Not So Clever Politics

Michael Chessum

The Illegal Migration Bill will withdraw the UK from the international refugee framework established after the Second World War. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has called the new legislation a de facto asylum ban: those arriving irregularly will have no right to claim asylum ‘no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be, and with no consideration of their individual circumstances’. Far-right politicians across Europe have applauded the law, with Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, praising it as ‘harsh but fair’.

Theresa May is the proud architect of the hostile environment framework, which denies basic services to migrants and imposes statutory obligations on the NHS, schools and housing providers to act as border guards. The debate has moved so far in the last ten years that May found herself an outspoken rebel on the new bill, warning that victims of modern slavery will be among its ‘collateral damage’. May is not only more progressive than her own party on this new legislation, but more progressive than many of the general public: according to a poll for the Independent, 42 per cent support the bill, and 44 per cent say it makes them feel proud to be British.

Labour has almost always been run by self-described pragmatists who regard migrants’ rights as expendable, from Harold Wilson’s Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968 to Ed Miliband’s promise of ‘controls on immigration’ carved in stone. The day he was elected leader in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn spoke at a Refugees Welcome rally in London, though even he abandoned support for freedom of movement in the 2017 manifesto. Now, the party is now once again dominated by the heirs of New Labour, a class of professionals who pride themselves on their strategic thinking but in fact prioritise short-term tactical compromise. Their contention is that by cutting with the grain of the public debate on issues like immigration, progressives are more likely to win elections and therefore more likely to be able to reverse Conservative policies. This is regarded as clever politics.

The net result of this clever approach is that politics in Westminster now consists of a government with a clear ideological agenda, facing an opposition that lives in fear of contradicting it. Labour operates on the basis that it must accept, and therefore reinforce, the Conservative framing of immigration. Just before the new Illegal Migration Bill was introduced, the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, toured TV studios to set out Labour’s plan to ‘go after the criminal gangs’ by setting up a specialist police unit. As the bill was debated in parliament, Labour proposed more solutions. Providing safe passage to refugees, a fundamental element of complying with international law, was not among them. Fast-tracking deportations and creating new ‘return arrangements’ with France were.

Clarifying Labour’s position earlier this month, Cooper said that the party would not reverse the criminalisation of the asylum seekers arriving irregularly, and would seek to amend, rather than repeal, the Nationality and Borders Act introduced by Priti Patel last year. When no one in the political mainstream is willing to attack authoritarian policies on a basic ethical level, any degree of extremism can become the consensus. While the hard right of the Conservative Party sets out to dehumanise migrants, Labour condemns their lack of efficiency. While the UNHCR and international human rights organisations look on in horror at Suella Braverman’s ‘deplorable proposal’, British journalists question only its effectiveness.

Ducking fights on difficult issues may work in the short term, if your aim is to win the support of this or that portion of the electorate. In the long run, it is a proven disaster. The last Labour government built an economy around financial services and an electoral strategy around accepting Thatcher’s legacy. It won three elections, but provided the Tory right with the materials it needed to deliver austerity, harsher border controls and deepening privatisation. Retaining the Right to Buy and Conservative anti-union laws were sold internally as clever strategic moves – ways to show that the party was more ‘New’ than ‘Labour’. But in the long run, weakening the trade union movement has strengthened the Conservatives’ grip on power, while facilitating a generation of socially conservative homeowners did Labour no good in its former industrial heartlands in the 2010s and left behind a housing crisis.

However poor the Conservative Party’s current polling figures, the new nationalist right has a coherent strategy. It has a rich ideological web of narratives about race, nostalgia and loss to deal with Britain’s crises of identity – and a press that wants to promote them, regardless of who is in government. It is adept at blaming migrants for the impoverishment caused by neoliberalism and austerity, and through the Brexit referendum found a way to present its narratives as expressing the ‘will of the people’.

The establishment centre-left, however, remains wedded to the old technocratic politics. The outrage over Ed Miliband’s infamous ‘controls on immigration’ mug looks almost quaint. Faced with the right-wing offensive on refugees, Labour keeps its head down and goes with the tide. It will win the next election whatever it does, but if you want to know where this clever politics leads – its staccato style, empty policy launches, and endless spiralling compromise – you need only look at the last two decades and then read the Illegal Migration Bill. It leads here.


  • 22 March 2023 at 6:25pm
    Rowena Hiscox says:
    The infuriating thing about the Labour Party (OK, one of the many infuriating things about the Labour Party) is that it always goes into full win-at-any-cost mode just when a Tory government is imploding and there's no need to any more. Still, you can see their point: nothing scares these people more than the prospect of winning an election while committed to actual policies that they would then have to try to carry out. Not when they'll be so busy struggling with imposter syndrome and not feeling welcomed into the establishment they despise.

    As with nearly all politicians nowadays, listening to Sir Keir of the Weathercock leaves you wondering what button you have to press to talk to a human. He is at least honest in that he openly admits to being a moral vacuum who will say absolutely anything to get into office. This of course endears him to the current crop of reporters, for whom short-term tactical manoeuvring is the beginning and end of politics, and one's "values" are merely one's personal brand, to be changed to fit current fashion as easily as past generations might have changed their hairstyles or exchanged a skirt for a trouser suit.

    But all is not lost. Labour may not be willing to defend refugees, but it will defend to the death the right of an ex-footballer to tweet about refugees. Neither faction of our political class may have anything to say, but they can still have rows over their right to speak out; and that should keep us going until the robots can take over.

    • 30 March 2023 at 4:33pm
      Ed Freeman says: @ Rowena Hiscox
      'The infuriating thing about the Labour Party (OK, one of the many infuriating things about the Labour Party) is that it always goes into full win-at-any-cost mode just when a Tory government is imploding and there's no need to any more.'

      Haunted, I dare say, by Kinnock's from-the-jaws-of-victory defeat in 1992. And I have to say I sympathise. However absurd and out of touch the extremely rich Sunak might be, there's a substantial constituency that *really wants* to believe in the narrative of There Is No Alternative Conservative competence and will grab any excuse not to vote elsewhere.