The fundamental differences in immigration policy between the Conservatives and the Labour Party are strong indicators of the real distance between us and our competing visions for our futures. This is not important solely because of opposing views on how migrants should be treated (although we intend to end the Windrush scandal and the Tories have no plans to do so) but because, when compared, these policies can be the difference between having one’s humanity respected, or not at all.
The changes the Tories intend to make to immigration policy are actually a huge assault on the rights of ordinary people of this country, their rights at work, their access to the welfare safety net and the fundamental basis of the NHS.
Labour is not scaremongering when we say that Boris Johnson’s threatened trade deal with Donald Trump will lead to the Americanisation of British society. The Tories’ immigration policy clearly demonstrates that is the case.
Under Tory policies, freedom of movement will be gone. But their intention is to replace the rules that apply to EU citizens with far worse rules for all migrant workers. In particular, despite grandiose claims to be attracting the “brightest and best”, there is no provision to uphold the right to a family life. This means that workers from overseas will not automatically be able to bring their families here with them. The current practice of splitting up families will be broadened.
This is so obviously a deterrent factor that it completely undermines the boasts about attracting the most highly skilled workers. It is instead a continuation and extension of the Tories’ “hostile environment” approach to migrants. But it also has an impact on the whole British workforce.
There is a level of desperation required to migrate to any country and be forced to leave your family behind. It is this desperation that the Tories want to exploit, so that the British system more closely resembles the exploitation of the millions undocumented workers of the US. At a stroke, it would increase by millions the number of precarious workers in the workforce, beyond the number of people on zero-hours’ contracts, which have risen from under 200,000 to almost 900,000 under the Tories. The government fosters precarious working to drive down the bargaining power of all workers.
The same applies to the planned assaults on the welfare system and the NHS. These represent a fundamental attack on the rights of ordinary people and Labour’s progressive settlement in the post-Second World War era. Under the Tory plan, migrant workers will have to wait five years before they can claim welfare benefits. This will immediately mean they will not be able to claim working tax credits, so that workers doing the same job will take home very different pay.
It is also bound to affect their capacity to assert their collective rights, as their joblessness can lead to destitution. And, once the Tories have established this reactionary principle, what is to stop them insisting that school leavers or students entering the workforce will also have to wait five years, or single parents re-entering the jobs market?
Tory ministers also use the argument that migrant workers need to “pay in” to the NHS before accessing it. The NHS is not a contributory system, but is funded by general taxation. If Johnson gets his way, we would be on the road to becoming a country that turns people away from needed medical treatment because they have not pre-paid to the health providers, just like the US.
This has hugely detrimental effects on citizens’ rights, workers’ rights and on health practice and public health. Once again, our over-worked and under-staffed NHS workers would legally be obliged to become internal border guards. In addition, this reactionary principle can also be extended to others who have been born here, but have not “paid in”, in Tory terms.
Labour rejects this entire approach. Migrants are people, and people should have rights. Under Labour they will. If you are legally entitled to be here, these rights must include the right to a family life and to all the fundamental rights that make this country a decent society. We will not accept the Americanisation of our society, using the attack on migrants as a battering ram against all our rights.
Diane Abbott is shadow home secretary and prospective parliamentary candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington
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