At around 7pm tonight, a text message with an ‘IMPORTANT’ header was sent to all Labour MPs from the Labour leader’s office, informing them that the party would be voting against the Tories’ Immigration Bill at its ‘Second Reading’ this evening:
This followed a day of anger among some Labour activists that Labour was was not intending to whip its MPs to vote against the government’s immigration bill on its second reading today. The bill aims to end freedom of movement after Brexit, but – typically of the Tories – would, in its unamended form, also threaten the status of EU ‘settled’ residents and give ministers undue power over immigration rules in future.
Below is why Labour took the approach it did – and then changed its approach. It is not overly complex, although it was a response to a complex and changing situation.
‘Northern heartlands’ and freedom of movement
Many Labour ‘northern heartland’ seats voted leave in the 2016 referendum, in part because of a perception that immigration was being exploited to drive down wages and pad corporate profits.
Labour owes its supporters in those areas to take the issue of exploitation of immigrants seriously – and this has been reflected in Jeremy Corbyn’s and the party’s comments on the issue, as well as in the comments of MPs representing such seats, such as Melanie Onn.
A decision to whip and vote down an immigration bill on the freedom of movement that has been exploited to the detriment of working-class people – without an attempt to impose amendments on the bill to try to erase the Tories’ vile aspects – would have been seen as a failure to respect the issues faced by working-class voters.
So Labour had put forward amendments to the bill for the crucial ‘third reading’, as today was merely the interim ‘second reading’ – as Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott made clear earlier today:
Labour’s planned attempt to amend the bill was not only the right thing to do out of respect for its working-class base, but also intelligent politics. If the bill could not be amended into an acceptable form, the party could vote against it from a ‘cast-iron’ position, minimising the opportunities for the Tories to claim Labour was not respecting Labour-voting leave areas.
Parliamentary process and media coverage
As well as hearing the protests of many of its supporters about the decision not to whip against the bill at second reading, the party also concluded that the whole issue was ‘getting bogged down in parliamentary process‘, according to a Labour insider – risking the resistance to the Tories’ bill as it stands, while also obscuring the message to working-class leave voters and ending any prospect of a sensible bill that would serve the interests of the people.
On top of that, the media coverage of the issue combined with the language of the White Paper underpinning the bill to risk inflaming the most unsavoury facets of the Brexit debate. Labour could not fan those flames. Again, Abbott explained:
So Labour reassessed its position – and changed its plan according to the new and media-inflamed situation.
A Labour source told the SKWAWKBOX:
The Tories are deliberately treating low pay as meaning low skills, a massive disrespect to the huge numbers of people performing vital work for low reward under this government. Any immigration controls must be based on skills, not pay.A Labour insider
Of course some people object to any immigration controls in principle, but the party is working for the many and can’t just dismiss the concerns of millions of working-class people out of hand – unlike some back-benchers and spokespeople for other parties, who don’t want to see a left-wing Labour in government anyway.
The whole issue was getting bogged down in parliamentary process anyway and it was clear the media were using this again to fan hate and division. So we made the decision to change our approach and it was the right call.
In spite of Labour’s votes against, the bill passed its second reading – as it was always likely to do – by 297 votes to 234. Only two Tory MPs voted against and one DUP MP did not vote, so a full Labour whip from the beginning would have made no difference, as the Tories would have ensured the presence of their full complement of MPs to vote. Labour will still aim to amend the bill.
Jeremy Corbyn and his team continue to be the only people working genuinely for the interests of ‘the many’ on both sides of the Brexit divide – as tricky as that inevitably is.
Of course, many of the loudest parliamentary voices attacking the initial plan of trying to amend the immigration bill today have been those who positively hate the thought of a Corbyn-led government, so such ‘minor’ points as aiming for the best for the whole country and the people in it are of no concern.
Some left-wing journalists should also have done more digging before making pronouncements, but their intentions were good.
In the end, Labour showed enough flexibility to adapt its approach to the emerging situation – unlike May and her party, whose blind pursuit of the impossible for narrow party reasons continues to damage both the country and its international reputation.
Labour’s enemies will claim this is a negative. Those same enemies would be equally quick to criticise any Labour inflexibility or paint it as political naivety, so what’s new?
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