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Labour: shifting the narrative on migration, from hostile to humane?

Written by
Elspeth Macdonald, Migrants' Rights Network
Date of Publication:
27 February 2018

Last week Diane Abbott, Labour's shadow Home Secretary, gave her first major speech on immigration since the 2017 election. Migrants' Rights Network (MRN) was invited along to listen, and below we share some thoughts on what, if anything, seems to have changed.

Labour values

The main point of Abbott's speech was to describe the "values" that will guide Labour's approach to immigration going forward. It seems a long time since a politician of any persuasion has called for a more "humane" immigration system. But this is precisely what Abbott did, as well as declaring unequivocally that "the UK needs migrants and migration". She also argued that government cuts, not migrants, were the immediate cause of the pressure on public services, and that it was "simplistic" to blame migrant workers for the downward pressure on wages and problems arising from the ongoing deregulation of the labour market.

This analysis is welcome and long overdue. However, Abbott was also clear that the most important principle guiding Labour on immigration will be "prosperity, growth and jobs". Indeed she stated that immigration policy would be "subordinate" to Labour's aims on the economy. This may seem like a more rational attitude than, say, trying to hit an arbitrary and unreachable net migration target, as adopted by the current government. But viewing migration in purely economic terms is still a limited approach. If Labour want to create a truly "humane" immigration policy – one that is able to generate inclusive, welcoming communities – they must be prepared to discuss not just migrants' economic value, but also their aspirations and rights.

Something old, something new

By her own admission, Abbott's speech did not contain a lot of new policy detail. Many of her points simply restated previously announced Labour positions, such as getting rid of the net migration target and ending indefinite detention for immigration purposes. Each of these were commitments made by Yvette Cooper as Shadow Home Secretary back in 2014/15.

We did see a few other new announcements. Importantly Abbott publicly committed Labour to getting rid of Theresa May's 'hostile environment' policy, a position that many Labour MPs have privately supported for some time. There wasn't much detail on how the party intends to carry out their pledge, but a clear public stand on the issue from the Labour leadership is a welcome development.

On Brexit, Abbott stated Labour's position was that there should be no distinction between EU nationals already resident in the UK and those arriving during the transition period – all should retain the same rights after the UK leaves the EU as they currently enjoy now. She also suggested that Labour would seek to improve the immigration system for non-EU migrants after Brexit – rather than pursuing a "lowest common denominator" for EU and non-EU migrants alike.

Another more specific policy change came around families. Abbott announced that Labour will change family reunification rules and allow unaccompanied child refugees to be joined by their parents or carers. In a similar vein, the children of adults with the right to remain in the UK will also be granted that right when they turn eighteen, rather than facing the possibility of being refused leave and deported.

These are both welcome first steps and it is was good to hear Abbott referring to the "right to a family life" as the basis for Labour's new approach in this area. But it's important to remember migrants hold many other rights too. This full range of rights must be respected and upheld by politicians if they are serious about improving immigration policy, so it will be interesting to see how far Labour are prepared to go in this direction.

To be continued….

There was much to support in Abbott's speech, and her commitment to changing the overall narrative on migration is welcome. The speech was the first of several – we gather more will be coming after Easter. This suggests Labour will be in listening mode over the next few weeks and months, seeking input and ideas to inform the further development of their policy.

MRN will be pursuing opportunities to feed into this process wherever possible. In this we will of course be highlighting the importance of a rights-based approach as the foundation for any decent immigration policy. As discussed, there is a still a way to go – but the shift so far is undoubtedly a positive change.