Big asks and little asks for Labour

On September 18th NELMA spoke at an event called ‘Immigration policy: what is the scope for a radical approach from Labour’. (We haven’t joined the Labour Party. We were invited to give the perspective of grassroots migrants’ rights activists.)

In case anyone’s interested, we’ve published our talk below:

I’ll start with a couple of stories about people we know.

Teofil was in his tent keeping warm when immigration came for him. It was his day off from the bread factory. He told the officers: “I’m legal. I’m working. Please check my papers.” He only has three years of school but his English is fluent.

He showed them his work contract, his pay slips from the factory, His Big Issue vendor’s badge. He had two jobs. Immigration said: “It doesn’t matter. You’re being arrested because you’re homeless”.

Teofil spent twenty-six days in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. It took that long partly because he had to do his own appeal. There’s no legal aid. It took that long partly because nobody told him he could appeal.

He was saving for a deposit when he was detained. He lost both jobs. When the Home Office let him out they kept his ID for three months. No explanation. No chance of work.

He tried to join the library. To keep warm. No documents. No chance.

He’s still on the streets.

Grace* is 20. Her parents brought her the UK from Nigeria—illegally—when she was 12. As a young adult she was granted leave to remain, but with no recourse to public funds.

So when Grace got pregnant and her boyfriend physically kicked her out, there was no state to turn to. She spent the last few months of her pregnancy sleeping on the floor of her aunt’s one-bed.

When the baby was born her aunt couldn’t cope. She kicked Grace out too.

There are rules in this country that are supposed to keep kids off the streets. But London local authorities—Labour local authorities—systematically flout those rules with respect to migrant children. The social workers looked at Grace’s Facebook page. Plenty of friends and family there, they said. You can’t be homeless. But nobody wanted Grace or her baby.

Guess what the social workers said next? Go back to your partner. Or if you won’t do that, give up your child.

NELMA has kept Grace housed ever since. The case is trundling through the courts. Without support from groups like ours, lots of women like Grace give up—go underground, go home with anyone they can find. There’s no other choice.

Child poverty’s a Labour issue. Decent homes and workers’ rights used to be, I believe. And yet, when NELMA campaigns around these issues, elected Labour politicians and Labour-run local authorities are, for the most part, our antagonists rather than our allies.

With a few exceptions, the only way to compel Labour-run local authorities to uphold the rights of destitute migrant children is to take them to court. Sadiq Khan, who sees rough sleeping as a ‘scar on the face of London’, refuses to oppose the Home Office’s policy of locking homeless people up without charge. Tincture of migrant colours the waters. Muddies the picture. Allowing Labour people to justify, or acquiesce in, or just keep schtum about, the otherwise unpalatable.

The human rights abuses I’ve just told you about—because that’s what they are—are so egregious that talk about triangulation, or the necessary soft pedal, or squaring the circle, or politics as the art of the possible, feels distasteful.

Even if ‘British jobs for British workers’ strikes you as a reasonable idea—as it does Owen Smith—it’s unlikely you think it’s reasonable to punish children for the perceived sins of the fathers.

Even if you believe, as Andy Burnham does, that the failure of immigration controls threatens the ‘safety of our streets’, it’s unlikely you’d lobby for the effective suspension of habeas corpus for homeless people.

Nobody’s asking, or expecting Jeremy Corbyn to say open the borders; only to say—some things will not pass.

In Britain in the twenty-first century we imprison people indefinitely without charge because they are homeless. In Britain in the twenty-first century we’re willing to leave children on the streets because their parents have the wrong papers. And these aren’t epiphenomena, or accidents. They’re the result of policy, deliberately made. Policy that went unopposed.

Is Labour just not paying attention, the way you don’t pay attention when it’s easier, less awkward, not to know what’s going on?

So: the “grassroots perspective”. There’s a big ask to Labour and, failing that, a little ask. The big ask goes like this:

Remember all the things you were taught you can’t say or else nobody would vote for you? And then remember Trump. And Corbyn. And Brexit. If all bets are off, psephologically, as they seem to be, what a release. What an opportunity to find orientation in your convictions.

If in your secret heart you believe there’s a post colonial critique, or a very gently Marxist—or a social democratic—critique, to be made of Tory immigration policy, surely now’s the time to make it.

There are clever ways of framing it, of dovetailing with existing causes. Think of DACA in the US, or the Sanctuary Cities movement. Migrants rights activists and the Democratic Party working together. You could start with the children who were born in the UK, go to school here, but don’t have the same rights as their peers. That shouldn’t be too hard a sell.

The little ask is this: carry on triangulating if you must. But at least raise your voice when the abuses committed by this government are so glaring are so that it’s a moral imperative to oppose them.

If, even then, Labour baulks, for fear of an imagined Middle England, or just because by now it’s a conditioned reflex, it’s going to be hard for people like me to see the party as anything other than part of the problem.

 *Not her real name.