Where is the Left's argument on migration? For the last two years or so, it's been buried in the centrist-led campaign to Remain within the European Union. The politics of that campaign are not pro-migrant. Not even covertly.
The argument of the People's Vote campaign is that it is perfectly possible to control immigration from within the EU. That is an argument minted by Blairites and Tories, who want to deflect anti-migrant animus onto non-European immigrants.
The tasteless acme of this argument was `Ken Clarke declaring, shortly after the Grenfell blaze, that the bodies showed that the problem was immigration from outside Europe. And it's quite clear he didn't mean immigration from Canada, Australia or the United States. That is not an argument that the Left, whether it is Leave or Remain, can have anything to do with.
The rationale of the official Remain campaign is that the vote to Leave was a vote to control immigration. They want to make an offer which highlights and extends existing securitarian and racist controls built into the European Union. Measures with which, at any rate, they agree. They hope that, fearful about a difficult post-Brexit future, just enough of these voters will take the consolation prize that it will shift the outcome in a second referendum. Even on its own terms, this can't work. Who is it supposed to convince? Yes, people are more racist about Nigerians than about Romanians: but you don't reduce racist antipathy to Romanians by inflaming it against Nigerians. There is no possibility of a triangulating trade-off here. And in this political moment, polarisation rather than triangulation is what wins.
That means, on the other hand, that the Left could begin to win this argument. Anti-immigrant sentiment is not universal, not all racism is equivalent. Much of it is soft. Consider the survey evidence cited by the Migration Observatory. There is a clear majority for reducing immigration. That doesn't surprise me. That has been the consensus of the majority of the media and politicians for decades. What surprises me is that 30 per cent of people would keep immigration levels the same, and thirteen per cent would increase them -- in a country where almost no one is arguing that. Then look at the majority for reducing migration. Of that, a quarter of people says immigration should be "reduced a little". What does that even mean? What would "a little" look like? And why? To alleviate what perceived problem? How many of those answering that they would reduce migration "a little" are attesting to the effects of a series of concerted media and political campaigns? When have people ever heard a principled argument for anything else? Without question, there are genuinely intransigent, hardened forms of racism that can't be argued with. But that isn't the majority of opinion.
Nor is racism forever: it tends, through periodic backlashes, to decline over the generations. In the general election of 2017, we were privileged to witness 'the early days of a better nation' as Alasdair Gray once put it. That nation would not be the frightened, belligerent, chauvinist nation of the past. It would not be as impressed by men with guns and barbed wire fences. Yet, the Left has largely been reluctant to aggressively assemble its own expanding forces on this issue -- leaving the hard-right and centre-right to duke it out over the best means to be racist toward migrants.
The pro-migrant scene in British politics is fractal. Anti-deportation campaigns, refugee action groups, local anti-racist coalitions, and so on. There have been some incipient forms of organisation among Polish workers, although nothing on the scale of the migrant workers' movement in the US -- a movement which fundamentally civilised the American Left and changed the position of organised labour. And there is a Labour Campaign for Free Movement. Yet, all of this pales in national significance next to the left-Remain campaign, which is itself an extremely minoritarian flank of a centre-right-led campaign. To be fair to Another Europe is Possible, one of the few things it is clear about is that it is pro-migrant. Its model motions for Labour conference did not mention free movement, but did rebuke the scapegoating of migrants. However, it is funded by Lord Malloch-Brown because it gives a left-gloss to membership of the European Union, and that's what it does.
The Labour Party, and the organisations of the labour movement, should be where all this fractal activity is federated, given concentrated expression. With a left-wing leadership, Labour should be aggressively staking out a pro-migrant politics in contrast to traditional triangulation. I've criticised the Corbyn leadership for its fudging of this issue before, but the reality is that if it is left to any leadership the policy will be a fudge. Diane Abbott has an excellent pro-migrant record. But her policy of shutting down the worst of the detention centres for refugees while keeping the rest open is a perfect example of what this fudging looks like. You're never going to get a more lucid, historically conscious, movement-based left-wing leadership of the Labour Party, and even this one fights shy of this issue. Why? Because it has to lead a pluralist organisation built for running a national state. It has to contend with the outsized power of the PLP majority, as well as -- more important for the Corbyn leadership -- the trade union bureaucracy. Len McCluskey, the left-leader of Unite, is one of Corbyn's most important allies, and he's been lobbying for rolling back free movement since the Brexit vote.
Given all this, grassroots time, energy, and mobilising capacity is a precious resource. The capacity of members to drive changes in Labour's policy and national publicity is greater than it has been for some time, despite the slowness of democratic change. It has been a strategic error, over the last two years, to allow the issues of racism, migration and refugee rights, to be wrapped around a debate between two factions of the Right over the EU. This has resulted in two very bad sets of arguments on the Left: Brexiters downplaying the racism of Fortress Britain, Remainers downplaying the racism of Fortress Europe. Either way, the issue of racism is demoted, treated as an appurtenance of some larger question. In neither format is it possible to construct the kind of class-based anti-racism indicated by the coalitions and energies awoken by the Grenfell massacre. In neither way is anti-racism detached from the kind of identitarian and culture war politics that the Right thrives on.
It doesn't have to be this way. There are plenty of confident, militant, articulate anti-racist socialists in Britain today. You hear them at Momentum festivals every year. You see them on Novara Media, and occasionally being interviewed on Sky News. These are potential leaders, and they could be transforming the agenda, if there was any organised format in which their efforts were directed.