Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn are distinguished by political careers devoted to anti-racism and defending migrants’ rights writes Andy Stowe. So, it’s entirely legitimate to ask what on earth the Labour leadership was thinking when it indicated that it would support the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill on January 29th.
The bill passed with 297 votes in favour to 234 against.
In the government’s own words this means that: “In the event of no deal, EU citizens will be able to enter the UK to visit, work or study after 29 March 2019. For stays longer than 3 months, European Temporary Leave to Remain will be required.”
At the moment 512 million European citizens are able to live, work or study in any of the member states. That freedom of movement is a right that Labour should be committed to protecting.
Instead Diane Abbott said, on behalf of Labour’s leadership: “The Labour party is clear that when Britain leaves the single market, freedom of movement ends, and we set this out in our 2017 manifesto. I am a slavish devotee of that magnificent document: so, on that basis, the frontbench of the Labour party will not be opposing this bill this evening.”
Virtually every Corbyn supporter who heard that will have been shocked and disappointed. Here was the Labour figure who has received more racist abuse than any other politician conceding to the Brexit anti-migrant sentiment.
We have to assume that when Abbott, McDonnell and Corbyn reflected on that statement they realised how appalling it was. They must also have been aware that thousands of their supporters were on social media in a cold fury. As a result, they announced shortly after that the 256 Labour MPs would be instructed to vote against the bill, though they wouldn’t have to be in the Commons if they didn’t fancy hanging around. So, only 178 were in the chamber to vote against.
Labour could have defeated that piece of racist legislation and didn’t.
Even the gutless Liberal Democrats and Tories like Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke took the opportunity to vote against the government. That’s how bad Diane Abbott’s original position was.
Labour could have stood up for the rights of the 3.6 million EU citizens living in the British state and didn’t. The leadership may attempt to explain this in terms of arcane parliamentary procedure, but no one affected it by it cares about that nonsense.
A Labour leadership which does not put itself at the head of the fight to protect EU citizens and freedom of movement will quickly start to haemorrhage activists and supporters.
It’s no secret that some of Corbyn’s closest advisors want Brexit to happen and that their left nationalism is part of their Stalinist baggage. On this issue their advice is dangerous, wrong and harmful to the party. They are completely out of step with the 75% of party members who want a second referendum and the 90% who oppose Brexit.
The only positive aspects of that horrible Monday night were that the leadership stumbled into halfheartedly doing the right thing eventually and that members learn that their pressure can be effective. If the Corbyn leadership lets down its supporters like this again it is signalling to the right that it might be time for another coup attempt. Its radicalism cannot be limited only to economics, it must also boldly challenge the racism of the Brexit project.