Labour, austerity and immigration

With the economic crisis projected to extend into the next parliament and forming the longest economic slump in modern history, two opposing political narratives are building up support, testing Labour in the coming months and years.

The anti-austerity movement is growing, which the increased protests around hospitals, fire stations and the bedroom tax and a planned People’s Assembly Against Austerity in June. Labour must demonstrate its solidarity with that movement. 

But in direct opposition to this movement, the right is seeking to divide opposition to austerity and deflect an increased focus on the government by whipping up hostility to migrants and blaming them, as the Daily Express helpfully explains, for ‘pushing stretched public services to breaking point.’

Labour has yet to break from the Tories political framework that cuts are somehow inevitable though there is enough evidence it can benefit from doing so, while the party continues to hold itself hostage to the right on immigration, failing to set out a defence of multiculturalism.

As these two movements grow, Labour needs to shift decisively to offer a radical opposition to the government’s agenda, by defending public spending and the benefits of immigration.

Labour opposing cuts

Independent community campaigns, opposing cuts to local public services are gaining traction, with hospital campaigns and protests against the bedroom tax mobilising thousands. In each case, local Labour MPs and councillors, and party activists have shown their support.

As these campaigns grow and organise regional and national demonstrations, Ed Miliband and Labour nationally must also give them their backing – or suffer the consequences.

In London now, the growing number of local hospital campaigns have called a London-wide demonstration to defend the NHS. The London Labour Party has already helped publicise it following a vote by activists at the regional conference.

Islington Labour has also recently demonstrated that unambiguous opposition to public services cuts can reap rewards, as it scored landslide victories in two council by-elections last week where the dominant issue was the shock announcement of plans for a major site sell-off and threats to over 500 jobs at the Whittington Hospital

Islington Labour made opposition to the proposals the main theme of its campaign, identifying the Coalition Government spending cuts agenda as the cause. The party distributed letters to all voters outlining our clear opposition, urging them to join what turned out to be a 600-strong public meeting called by the Defend the Whittington Hospital Coalition and, in another letter, to join their rally – which included 5,000 taking part in a march - on the weekend before polling day.

The election campaign also had a positive message and outlined the progressive work carried out by Islington Council’s Labour administration despite the cuts, including building the largest number of housing units in London (and second highest in the country) and introducing universal free school meals, as well as delivering the London Living Wage and taking numerous council services back in-house.

A progressive Labour message meant the party was able to mobilise large numbers of activists and when polling day arrived, Labour saw swings of 25 and 30% in each seat winning with 71% and 62% share of the vote in St George’s and Junction respectively.

Rise of UKIP and anti-immigration politics

Opposing the anti-austerity movement is another that condemns immigration. In Britain, growing hostility to immigration has focused on migrants use of public services. This has been represented organisationally by the rise of UKIP as a political force poses a challenge to all parties, with Cameron signalling his intention to restrict migrant access to services.

Ed Miliband has already signalled his view that there are ‘benefits issues for people coming here from Bulgaria or Romania’, playing into the right wing framework. As the Tories up the ante, Labour cannot drift along with their message.

In the Rotherham and Eastleigh parliamentary by-elections, UKIP purposefully ran anti-immigrant campaigns. In Havering’s Gooshays ward last week, UKIP won their first council by-election in London. After enjoying a surge in polling over a number of weeks, including strong results in the Rotherham and Eastleigh by-elections, they successfully brought together former Conservative and BNP voters to leapfrog Labour, whose vote held up.

Elected councillor Lawrence Webb told the Romford Recorder“This is a local election, but people are concerned about national issues and one of those is immigration. Gooshays has quite a few open spaces and there’s tremendous pressure to build on some of those. What people fear is it won’t be for them and their families but for the overspill from London or other parts of Europe.”

But it has been left to figures like Jonathan Portes to expose the nonsense of immigration economics argued by the right, while Diane Abbott has politically attacked the rightward moving agenda.

Where next for Labour?

The key message to take from this must be that the UKIP rise is based on an increasing anti-immigrant narrative that seeks to establish scapegoats for the declining living standards caused by austerity. Labour is best placed to win by unambiguously challenging the government’s austerity agenda and exposing its lies around immigration. 

Budget week protests build towards People’s Assembly

The TUC’s Pre-Budget Rally heralds a week of planning and protest against the Tory government’s austerity agenda.

