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Labour: the fight for free movement starts now

08 October 2019

At Labour Party conference in Brighton, the internationalist Left scored a significant victory on conference floor with the passage of a motion on immigration which, in principle, commits Labour to maintaining and extending freedom of movement; a radical break from Labour’s previous enthusiasm for immigration controls. The motion also mandates Labour to reject any points-based or capped immigration system, and to commit to abolishing detention centres, extending the right to vote to all UK residents regardless of citizenship, and scrapping any limitations on migrants’ access to public funds.

That the motion reached conference floor and passed near-unanimously is an achievement indicative of a mood of radicalism amongst CLP delegates, so long as proposed policies do not challenge their loyalty to the cult of Corbyn. The motion was prioritised for debate despite failing to secure backing from Momentum in the priorities ballot, a mark of the declining influence of Momentum’s organising apparatus, which is increasingly outflanked by independent, issue-based campaigns.

Even the trade union block vote, where opposition based on narrow sectional interest might have been expected, sided overwhelmingly with the motion. The fight over Brexit policy already behind them, the party machine chose not to expend political capital on another conference floor bust-up, and quietly conceded the motion’s passage. They did so safe in the knowledge that the motion’s contents could simply be ignored from the moment conference closed.


Not even a full day had passed before this was confirmed. In an interview on Radio 4, Diane Abbott confirmed that Labour is still committed to a work visa system, directly contradicting the immigration conference motion and thus the mandate from hundreds of thousands of Labour members. Despite coming to power on the promise to build a “democratic, membership-led party”, Corbyn’s willingness to ignore conference decisions fits right into a long tradition of Labour leaders stretching back from Blair to Kinnock to Gaitskell.

The struggle over conference sovereignty within Labour is as old as the party itself. The Left has continually fought to subordinate the party leadership and apparatus to the collective will of the membership, based on the principle that a party aspiring to govern in the interests of “the many, not the few” should operate through a direct representational link to the working class. Annual conference, as a gathering of elected delegates directly representing all members and affiliates, is the most democratic mechanism for maintaining this link and should be the supreme body for debating and approving national party policy and holding the party leaders accountable.

By contrast, Labour’s establishment has always had a much looser relationship with the concept of democracy; they insist, in deeds if not in words, that it is unreasonable for party policy to be bound by something as fickle as members’ views. For them, the most important expression of democracy is not in the party’s relationship with its members, but in the electoral vote of the public at large. This reflects the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Labour Party: though the party’s success is based on support from workers, its fundamental social function is to reconcile their interests with those of the class that exploits them. Similarly, its fundamental strategy is rooted in acceptance of the bourgeois parliamentary system, including its highly flawed first-past-the-post electoral system. This electoralism means that its political and trade union leaders will always view the question of immigration from the point of view of the most backward voters or the bosses, and never from the standpoint of working class principles.


A policy committing Labour to maintaining and extending freedom of movement is in obvious contradiction to Labour’s stance on Brexit, in addition to threatening a negative reaction from the “average voter” in a climate of heightened racism and xenophobia. Though Labour now promises to put any Brexit deal to a public vote, since 2016 its position has been to deliver Brexit, with an active commitment to ending freedom of movement. In these conditions, it is inconceivable that Labour’s central apparatus would countenance support for free movement, which would fatally undermine the electoral calculation on which the party has chosen to stake victory in the next election.

Campaigners for free movement and migrants’ rights must first acknowledge that it is impossible to win this in isolation from Brexit, which is a symptom of a world-wide rise in nationalist, anti-migrant sentiment. The struggle for freedom of movement must be just one part of the struggle to shift Labour to a bold internationalist approach in every aspect of its policy. Capital organises itself internationally, indeed globally, to maximise its exploitation of workers and the working class, and all those dependent on employment by capital need also to think and act internationally. If Labour is really to fight for extended freedom of movement, it must first commit to maintaining the freedom of movement which currently exists within the EU. Anything less is an unprincipled concession to nationalism and chauvinism.


More broadly, supporters of freedom of movement and other radical policies passed at conference must renew the fight for a truly democratic Labour party, with representatives, both MPs and councillors, directly accountable to the membership and subject to mandatory open selection. Here, too, Corbyn’s Labour has abandoned its ambitions. Support for mandatory reselection was a key plank of both Corbyn’s leadership campaign and Momentum’s platform, the promised reforms have since been significantly watered down.

Both Momentum and Corbyn backed a compromise rule change at last year’s conference which lowered the vote threshold necessary for constituency members to ‘trigger’ an open selection by rejecting a confirmatory vote, but conceded on the overall principle of mandatory reselection. In recent weeks, the Corbynite majority on the NEC has suspended open selections in areas where sitting MPs have stood down, using the old Blairite argument that the procedure would take up too much of the party’s resources in the run-up to an election.

Full accountability of representatives is the first pre-requisite to ensuring the implementation of conference policies. But in any electoralist party, even one with roots in the working class, the idea that such accountability is more important than supposed electoral popularity, always influenced by hostile media anyway, will always be seen as a self-defeating threat to “unity”.

To overcome this, mass extra-parliamentary movements exerting pressure on the leadership are essential; the Left anti-Brexit campaigns, which have at least forced Labour to concede support for a second referendum, can serve as an example. Campaigners for the free movement motion have already made a start by launching a public letter exposing the leadership’s treachery and organising public meetings on the topic.

At the same time as socialists fight for democratic reforms and socialist policies within Labour, they should seize opportunities to expose how parliamentary democracy is rigged in favour of the ruling class, in whose service the entire state is organised. To guarantee the long-term sustainability of socialist policies, and raise the prospect of a transition to socialist society, we will need a new kind of democracy: working-class democracy, with all representatives subject to immediate recallability, as the foundation of a workers’ government.

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