After the Election – Build a mass movement to defeat racism & Brexit

Defend & extend the free movement of people – No new immigration controls – Speak the plain truth about racism
Build an independent, integrated, youth & immigrant led movement to unite the struggles against racism and poverty  

Whatever election result awaits us on Friday, some things are certain. Firstly, there is a greater need than ever for a mass movement against the racism and anti-immigrant bigotry that have been the driving force of Brexit. The Tory election campaign has given fresh impetus to racism and xenophobia, while the other parties have stayed silent. Secondly, the election will not get Brexit ‘done.’ The Brexit crisis, and the political and economic disorders that led to Brexit, have not been resolved. Thirdly, the political system remains broken and the two main parties remain divided, while the general population, on all sides, is more disengaged from the present political system than at any time since world war two.

The chief lesson of the election is that we have to build an independent, integrated mass struggle to defend the free movement of people and stop Brexit. The current system can’t fight racism or offer a future of integration and equality. There can’t be an effective movement against poverty and inequality without a real, practical fight to overcome racism – and there can’t be such a fight without black, Asian, immigrant and youth leadership. Building that leadership and movement is the purpose of the Movement for Justice (MFJ).

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Brexit’s test for Labour

Brexit has been a critical test of the Left’s attempt to restore Labour’s traditional role as the party of the working class and a force for social progress. In 2015, hundreds of thousands of people joined or re-joined the Labour Party and propelled Jeremy Corbyn into the leadership. A high proportion were young people. They rallied to Corbyn’s campaign because he pledged to reverse the cutbacks and neo-liberal economic policies, supported the Palestinian struggle and had opposed Blair’s Iraq war. The following year those supporters defeated an attempted coup by right-wing Labour MPs and re-elected him with a bigger majority. They had a strong sense of their collective power to change history.

This year’s manifesto promises to build many more council houses, rebuild the NHS, extend public ownership, and abolish Universal Credit, benefit caps and student fees. It has gone beyond the party’s 2017 election manifesto and represents the party’s most significant break from the ‘neo-liberal’ economic policies of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and ‘New Labour.’ They reflect the continuing aspirations of the ‘new wave’ that rallied to Corbyn – and they are widely and rightly popular.

However, the most politically significant feature of the manifesto is that it did not repeat the language of the 2017 manifesto that gave an unconditional commitment to Brexit, with the blunt assertion that “Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union.” Labour’s members and supporters made those positions untenable.

Labour’s rank-and-file are to the Left of Corbyn and using their power

Since 2017 Labour’s overwhelmingly anti-Brexit and pro-free movement base has become increasingly frustrated by the leadership’s fudging, indecision, delays and parliamentary manoeuvres on Brexit. Even when the leadership finally accepted the idea of a second referendum with a ‘remain’ option, it felt like drawing teeth and was repeatedly called into doubt. Nevertheless, it was the discontent and pressure of the Labour rank-and-file that forced change and encouraged more MPs speak out.

In last May’s local government elections and the elections for the EU Parliament in June, a majority of Labour Party members and supporters felt unable to vote for their own party; a large proportion actually voted for one or other of the anti-Brexit parties. They were not generally leaving the Labour Party, but they ‘went on strike’ against the leadership and sent Corbyn a sharp warning message.

That pressure on the leadership was demonstrated again at Labour’s national conference in September, when delegates sent a strong anti-racist message to the leadership by voting almost unanimously for a motion (Composite 20), that was originally drawn up by the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, calling on Labour to include a set of policies on immigrant rights in its election manifesto. Among these were:

  • Maintain and extend free movement;
  • Ensure the unconditional right to family reunion;
  • Close all detention centres;
  • End “no recourse to public funds” policies;
  • Scrap all Hostile Environment measures, use of landlords and public service providers as border guards, and restrictions on migrants’ NHS access.

Not one delegate spoke against this motion; it was (and remains) a major victory for the progressive instincts of the party’s rank-and-file. Within 24 hours, however, leading front-benchers were publicly playing down the significance of this vote, and Len McCluskey – leader of Unite, the country’s biggest trade union – was soon taking every opportunity to attack it.

It made it clear that Labour’s base and its activists are to the Left of the leadership on Brexit and racism.

The election and free movement

The Movement for Justice (MFJ) brought out an Open Letter to the Labour leadership ahead of the ‘Clause 5 meeting’ where they drew up the manifesto for the current election. It called for the inclusion of the Composite 20 policies in the manifesto, and MFJ members lobbied the meeting. We said in the Open Letter that,

“There are very good reasons why the great majority of black, Asian, Muslim and other minority ethnic voters, youth and students, and significantly more women than men are opposed to Brexit – because it is racist and reactionary and driven by anti-immigrant prejudice. We are experiencing its impact and we will not be silenced while our rights and futures are destroyed by the Brexiteers’ backward-looking, chauvinist project. You, the Labour Party and trade union leadership, cannot stay silent on this. You must listen to our voices. …

“You can’t afford the illusion that Labour will unite ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ and win this election just by focussing on the NHS, public housing, Universal Credit, privatisation, the minimum wage etc, while saying as little as possible about Brexit or being neutral on it. Such a policy means being evasive, neutral and inactive on the continuing rise of racism and hostility to immigrants. It means ignoring the voices and the experience of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, immigrants and youth.”

