making reference to all of these aspects as explanations for popular racism would be mechanistic, but we have to understand that they constitute the context and parameters for the subjective elements of this discussion.

    Understanding this is important for contextualising why a Labour manifesto could never include ‘open borders’, even if we could fight for a Labour Party which pursued a far less restrictive immigration policy. I’m not attempting to draw off direct lines of cause and effect, but as Marxists it’s important for us to emphasise the relation of these questions to exploitation. I suppose the general point is that the border regime has two sides – its ideological role in ‘boundary setting’ and its role in reproducing precarity within the working class; naturally the ideological function is relatively independent of the ‘economic’ function (and most policy makers also likely swallow the idea that the border is about national sovereignty/security etc. rather that keeping the working class precarious), but we need to be attentive to both sides and understand how they facilitate one another.

  3. I agree with the political content of this piece, but the analysis of borders and the state seems pretty off to me, or at least one-sided. The only reason given for why social-democratic parties (here, the Labour Party) would pursue immigration control is ‘the chauvinist tradition’ and opportunist electioneering. This seems to me to be a completely idealist analysis of reformism, racism and borders.

    The border is indispensable for capital accumulation in modern capitalism; it’s the primary way in which the state engineers precarity within the working class and establishes different classes of workers depending on their precarity (through threat of deportation, criminalisation of certain forms of work, lack of access to certain services and benefits). Immigration control is not just one ‘policy’ among many which can be abolished by fiat by a parliamentary party, it is integral to the capitalist state, even if popular struggle may force parties to adopt less restrictive immigration controls. For this reason open borders is a revolutionary demand.

    Considering this, it is not electioneering which primarily determines a rightwards shift in parliamentary parties when it comes to immigration – it’s the fact that as parties seeking to govern the capitalist state, they are inextricably wedded to immigration controls as surely as to the state, and the ideology of immigration control is necessarily escalationist. To say that Labour adopts chauvinist policy on immigration *primarily* for electoral reasons is to imply that the racism of the general public determines immigration control, but this puts the cart before the horse. It’s not so many people’s individual bigotry which fuels the border – the border creates racism, by demarcating between citizen and non-citizen, native and migrant worker.

    With this in mind, the main reason that Labour tacks right consistently on immigration can’t be explained by a logic of appeasement to racist attitudes – it’s hardwired into reformism, since reformism means adopting strategies which are reconciled to the state, with all its attendant apparatuses. There are important struggles to win and arguments to be had in order to win them, and many grassroots LP members will be with us in that fight against their own party, but in order to steel ourselves for those struggles we need to have a materialist understanding of the politics of racism and borders, not just delude ourselves that the racism of parliamentary parties can be explained by the liberal-idealist notion that they’re just too quick to appease bigots.

    • Strange then that Labour’s shift to embracing harsh immigration control came immediately after the 1964 election when they lost Smethwick to the notorious racist Tory campaign with the slogan ‘If you want a n***** for a neighbour vote Labour’. Here’s what Richard Crossman said at the time (as reported in an appalling article by Martin Kettle): “Yet the disagreement is not a new one, and Labour has succeeded in managing it before. Back in the summer of 1965, Harold Wilson’s Labour government published a radically restrictive white paper on immigration from the British commonwealth that shocked even cabinet ministers. “This has been one of the most difficult and unpleasant jobs the government has had to do,” the housing minister Richard Crossman wrote in his diaries. “We have become illiberal,” he mourned. “This will confirm the feeling that ours is not a socialist government.”

      Nevertheless Crossman was absolutely sure that the controls were necessary. “I am convinced that if we hadn’t done all this we would have been faced with certain electoral defeat in the West Midlands and the south-east,” he went on. “Politically, fear of immigration is the most powerful undertow today … We felt we had to out-trump the Tories by doing what they would have done … I fear we were right.” Antisemitism and racism were endemic in Britain, Crossman suspected. “One has to deal with them by controlling immigration when it gets beyond a certain level.”

      • Yes, I dont deny that this forms part of the picture, but the point remains that by identifying this as the primary determining factor in immigration control one falls into an idealist conception of racism, s if it concerned atavistic and tribal attitudes in the minds of individuals and ‘the public’ rather than being the product of a system structured by the modern nation state and most acutely by the border regime.

        Its telling, fir instance, that Crossman saw the border as a solution to racial tensions, and it points to the fact that, consistent with the logic of social democracy, he saw the state as a neutral regulator of social relations within a naturalised national territory. This underlying presupposition, which is inseparable from reformism, creates the context within which questions of race are resolved by social democratic parties; ergo the logic of ‘chasing racist votes’ is secondary.

      • While I agree with Will that borders play a vital role for capitalism, I think the focus on this is mistaken in this debate. It confuses the underlying reasons for a thing with people’s motivations for taking action. In this example, people’s support for border regimes isn’t motivated by their utility for capital, but by “boundary setting” claims – groups of people demanding better treatment on the basis of their membership of some group, in this case being citizens of a nation state. And of course the reason for the existence of border regimes is both their utility for capital AND as a response to popular nationalism.

        I think this leads to the excessively mechanical view that Sue criticises – we can’t read off particular policies from the general interests of capital. It’s not the case that “Labour tacks right consistently on immigration”. Even the leadership’s policy today is significantly to the left of that held by Milliband, for example. Policy is not simply determined by the interests of capital, it is fought out by flesh and blood people. Most of the drive to the right on immigration hasn’t been a response to demands of big business, but rather to the efforts of tabloids and politicians to divert anger onto migrant scapegoats. The recognition that border policies aren’t simply determined by the interests of capital is vital to sustain activism – it makes sense for an article like this, arguing for active intervention in a live political battle, to emphasise the subjective element more than the structural context.

        On a separate note, I’d take issue with “The border is indispensable for capital accumulation in modern capitalism; it’s the primary way in which the state engineers precarity within the working class”. It is an important way, but not the primary one imho. The state’s selective enforcement of the unequal employment contract and defence of economic inequality are even more fundamental.


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