What the campaign to stop mass deportations can mean for the left

The campaign to stop this week’s scheduled deportation flight will test how effectively our movement can protect people threatened by the Conservative government.

The first mass deportation to Jamaica for a year matters to ministers like Home Secretary Priti Patel, who has been tasked by Boris Johnson with looking at ways of deporting people faster.

It will indicate how tough the opposition will be to their plans to render Britain’s immigration regime even harsher.

Black Activists Rising Against Cuts founder Zita Holbourne is right to link the planned mass deportation to the Windrush scandal, where black British citizens with every right to reside here faced illegal deportation and theft of their rights by the Theresa May government.

Windrush was a defeat for May. The Immigration Act 2014 which paved the way for the racist targeting of British citizens (as Labour’s Diane Abbott had warned her it would) was her own creation as the home secretary in David Cameron’s government.

Determined campaigning by anti-racism activists, combined with relentless parliamentary pressure led by Abbott, forced out her own home secretary Amber Rudd.

But few victims of Windrush have been compensated. Nor have lessons been learned. Given Johnson’s long record of race-baiting, there is a danger he will conclude it is both possible and politically rewarding to intensify the “hostile environment” championed by governments since 2010.

This throws down a gauntlet to Labour, whose record on opposing racism was distinctly mixed before Jeremy Corbyn’s election gave it its first principled anti-racist leadership in decades.

It is extremely welcome that MPs including Abbott but also the newly elected Claudia Webbe, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Florence Eshalomi and Zahra Sultana joined the anti-deportation protest on Thursday ( 6th February ) night.

With many of those scheduled for deportation facing threats to their lives, every voice matters when it comes to stopping the flight.

But Labour’s ability to mobilise in defence of communities under attack will also be crucial to the party’s recovery.

That might seem counterintuitive for those wedded to Blairite notions of triangulation.

Looking “tough on immigration” was always part of the Labour right’s political playbook. A wing of the party unable to confront the economic dislocation caused by deregulation and a “flexible labour market” based on high unemployment, precarious work and undercutting may grasp at a more simplistic and misleading “lesson” from the loss of the Brexit-supporting Midlands and north: that attacking immigrants works.

For trade unionists, such an approach is unacceptable: as Laura Pidcock notes in her valuable Letter to the Movement, “when we talk about immigration, we need to be clear that as socialists and internationalists our position is based on anti-racist principles.”

And despite the justified fears that a Johnson premiership raises in black and Muslim communities, there is no reason for anti-racists in Britain to despair.

Studies and polls, including the 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey, show that not only has hostility to immigrants declined since 2016, but more British people view immigration positively than negatively — the reverse of the situation in most of our European neighbours.

This doesn’t mean that anti-racists can relax. A simultaneous rise in hate crimes shows that a racist minority have felt emboldened by the recent course of British politics, including by the EU referendum result and Johnson’s election in December.

But the statistics show that if racists might interpret Brexit as an endorsement of their prejudices, millions upon millions of people do not.

The recent furore over a racist poster in a Norwich tower block declaring that “we do not tolerate” people speaking languages other than English is instructive. The block’s residents quickly came together to reject the message and isolate the perpetrator.

The Conservatives will always seek to divide workers. But there is nothing inevitable about their succeeding. The labour movement’s future depends on its ability to unite communities, whether against racist deportations, attacks on services or exploitation by ruthless employers.

This article appeared in the Morning Star on 7th February 2020.