Immigration in Labour’s Manifesto

Dave Landau analyses Labour policy

One of the most important acid tests for socialists is our attitude towards immigration.  This is generally so but in this election, pivoting as it does on Brexit and Freedom of Movement, crucially so.  Jeremy Corbyn and the progressive forces around him have a good track record on this question, especially in fighting individual cases, but historically the Labour Party as a whole has not.  On the contrary the Party has been part of the consensus insisting on the importance of strong controls as a precondition of, and compliment to, good race relations, i.e. good relations based on keeping the numbers of foreigners down!!!  The only period where they had a different approach was, surprisingly, under Hugh Gaitskell who was opposed to greater controls.  Our hope is that the Labour leadership will turn this around.

This is an immense test for Labour.  A huge, orchestrated, anti-immigrant tidal wave is on the move.  Labour has the choice of fighting this tide, challenging the myths, the assumptions and prejudices or accommodating to it, ‘listening to people’s concerns’ and earnestly nodding along.  The majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the party apparatchiks start from a position of supporting controls, now fearing for their seats by losing votes to UKIP, and now to the Tories, and they talk more and more loudly about the need for greater controls.  So to what extent is the leadership able to hold the line and fight the tide?  Let’s look at their Manifesto.

The question gets discussed in two sections of the Manifesto – one entitled Immigration, the other entitled Border Security.

The first sentence of the section on Immigration is not promising – ‘Labour offers fair rules and reasonable management of migration’.  We do not accept that there can be ‘fair rules’.   Immigration controls, by definition, render people illegal because of where they were born, where their parents were born, the language they speak, and by implication, the colour of their skin (if you are Black you are suspected of being an immigrant whether you are or not).  The section goes on to say how they will not discriminate between people of different races or creeds.  This contradicts the whole ethos of controls, and this reflects the contradiction in the party itself. But, to be honest, we did not expect the Labour Party to advance our position.  If the Labour Party is serious about making controls fairer, rather than fair – which is impossible, then we may critically support reforms, whilst constantly saying the whole framework is unacceptable.

More worrying is that the Manifesto accepts ‘Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union’.  So, no defence of freedom of movement from the Labour Party.  It’s one thing to draw back from abolition of immigration controls, but to not defend the limited freedom of movement that already exists is a real retreat in front of the tidal wave.  To their credit, the Green Party are standing out and proud in defence of freedom of movement.

Some reforms rob Peter to pay Paul.  So ‘We will replace income thresholds with a prohibition on recourse to public funds.’ No, everybody should have recourse to public funds.

Then there is a section on making controls sensitive to specific labour and skill shortages.  But this reduces migrants – people – to units of labour whose access can be turned on and off at will.  This is exactly the sort of controls that the ruling class want.

The Manifesto contains good things about protecting those already working here, cracking down on unscrupulous employers – but not making the point that immigration controls create the conditions for super-exploitation.

‘Labour will restore the rights of migrant domestic workers and end this form of modern slavery’. If this means refusing to deport any slaves, domestic workers, sex workers… then this we support.

There is a strange phrase about distinguishing ‘between migrant labour and family attachment…’ which suggests a hierarchy of immigration entitlements.

‘Refugees are not migrants’ is true in law, but problematic.  Refugees do warrant special treatment because of what they have been through.  But migrants must not be seen as disposable and deportable just because they do not have a ‘well founded fear of persecution’ – judged by whom, immigration officials – if they return to their country.  If people risk drowning in order to migrate for whatever reason, then if that reason is so strong it should not matter whether or not they have a ‘well founded fear of persecution’.

‘We will uphold the British tradition of honouring the spirit of international law and our moral obligations by taking our fair share of refugees’.  No, this tradition is sadly largely a myth; try asking adults seeking asylum from the Nazis.  But we welcome an overhaul of the housing and dispersal of refugees.

The short section on Border Security is more problematic.  This section begins, ‘Border security is vital in preventing serious crimes including child abduction, people trafficking, smuggling of drugs and guns, terrorism and modern slavery’.

Really?  Would a world without borders be better or worse in these regards? Cross Border Co-operation would be replaced by – well, just Co-operation.  No treaties to negotiate, no extradition agreements to be bargained over.  No need for Traffickers, if you can travel at will without having to pay huge sums of money to risk life and limb and then be sold into slavery or worse.

A world without borders will not guarantee that everything would be hunky dory but it would be a huge step forward.

So overall, the Manifesto reflects the contradictory forces pulling the Labour Party this way and that.  If, as we hope, Labour wins this election, the fight for migrants’ rights, against deportations, to defend and extend freedom of movement, against detention centres, must continue: to build a greater tidal wave so that the most sympathetic government in British history takes those steps forward.

Left Unity is active in movements and campaigns across the left, working to create an alternative to the main political parties.

About Left Unity   Read our manifesto

Left Unity is a member of the European Left Party.

Read the European Left Manifesto  


Events and protests from around the movement, and local Left Unity meetings.

Sat 26 June, 12.00 noon
People’s Assembly – National Demonstration

After Covid, Demand a New Normal.
Assemble Portland Place. March to Parliament Square.

More info on Facebook

Sat 3 July
NHS Anniversary Nationwide Protests

Events up and down the UK to demand patient safety, pay justice and an end to privatisation!

Find an event near you

More events »


Sign up to the Left Unity email newsletter.


Get the latest Left Unity resources.

Transform Journal – Issue 8

Broadsheet: No One is Illegal!

Broadsheet: Disaster Capitalism

More resources »