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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Labour in the UK: chasing the votes of racists, and risking an election to do so

For the second time in less than a decade, the UK's once Left-wing political party, Labour, has made 'being tough on immigration' a central component of its campaign for a General Election. It risks losing the party the chance of governing, sets the UK back years in terms of attitudes to new arrivals to the country, and betrays a – surely deliberate – failure to grasp the solution to what the party's leader Keir Starmer paints as 'the problem': people smugglers.

Keir Starmer, the leader of the UK Opposition Party, Labour, yesterday (Thursday 14 September 2023) told Good Morning Britain (a breakfast 'news and discussion' TV show) that:


'There is no return to freedom of movement. We have left the EU. There’s no case for going back to the EU, no case for going into the single market or customs union, and no freedom of movement. I’ve been really clear that that’s the parameter.'


We should probably note for absolute clarity that there is of course a very good case for the UK rejoining the EU, which can be summed up as follows: look at the state of the UK since leaving the EU.


But this is not a piece about either the EU or the UK's place within it or otherwise, so for the purposes of this note, let's pretend there is no case.


Instead, let's begin by addressing Starmer's claim that: 'there is no return to freedom of movement'.


This is a genuinely dangerous and disheartening piece of misdirection, because, and we deliberately italicise this because of its import, The UK has never had a freedom of movement agreement with the EU. Or, indeed, with any other country or political bloc.


You cannot return to something that never existed.


And this statement is dangerous, as well as deeply dishonest, because the people in the UK who pretend there was a 'freedom of movement' agreement with the EU are racists, bigots and others who for whatever reason oppose immigration to the UK.


By helping to restate and give credibility to their claim that there was such an agreement, which there never was, Starmer is playing to and actively strengthening the arguments of racists, bigots and others who oppose immigration to the UK on grounds they claim not to be based upon, or a manifestation of, their inherent racism and bigotry.


Koraki does not exist, generally, to discuss the UK's present or past relationship with the EU, but it was important to begin – as Starmer did – with this statement.


Because he went on to talk about people arriving in the UK in small boats, saying:


'The first stage is, how do you work with police forces across countries to ensure that you stop people getting into the boats in the first place, and smash this vile trade.


'And that is about working here in Europol, working across Europe, to ensure that the criminals are brought down, that they are treated in the same way that we treat terrorists. So that’s stage one.'


What Starmer is talking about here is 'stopping people smugglers' (who are not, as we have noted many times, actually smugglers).


And what he said was very deliberately pitched to mislead, because the use of the term 'smash this vile trade' was designed to make people think not about 'people smuggling', but slave trading: the 'trade' Starmer and his speech-writers wanted the UK public to picture was not selling seats on small boats to people travelling to seek safe places to live, learn and work, but people trading in human beings, and human lives.


That was not an accident. Just as in the case of Starmer talking about a 'return' to 'freedom of movement', whether he thought of it himself, or was using a line developed by Labour's head office, the leader of the UK Opposition knows perfectly well that the language he used regarding 'people smuggling' was designed to equate people travelling by their own free will, with slaves being sold into slavery.


He did so because, if we lie about 'smugglers' and lie about the people being 'smuggled', we can do two things: first, we can pretend that the travel the latter undertake is in some way a crime (even if not necessarily one the people arriving have willingly committed) which 'can' and 'should' be punished, and second, we can remove any 'agency' from those people. We can pretend that they have not travelled to the UK because they wanted to reach the UK, but because they have been forced here. That makes it easier to justify stripping them of their legal rights and forcibly shipping them out of the country as if they were livestock.


In response to Starmer's comments, it is therefore important to make some clear and simple statements:


> travelling to another country is not illegal

> travelling to another country without paperwork is completely legal if one intends to apply for asylum on reaching one's destination country

> more than 87 per cent of the people who have arrived in the UK by small boat and other irregular means in the last six years, whose applications have been processed, have been granted asylum.

> they wanted to come, they were not forced to by 'smugglers'.

> it was their legal and human right to travel here

> the 'vile trade' you refer to exists solely because successive governments have broken international law to make regular travel to seek asylum virtually impossible: in the UK's case, completely impossible


Of course, when considering political statements, one must try to understand the context in which a politician is operating.