The Clause 5 meeting did not make the Composite 20 policies part of the manifesto. The only direct reference to free movement in the manifesto boils down to a restatement of Labour’s pledge that EU citizens already living in the UK will be able to stay here. Only one of the ten practical demands in Composite 20 made it into the manifesto – extending the right to vote to all ‘UK residents.’ That is a welcome progressive measure, but the manifesto endorses managed migration in the interests of employers and ignores the most pressing injustices of the present immigration system.

The challenge for Labour’s pro-free movement, anti-Brexit activists

Hundreds of thousands of members who have flocked to the Labour Party since 2015 believed that Corbyn’s election as leader would reverse the history of increasingly racist immigration laws introduced by the Tories, Labour and Lib. Dems. That was the clear desire of Labour’s national conference when delegates voted for Composite 20. They will be deeply disappointed or downright angry at its exclusion from the manifesto.

Those members have, however, put their concerns aside for now and are working all out to get an anti-austerity Labour government elected, or at least to deny Johnson a majority. The general election campaign has, for a time, changed the balance of power between the leadership and the rank-and-file. Labour activists feel they must unite around the leadership when it is under a ferocious attack from the right.

MFJ understands that response, but we don’t politically support a Labour leadership that consciously refuses to take a stand for the right of free movement and against the racism of Brexit in the middle of Britain’s biggest peacetime political crisis for a century.

The issues and conflicts around immigration, free movement and Brexit will re-emerge in the Labour Party after the election, because really nothing will have been settled. Whoever is in government, Brexit means a constant crisis.

Whether Labour is in government or opposition, there will be a struggle over free movement because most Labour MPs and trade union bureaucrats think it is too difficult and dangerous to challenge racism, except in abstract moralistic terms. They are unwilling to undertake the kind of struggle that could overturn the material discrimination of racism and the divide-and-rule policies that are deeply rooted in Britain’s political and economic system. A leadership, like the present Labour leadership, that seeks ‘consensus’ among the MPs and trade union bureaucrats at the top of the party is trapped by those attitudes, whatever their own personal opinions.

MFJ therefore welcomes and supports the stand taken by 55 Labour candidates, including thirteen MPs seeking re-election, who have already issued a statement committing to continue the fight for free movement and all the policies in Composite 20[1]

The challenge for Labour’s pro-free movement, anti-Brexit activists (including the MPs who signed that statement) is to take the fight beyond Parliament and the internal politics of the Labour Party, to be part of building a mass movement to win – regardless of whether Labour is in government or opposition.

Building a fight to win

Genuine progressive change always comes from developments and struggles outside parliaments and independent of governments. The most urgent task now[2] is to overcome the toxic division of the working class based on race and attitudes to immigration, and to stop the rise of the Far Right that is based on Brexit. The Brexit crisis has broken the British political system and may yet break up the UK. It is unrealistic to rely on that system to defend and extend the free movement of people, end detention and deportation, and stop Brexit. That task requires the action of a mass movement led by immigrants, youth and the black and Asian communities.

MFJ will continue to support every struggle in the Labour Party to win free movement of people, defend immigrant rights and put Composite 20 into effect – but winning those struggles is conditional on the growth of that movement.

That comes down to building action that makes the current anti-immigrant regime unsustainable: marches and protests in and by the black, Asian, Muslim and immigrant communities and by youth, including on the demonstrations that will certainly be needed at Parliament in the coming months; weekday marches to shut down major cities; joint demonstrations inside and outside detention centres; school and college walk-outs; community organisation to prevent immigration raids; occupations and strikes in workplaces and universities to stop deportations.

This movement can win because it mobilises the social power of the most oppressed and most dynamic members of society, and that can inspire wider struggle and break down barriers, threatening the racist hierarchies that the system of divide-and-rule is based on.

This movement can’t just be wished into existence, nor can it be left to spontaneity; it has to be built and prepared. There are actually many thousands of people who can potentially be part of that work – organising meetings, building links, speaking to community and workers’ organisations, or in schools, colleges and universities. They need to be organised, whether they are in the community groups, the Labour Party, the trade unions or elsewhere.

The Movement for Justice

MFJ exists to build a movement of and for the poor and oppressed that can win a truly progressive and fulfilling future for all those struggling with the injustices of present-day society. To achieve that aim we seek to extend the struggles of the present until we win.

We call for an immediate, unconditional Amnesty for everyone who does not have a legal immigration status in the UK, because that is the only way to begin clearing up the mass of cruelty and injustice created by half a century of racist immigration and nationality laws.

We call for Opening the Borders of Britain and Europe because that is what immigrants are doing in their hundreds of thousands in order to resolve real material problems in their lives – problems that have mostly been caused by the actions of western imperialist powers. The alternative to Open Borders is an escalation of the barbarism and tyranny that we already see in the Mediterranean, in Libya, on the US/Mexican border and all around us.

We call for equal citizenship rights for everyone who lives, works and studies in the UK, because in an increasingly inter-connected world there is no democratic future for Britain, or any country, except as a multiracial, multinational society that is integrated on the basis of the equality of all its members, as the people we are.

[1] https://www.labourfreemovement.org/labour-candidates-pledge-solidarity-equality-and-free-movement-for-migrants/

[2] Of course, there are two ‘most urgent task,’ the other being the climate/ecological crisis, but these are linked in many ways and have a common enemy, and without an integrated movement against the racist scapegoating of immigrants there is no real possibility of building a movement to win action on the climate crisis.