Authoritarianism has always shaped how the Labour Party has approached social policy. The New Labour years were defined by ‘tough’ Home Secretaries choosing their next target to deride as anathema to British society; be it professors telling uncomfortable truths about drugs, or asylum seekers having the temerity to exist within our borders. Tony Blair even went so far as to describe Labour’s Freedom of Information legislation as the worst mistake he made as Prime Minister. While it is obviously ridiculous to argue that Labour’s 2019 incarnation is as authoritarian as New Labour was, authoritarianism still defines how the party approaches social policy.
Nothing encapsulates that relationship more than the phrase “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.” Charlie Falconer called it “the ultimate political sound bite. The perfect triangulation, providing all the benefits of sounding authoritarian and liberal at the same time.” It was effective, memorable and by design, popular. However, due to its paradoxical nature, identified by Falconer, it has since tainted Labour’s whole approach to social policy. The two best demonstrations of this are the party’s approaches to crime and immigration. On both, Labour manages to pass itself off as liberal while practising authoritarianism. This in turn fuels underdeveloped policies and an ultimately conservative approach to social policy.
The origins of this mentality go further than simple soundbites. New Labour did have some liberal aims, as illustrated in particular by first term policies such as Freedom of Information or the Human Rights Act. These advances, however, were swiftly eroded by the party repeatedly bowing to the cruel instincts of the tabloid press and of the many voters for whom no crackdown would ever be tough enough. Blair would even deride the Sentencing Guidelines Council that Labour itself had set up for being too liberal. This was the same council which had created 3600 new criminal offences and paved the way for prison populations to reach record levels.
This self-defeating authoritarian attitude was best exemplified in an anecdote told by David Blunkett on Matt Forde’s Political Party podcast. When asked if he minded being regarded as a “tough” Home Secretary, he replied the only problem he had was multiple people approaching him saying “I really like you as home secretary, but of course I’ll never vote for your party.” This was a man who had said asylum seekers should go home as they had “swamped” our schools and hospitals, and who constantly positioned himself in opposition to human rights organisations with regard to the treatment of asylum seekers. The Labour Party did all it could between 1997 and 2010 to demonstrate that it was “tough” on crime and immigration. This only served to harden the hearts of voters against asylum seekers, migrants and eventually Labour itself.
The party’s current immigration policy is marked by the same combination of liberal pretensions and authoritarian practices. When questioned by Andrew Marr on whether Labour would aim to keep Freedom of Movement (FoM) outside the EU, Corbyn replied “the level of movement would be open to negotiation with the EU” but in the next breath decried the right as “being used by employers to undercut existing working arrangements.” The 2017 manifesto said freedom of movement will end when we leave the EU, but Labour maintains they will “end the hostile environment.” This coupled with a pledge to recruit 500 more border police does not paint the picture of a leader or party taking an uncompromising stand for migrant rights. It is emblematic of a party willing to repeat liberal adages while strengthening the very institution causing untold misery to migrants in Britain.
This isn’t to say the Labour leadership are alone in their hostility to migration. You do not even have to look outside the party to find others who would throw migrants under the bus. In the wake of the referendum result Rachel Reeves called for the end of freedom of movement on the grounds her Leeds constituency was a “tinderbox” which would be set alight by riots if immigration was not curbed. Freedom of movement is something both wings of the Labour party are willing to surrender if it suits their perceived political objectives. Yvette Cooper’s 2013 speech on immigration demonstrates how little change there has been within the party in the past decade, with its tired focus on right-wing tropes such as alleged undercutting of wages. Behind that though is a call for serious strengthening of the Home Office’s already formidable reach, without any real criticism or even acknowledgement of the appalling treatment of migrants and asylum seekers by the Home Office. What Labour had “got wrong”, in Cooper and the Miliband leadership’s view, was not being even tougher on migrants when they had had the chance.