Anti-cuts campaigns are springing up everywhere to oppose the bedroom tax, save hospitals, keep fire stations open, defend education.

In all cases local Labour parties and Labour MPs are showing their support and defending public services for local communities.

This new mood of opposition to Tory cuts needs to be translated into a new Labour economic policy that tears apart austerity and makes a clear and reasoned case for government-led investment to create jobs and growth.

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity, called by the Coalition of Resistance, takes place on 22nd June and is rapidly gathering support. As Owen Jones wrote at the weekend, the Assembly ‘aims to unite all opponents of austerity in one movement’ and Labour members should get involved in.

Register today: People’s Assembly – Against Austerity


Budget Week of Protest

Wednesday 13th March
London Region of the NUT  Gove Must Go protest
5pm, Cathedral Piazza, Victoria St

TUC Pre-Budget Rally
6pm, Emmanuel Centre, Marsham St

Thursday 14th March
Save Westminster Fire Station public meeting
6pm, Mary Sumner House, Tufton St

Saturday 16th March
Labour members will be joining over 50 protests against the bedroom tax this Saturday.

Camden, Islington and Haringey Labour and London Young Labour are joining the Save the Whittington protest.
11.30, Highbury Corner

March to save Clapham Fire Station
12 noon, Clapham Common

Monday 18th March
Planning meeting for a London-wide Save Our Hospitals protest
6.30pm, Camden Town Hall, Judd St

Tuesday 19th March
Bring Back EMA campaign has called a Budget Day of Action

Wednesday 20th March
PCS Budget Day Strike and Rally
12-2pm, Old Palace Yard, Abingdon St

Budget Day Protest
Coalition of Resistance and Unite the Resistance
5.30pm march from Kings College to Downing St



Building Labour’s public transport policy

If one ever wanted to see the logical conclusion of Thatcherite public policy, they need look no further than the state of the public transport network across Britain today. In a fragmented, market-driven environment, the British people are rightfully angry when their needs are second placed to the need for private companies to return ever bigger profits for their shareholders. A Labour government must commit to provide a new and radical approach to public transport, and ensure that all money invested is going into services, and not lining operating companies’ pockets.

The legacy of Thatcherism has been to reduce Britain’s most well-used public transport services, buses and overground trains, to little more than the off-shoot arms of multinationals trying to win an ever greater slice of the transport pie. The 1985 Transport Act deregulated the buses, forcing competition onto services. Outside of London, where transport is still overseen by Transport for London, the result has been the death of municipally-run bus services across the country, leaving local councils and communities at the mercy of the whims of organisations whose sole aim is to turn a profit.

In railways, too, after the 1993 privatisation, multinationals have made billions out of passengers, hiking fares above inflation, and hitting commuters in their pockets. And yet the recent scandal around the West Coast Mainline franchising proves just how wasteful and inefficient the current system of managing British rail is, with companies deliberately overpromising what they can deliver to win contracts, with no possible hope of delivering. Once a company gets the franchise, they can dictate the terms of service until the conclusion of their contract.

Public transport is by its very nature monopolistic – the idea that you can make some kind of rational, economically-driven decision on the basis of which service to choose or which operator to select is a fantasy dreamt up in the corridors of Conservative Party HQ. What matters is who controls that monopoly; should it be private companies who only care about profits, or should it be democratically elected governments and councils? Labour must make argue for the latter.

In the case of buses, this radical approach should come in the form of local authorities, and local people themselves, having real power over how their transport is planned and operated. For our railways, only through a nationally organised system can we ensure that all profits are ploughed straight back into the service, and that fares are kept down. And common ownership isn’t any longer some obsession of the left, 70% of the British public in a recent poll said they supported renationalisation of the railways. And who can blame then? Not only are privatised railways inefficient and undemocratic, but they’re expensive too, costing taxpayers £1.2 billion a year.

Transport is probably not going to be the decisive make or break policy decision for a voter at the next general election, but it does go to the heart of the future of public services in the UK, and how Labour will build a fairer society through them. Ultimately, it shows who a Labour government will be on the side of, the British people who are seeing bigger fares and worse services, or big business and cosy transport cabals who are focused only on making money. We know which side the Tories will be on, so let’s build a programme for government that sticks up for the whole country.


  • By Dan Jeffery