In the case of Starmer and the Labour Right, which he either leads or is being (increasingly-poorly) steered by, the desire is likely to be to 'appeal to' people regarding immigration, and 'taking a tough line' might seem to be the easiest way to do this.


But what he and they are doing is destined not only to (very likely) fail him and his party, but also to lead to further catastrophe for the UK and the level of its political awareness and conversation, as well as for men, women and children seeking safe places to live, learn and work.


On the topic of failure, we should note here that people whose opinion we admire and respect have already pointed out that Labour's 'immigration aspirations' are far better than those of the UK's governing Conservative Party, though we must note, as they also have, that as this is effectively because Labour actually proposes to have an asylum service with sufficient employees to process asylum applications, whereas the UK government has spent the last 13 years deliberately dismantling the system it inherited in order to manufacture a 'crisis' and pass illegal and despicable reactions to that crisis.


This is such a low bar that it barely registers as a bump in the road.


We are also willing to accept that Labour is, realistically, 'what there is', even though the Green Party is vastly superior to Labour on immigration and asylum policy. The sad fact is that the Green Party will almost absolutely certainly not win the next UK General Election. Labour might, and will be better than the Conservatives. While Labour cannot congratulate itself for that, it is a good reason at the very least for people to not vote Conservative.


But what Labour's Right, and Starmer by association or desire, seem not to recognise is just how far their chosen stance – to be 'as similar as possible' to the Conservatives on this and other issues – risks preventing Labour winning an election.


Because what people want from Labour is not 'more of the same' as the genuinely most Right-wing and despicable Tory administration since 1821, but an alternative to that.


People will simply not vote for you if you promise policies identical to those of the Tories, because:


1) their policies have led to the shambolic chaos that is the UK now, and

2) because why would anyone vote for a Labour party which has identical policies to the Tory party when they could just vote Tory or for one of the many tiny racist Right-wing parties the Tory party has stolen those policies from?


We are not here to predict the future, but we have seen this before. The last time Labour's Right controlled the party (rather than sabotaging it from within), in the run-up to the 2015 General Election, Labour campaigned on immigration with the slogan 'tougher than the Tories on immigration'.


It has become fashionable in recent years to pretend that Labour's electoral performance in the UK's 2019 General Election was its worst since the 1980s, or in some cases in the post-war era. But the truth is quite different. In 2019, Labour took 10.296m votes, 32.1 per cent of votes cast, and 21.6 per cent of the available vote.


In 2015, however, when Labour campaigned on a ticket of being at least as Right-wing as (and 'tougher on migration than') the Tories, it took just 9.347m votes, 30.4 per cent of votes cast and just 20.8 per cent of the available vote (the Green Party, not by coincidence, took more than a million votes, its best ever achievement in a UK General Election to this day).


So poorly did the Labour Party perform under this guise that the Conservative Party was able to form a majority government on only 24 per cent of the available vote.


Perhaps more important, however, is that Starmer and Labour's statements are likely to spell catastrophe for the UK and its political situation, and for those men, women and children travelling to the UK seeking safe places to live, learn and work.


Because what those statements have done is confirm to people in the UK that the country's two largest political parties are identical in attitude to immigration.


That immigration is negative and to be stamped out, and that doing so is in some way both desirable and legal.


Starmer and Labour have, with this statement, appeared to back and legitimise racists and bigots in their anti-immigration position, and in doing so made the UK an even more racist and bigoted state.


And it will take far longer to move the country back even to the position it was in before he spoke, let alone to a nation with a civilised attitude to refuge and immigration, than this shocking and disgusting statement took to write, let alone to regurgitate.


Nor does it end there. Because Starmer said he wants to treat 'people smugglers' as harshly as 'terrorists', to which the only possible response is… well, why?


How can such a statement, or idea, possibly be justified?


He cannot genuinely believe that 'people smugglers' are similar to 'terrorists'. They do not carry out acts of political violence, nor do they attempt to overthrow governments or bad policies (and by the way, by those two definitions the suffragettes in the UK, and the anti-Nazi resistance in France, Italy and Germany were all 'terrorists').


