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Did Labour’s immigration policy lose them the election?

On 16th February, deputy leader candidate for the Labour party, Angela Rayner, sat down with BBC journalist Andrew Marr for an interview during which he accused the MP of being “out of touch”. Home Secretary, Priti Patel, also chided members of the Labour party who protested the recent deportation order, describing them as simply part of the metropolitan elite. Paradoxically to be concerned by the plight of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, i.e. migrants, is quintessentially “elitist”. Is there truth in this? How did this narrative come to be? How do we combat this?

Debunking Andrew Marr

During his interview, Marr grilled the deputy leadership contestant on her position on migration noting not only the tremendous landslide in favour of the Conservatives this past 2019 election but also the fact that she lost 5,000 votes in her own constituency. In Marr’s defence, the Oxford Migration Observatory consistently ranked migration as a highly salient issue amongst the British public and noted that there was only a temporary blip due to Brexit. Was Labour’s position too far left? Was the “open borders” Utopia that the guided the Labour party misguided? Was this the key issue in 2019?

There are a number of problems with this narrative, but perhaps a good starting place is the mischaracterisation of the Labour position. In understanding Labour’s defeat, it’s important to understand the division on the issue of Brexit.

A fractured party

Within the Labour party, there were two broad camps with two virulently opposed views on Brexit. There were the die-hard “Remainers”, who maintained that the most important issue facing Britain was the move to exit out of the European Union. This was a popular view, especially among MPs such as Angela Rayner who vigorously defended the benefits of “free movement” across the European Union. MPs like Rayner had firm support by groups such as the3million, which were representative of the nearly 3 million EU nationals residing in the UK.

The opposing camp was nicknamed “Lexiters”, who provided a left-wing argument for Brexit. This was particularly popular amongst Eurosceptic left-wing activist groups and commentators such as Tariq Ali and Grace Blackley. They argued that the European Union was a “neo-liberal” institution through and through and would continue to persistently push regressive ideas of free-market capitalism forwards. As a point of principle, for a socialist government which hoped to nationalise a great number of industries, this would not be possible through the European Union.

What was Labour’s position on Immigration?

Bringing this back to the issue of immigration, the leadership felt that the best solution to straddle these two virulently opposing views was to “put it back to the people”. This is to say that they were deeply in favour of a second people’s vote on the issue of Brexit during which the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, would not take a side but would attempt to act as an impartial arbitrator.

With respects to free movement, which was one of the most important issues, the manifesto released, which largely focused on opposing austerity, had a few lines specifying that Labour’s position was dependent on the voice of the people. Labour did not adopt a hard-open borders stance but instead stated that if there was a vote in favour of Brexit, they would act to ensure that freedom of movement within the EU would end. This was particularly favoured by Len McClusky, leader of Britain’s largest trade union, who argued, controversially, that free movement undermined wages for the British workforce.

In this sense, Labour’s position on migration wasn’t radical, or at least far less so than that of the Liberal Democrats who were vigorously pushing for freedom of movement. Instead, where Labour did make its views on migration clear was on issues relating to asylum and detention. This was led by Diane Abbott, the first female MP of colour, who took a strong stance against the hostile environment and argued the end of detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood. This position gained a great deal of support amongst the British public.

Why did Labour lose?

When considering Labour’s lose its important to bear in perspective the 2017 election where the Labour party adopted a similar position on immigration. There the Labour party was able to gain an additional 32 seats whilst the Conservative party were forced to go into coalition with the DUP. This was a stunning upset.

Given the trajectory, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for someone in 2016 to bet that the Labour party would win in 2019. But what caused this sudden upset? Labour lose in 2019 was worse than any post-war government. But what changed?

Many people point the finger at Jeremy Corbyn. This includes MP Siobhain Ann McDonagh who on the night of the election openly criticised the Labour leadership. But given his victory in 2017, it appears he couldn’t be the sole reason.

Instead, one should turn to the Brexit policy adopted by the Labour party which attempted to straddle together a divided party. Unlike 2017, where the position was unambiguously in its acceptance of the Brexit verdict, the party chose to stray from its position.

Rather than focusing on immigration as a system which could be reformed to the benefit of deprived areas in North and Midlands, the party succumb to buzzwords a strategy of “tactical ambiguity”, which essentially meant avoiding the debate.

Lessons for the future

Contrary to the message of Marr and the political pundit class, immigration didn’t sink Labour’s ship, and it was Brexit.

If Labour hopes to stand a chance at the next election, it needs to be clear in its message and focus on the merits of migration as well as those most severely impacted. To argue in defence of migrants is not a practice of “elitism” it’s the antithesis of a politics dominated by the Murdoch press. It is to elevate the voices of those on the margins of society and to celebrate our diversity which stands to the core of British values.

With this said, a defence of migration cannot avoid the debate, and it cannot camouflage itself in the soundbites of buzzwords, it must be grounded in people’s lived experiences.

Westkin Associates will always stand by the rights of migrants in these troubling times.

To get in touch ring 020 7118 4546 or email

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