The famous call for “controls on immigration” that got Labour nowhere in the 2015 election is still being echoed by the current leadership today. The rhetoric may have softened, but without the greater protection that FoM affords EU migrants, Labour’s current policy is now effectively even less pro-migrant than under Miliband. Matt Bolton and Harry Pitts give this critique of the leadership’s approach in ‘Corbynism: A Critical Approach’:
“The Corbynist case against freedom of movement reduces the right to move in search of labour to an immediate expression of the abstract forces of global capital. A worker’s decision to move in search of work or a different life is seen not as an expression of real human action or desire, but solely as a Pavlovian response to capital’s demand for factors of production. Their ‘right’ to do so is seen only as a legal justification of the capacity for capital to move resources around the globe.”
The leadership does not view migrants as part of the working class; to them migrants only deserve defence once they exist within our borders. This attitude goes further than simply sounding liberal while practising authoritarianism. It gives cover to the bigots who claim immigrants are an economic burden on the country by their very existence in the labour market.
Instead of seeing FoM as a “necessary but insufficient step to a universal right to freedom, not an obstacle to be removed,” as Bolton and Pitts put it, Corbyn and his team oppose it on economic, rather than cultural, grounds. Without any clear structural reforms, such as abolishing the Home Office, those interested in protecting the rights of migrants will have to rely on the honourable intentions of a Corbyn government – and on those intentions winning out against the abhorrent institutional practices of the Home Office Labour intends to strengthen. And in the long term, Labour would be gambling that the removal of migrant rights would not simply strengthen anti-immigration sentiment, as has too often been the case in the past.
There is hope however, in the recent Momentum call for the abolition of migrant detention centres. Admittedly, this welcome proposal fails to truly engage with what this abolition would have to mean. Migrant detention a consequence of the concept of illegal immigration and the resultant need for immigrants to be detained and deported. Nothing but freedom of movement for all will result in migrant detention centres being abolished. The importance of the fact that this position is in diametric opposition to the Labour leadership’s current stance, as well as flying in the face of the reactionary instincts of many on the right of the party, should not be understated. This should not deter those interested in defending the rights of migrants. The political space to defend immigration exists:, Labour just isn’t occupying it.
If Labour’s approach to immigration is implicitly authoritarian, the party’s crime policy is explicitly authoritarian. Labour’s messaging that they will put ‘more bobbies on the beat’ (ten thousand in England and Wales to be precise) is inescapable. So inescapable that it was included in the party’s European Manifesto, despite being completely irrelevant to the purview of MEPs. Corbyn even went as far as to argue at the despatch box that police play “a vital role in community cohesion.” Even if he believes the police should play that role, it is a patently untrue statement for BAME communities and even more galling considering the revelations that there have been 1500 allegations of sexual abuse made against officers in England and Wales in a six-year period.
In a recent advert attacking the Tory record on policing, Theresa May’s is criticised on the basis that: “On [her] watch as Home Secretary, the number of armed police fell.” Though this hasn’t been reflected in either Labour’s European or 2017 manifesto, it does reflect the pervasive influence of opportunism on Labour’s current approach to crime, as Stephen Bush alluded to in his interview with this website, Labour’s policy is essentially presenting a right wing argument in left wing terms. Falling police numbers are explained as a negative consequence of austerity politics to be heroically reversed by a future Labour government, which will with one stroke remedy rising crime figures. This doesn’t reflect reality. Falling police numbers are far from the most influential factor in rising crime rates: cuts to social care and schools, cutting of early intervention programmes and lack of serious prison reform are much more significant factors, all of which have been the true consequences of the austerity of the Conservative and coalition governments.
Richard Garside, the director of crimeandjustice.org gave this critique of Labour’s policy on crime:
“The problem that besets contemporary policing is not that there are too few officers chasing too many criminals. It is that there are too many officers engaged in activities that have nothing to do with them. In little over a decade, the police presence in schools has gone from occasional to routine. It is just one example of a police mission creep that now touches virtually every area of public service. In hospitals and schools; social work and probation work; event stewarding and incident management; you will likely come across a man or woman with the power of arrest, doing a job that should be done by someone else, if it should be done at all.”