The people Starmer incorrectly refers to as 'smugglers' are often (not always, but often) bad people, or at least people who do not much care about what happens to people when they get on a boat (often they are people who need cash, and that's easier to come by in large-ish amounts by selling seats on boats than by alternative means, for reasons we shall note), but they are not 'terrorists' or anything like it, and to claim we should treat them as if they are is just incredible.


And again, Starmer has not done this by accident. He compared people who are not terrorists to terrorists, and said the law should treat them the same because people are scared of terrorists (that's the point of them. Or of the name applied to them, which is often not accurate) and think of them negatively, and wants people to think in the same way of 'people smugglers'.


But let's pretend that is not his aim. Let's pretend that Starmer (a former lawyer) cares about 'the law' (which he mentions) and genuinely believes that


a) 'smugglers' are awful people, and


b) we must, as a priority, 'deal with them' (he led with this, as opposed to, say, making the asylum system in the UK work again, rescuing it from the deliberate sabotage carried out against it by 13 years' of Tory misgovernance, albeit that as things stand, that is also a Labour policy)


If that is Starmer's priority, it can be achieved. But not in the way he proposes.


Because as we already noted, it is not illegal for people to travel, without paperwork, if their intention is to apply for asylum when they reach their destination country. In fact, it is the legal and human right of every person on Earth to do so.


We also noted that despite this, governments including those of the UK have worked extraordinarily hard to prevent anyone from travelling without paperwork.


This is done to deny people their legal and human rights, and to that extent it is at best in direct defiance of the law, if not actively illegal


(we should note here that the first and greatest pressure applied as part of this 'tactic' was against air traffic companies: governments lobbying them to deny people their right to travel to seek asylum was done deliberately to prevent people taking the most direct route to their desired destination, and governments then argue - entirely unfairly - that because people have been 'in' other countries, they must be sent back there: this, again, is a deliberate, cynical, deliberately misleading, disingenuous and deplorable act, designed not only to deny people their legal and human rights, but also to trick other people into thinking that there is somehow something legally or even morally wrong with people travelling to seek safe places to live, learn and work. Of course, there is not).


Then, with governments having closed all 'regular' routes, the sole means by which people can exercise their legal and human right to travel is on 'irregular' routes (those run by 'smugglers' and routinely, and deliberately incorrectly, referred to as 'illegal': never forget even for a moment, that on this matter, your government is lying to you, directly to you, to mislead you about the law).


And what this means is important. That:


1) so-called 'people smugglers', far from being equivalent to 'terrorists' are, because of the absolutely laughable and unacceptable system our politicians have created, the sole providers of the means by which people seeking safe places to live, learn and work are able to exercise their legal right to do so, and


2) this, in turn, means that 'people smugglers' are not the problem, however one feels about what they do: they are a symptom of the wider problem, the system politicians have deliberately created in which only smugglers provide a service to which every person on Earth is entitled by law, which is their right. Pretending we can 'prevent smuggling' or 'stop smugglers' by attacking them is simply to ignore (to pretend not to know) and refuse to engage with the cause of the problem. One cannot solve a problem one refuses to address


But what we can do is extraordinarily simple.


The system politicians have set up makes 'smugglers' absolutely necessary, as the sole means by which people seeking safe places to live, learn and work, can travel to find them.


As long as that remains the case, Starmer and his colleagues, in most parties in all countries, are effectively shovelling cash into the pockets of people Starmer pretends to believe are in some way the same, and as bad, as 'terrorists'.


But certainly, thousands of people have died by drowning (in particular, though in the Sahara and the mountains between Afghanistan and Türkiye, the reality is that thousands have also died on dry land) as a result of the actions of politicians to push people into the arms and pockets of 'smugglers'. It is certainly a problem, and must be addressed.


The way to do this: to put 'smugglers' out of business, and to reduce, really possibly to almost zero; is simply to provide transport, cheaply or for free, run on safe routes by governments or companies, to anyone who wants or needs to travel: no-one on Earth would deliberately seek out an extremely expensive and dangerous mode of transport when a well-regulated, safe, cheap or free one is available.


That's it. Almost no-one dies, and 'smugglers', who Starmer and others claim are as bad as terrorists, are removed from the equation.


If 'smugglers' are 'the problem' this is how we 'deal' with them. If they are not, it is time politicians stopped pretending that they are, and spoke honestly about their priorities.

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