The fact that this obvious misdiagnosis is being enlisted in an attempt to win people over to anti-austerity messaging should worry those who want to see socially liberal policy enacted by a future Labour government. This opportunism reveals the leadership’s willingness to capitulate on once strongly-held values, which could pave the way for a kind of Blunkettism in sheep’s clothing infecting the party’s approach to social change. We do not need a repeat of the cycle where nominally left-wing politicians enter into government with liberal intentions, before swiftly tossing them aside in an endeavour to appease a group of voters who will never be truly satisfied by Labour’s toughness. Blunkett summed up the rationale behind New Labour being “tough on crime:
“Crime reduced by 50% and people felt safer, and when they feel safer and secure you can then try and open their minds, you can then have a conversation about why inward migration isn’t a disaster, why they should welcome change and difference – but you can’t do that while they’re absolutely up in arms about everything that’s going on around them.”
In Blunkett’s view Labour was tough on crime then tough on the causes of crime. He doesn’t mention the many asylum seekers he deliberately made feel unsafe and less secure in his analysis of how change is brought about. He doesn’t consider how he, more than any other Home Secretary of the New Labour years, is remembered for closing minds rather than opening them. Like Blunkett, Paul Mason recently advocated socially conservative policy as a trojan horse for achieving progressive goals. For Blunkett, being tough on crime (and asylum seekers) was somehow necessary to bring about a shift in attitudes to inward migration – a shift which, for a large section of the electorate, has yet to materialise. For Mason, it is to appease Leave voters if Labour were to switch to a more pro-Remain stance. In a recent article he argued that:
“Labour needs to fight personal insecurity, crime, drugs, antisocial behaviour and organised crime as enthusiastically as it fights racism…The reluctance to speak this language this is, I believe, what left Labour over-reliant on triangulating to accommodate the pro-Brexit views of some voters in these towns.”
When exactly Labour was not speaking this language is a mystery to anyone who has read any Labour manifesto of the past two decades. In Mason’s view the problem with Labour policy is that it is not authoritarian and conservative enough. Forgoing the pretence of liberalism in policy, as Mason suggests, might appeal to the more reactionary elements of the Labour right. However, the idea that the party can appeal to voters fundamentally opposed to its values by simply advocating current policy in more forthright terms does not stand up to scrutiny. Not least because the shift itself would be another triangulation, and as with New Labour, the party would still be regarded as insufficiency and insincerely authoritarian by all those it attempted to placate.
Reforming this deep rooted approach will be a herculean struggle, and in all probability a generational one. A change in leadership would be no panacea: reactionary approaches to crime and immigration can be found within all traditions of the party. The clock cannot simply be turned back to a time where the Labour party was not like this. What is needed is a sea change that confronts the contradiction at the heart of a Labour Party that, in all too many social policy areas, presents itself as liberal but practices authoritarianism.
The excellent policy proposals of Momentum should be welcomed and used as a foundation, with the end goal being a Labour Party which no longer promotes the kind of conservatism that would see it inflict cruelty on migrants while saying it would end the hostile environment. Policy must be rooted in left wing values, which do not advocate Labour getting tough on crime by recruiting more officers. Labour should unapologetically argue for freedom of movement for all, for more lenient sentencing, for fewer police officers and for funding increases in early intervention programmes and in social care, to ensure that police officers are only doing police work. The tougher Labour gets, the more voters it will drive away. If Labour fails to get into government with what’s seen as its most left wing leadership ever, people like Paul Mason, David Blunkett and Paul Embery will be waiting with a ready-made analysis of why it failed. This analysis would blame Labour’s electoral woes on its leaders practising authoritarianism insincerely. The answer is not to reluctantly maintain the status quo. It is to forge a new one based on liberal values.