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Why I am voting for Labour and Thangam Debbonaire

I am looking forward to voting Labour on 4 July. I live in the Bristol Central constituency and am fortunate to have Thangam Debbonaire as my local MP. I’m doubly pleased to be able to vote for a Labour government and for Thangam personally. She would be a brilliant Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and it is important her voice is one of those heard at the heart of government.

Voting for a Labour government

Starting with Labour, a lot of us are desperate to get rid of the Conservative government. The last 14 years have been awful. The austerity budgets and massive cuts to public services of the early years gave way to sheer chaos and incompetence after the Brexit referendum.

More positively, a Labour government can and will effect real, positive change. Regular readers will know that I work in the field of immigration and asylum law and I generally stay in my lane online. It’s not the only thing in which I’m interested, though. In education, health, housing, energy, transport, taxation, growth, planning reform, relations with the EU, foreign policy and more, Labour is committed to implementing achievable, progressive reforms that will make a real difference to ordinary people’s lives.

Labour’s past record

The last Labour government did huge good. So too can the next one.

Returning to my lane, lawful immigration was viewed as a positive good for the first time. The country opened up to the world in a positive way. The totally dysfunctional asylum system inherited in 1997 was fundamentally reformed and public confidence eventually restored. Yes, that meant secure borders and removing failed asylum seekers. That’s what a functioning asylum system looks like. Meanwhile, low-key regularisation programs helped tens of thousands settle down, build lives here and contribute what they could.

Of course more could have been done, mistakes were made and, especially towards the end of their period in power, there was some pretty awful rhetoric. But contrast that with the extended hostile environment, the cruel family immigration rules and the Rwanda scheme that have since been implemented. The last Labour government fundamentally changed Britain for the better.

Labour’s future promise

There’s not a lot of detail on immigration and asylum issues in Labour’s manifesto. I’m fine with that. A manifesto should be a set of values and principles, not a detailed list of policies. An opposition party has no access to the civil service and no crystal ball to foresee future finances and circumstances. And any party that aspires to form a government has to be a broad church. It has to appeal to a coalition of voters across the political spectrum. Permanently small, minor parties like the Lib Dems and the Greens can afford to appeal to narrow segments of the electorate. Labour cannot. Its policies in opposition and in government have to be mixed. That’s democracy. It’s getting some of what you personally want. But not all of it.

Labour want to secure the borders and reduce channel crossings. That’s something everyone other than outright open border advocates can agree on. And it is a prerequisite for winning any British election, now or in the future. The Rwanda scheme will be scrapped. The asylum backlog will be eliminated, ending the prolonged purgatory for refugees themselves and the huge expense to the taxpayer. Returns of failed asylum seekers will be better resourced and reformed. That’s not something many people on the left relish but it is part of a functioning asylum system. It’s also something in the control of the government, unlike channel crossings.

On the wider immigration system, Labour is committed to reducing net migration. That’s going to happen anyway over the next few months if current policies are maintained. I am liberal on immigration but even I recognise that inward migration has been astonishingly high. Inward migration was 1.2 million in 2023, which included over 420,000 workers and their dependents. That’s a lot of people. Future migration will need to be higher than back in the 1990s for all sorts of structural reasons. But recruiting migrants from abroad because of gross underfunding of social care, public services and universities is not, in my view, a virtue. Labour is committed to implementing a meaningful skills policy, which is a good start.

The manifesto also touches on something I think is very important: enforcing labour market rules. I’m heartily sick of the current lot complaining of “abuse” of the immigration system when people make applications and are granted visas to which they are entitled under the rules. And then turning an entirely blind eye to those people being exploited and abused by employers. Better, more thoughtful, less frequently chopped and changed visa rules are needed as is better enforcement against employers as opposed to migrants.

There will be good people in the next Labour government who are in politics for the right reasons. I’m not going to like absolutely everything they do. No-one will. And they’re not simply going to scrap most of the immigration laws and policies they inherit, with the prominent and very important exception of the Rwanda scheme. But I trust Labour to implement better, more balanced immigration and asylum policies and to treat migrants who come here with more respect and more humanity than we’ve seen these last 14 years.

Voting for Thangam Debbonaire

On the subject of good people who are in it for the right reasons, I’m so pleased to be able to cast my ballot for Thangam personally. She has been the local MP here since 2015. During that time she has been an unstinting supporter of Bristol Refugee Rights. She ran the London marathon for them in 2024, for example. She and her team have undertaken huge amounts of casework for refugees, victims of the Windrush scandal and others affected by harsh immigration rules. I first met her when she organised a local Windrush event for affected local residents soon after the scandal first broke.

Thangam is genuinely inspiring. Before parliament she was a professional cellist and then worked for Women’s Aid on ending domestic violence. She literally wrote a book on child protection and domestic violence. She is one of relatively few women of colour in parliament. And I confess that as both law geek and purveyor of puns I’m not immune to being impressed by the fact she’s one part of the parliamentary string quartet, the brilliantly named Statutory Instruments.

She absolutely has what Denis Healey called a ‘hinterland’. Maybe not quite the sort he had in mind though. Check out the lovely profile of her in the Times recently:

Debbonaire’s tastes are almost as eclectic as her dress sense (bucket hats, kooky vintage suits and a prominent tattoo on her inside left arm that reads: “Love is the revolutionary energy that annihilates the shadows and collapses this distance between us,” a line from a Robert Montgomery poem). She’s a fan of Nancy Mitford novels, reggae clubs, the French author Annie Ernaux, Madonna and the broad humour of Ted Lasso. She rhapsodises about dancing on podiums to techno music: “I lived in Manchester in the 1980s and loved the Haçienda.” But hardly anyone knows that Debbonaire is also related to the Bristol drum’n’bass musician Roni Size — she is aunt to two of his children via her first marriage. “I remember seeing him play in Bristol in 1997 just after he won the Mercury music prize,” she says. “I was with [his] boys and they were transfixed watching everyone screaming for their dad.”

She was chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees for three years while a backbencher. She knows her stuff on asylum policy. Since then she has held positions in the Labour parliamentary party as a whip, housing policy lead, Shadow Leader of the House of Commons and now as Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. She’s been strong on the awful situation in Gaza and was one of those who tabled the motion for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire that was passed by the House of Commons back in February.

Give the chance, she’d be a brilliant culture secretary and cabinet minister. She’s incredibly talented and those talents have been recognised by successive Labour Party leaderships.

Despite all that, the Green Party is campaigning hard to dislodge her. There is a possibility that instead of having Thangam’s voice at the cabinet table, in charge of a massively important area of policy — for we must have bread, but we must have roses too — we’ll end up with someone shouting from the sidelines with no possibility of influencing anything, ever.

Opposition is awful. Powerlessness is appalling. All you can do is watch and complain. I’m tired of that. The idea that replacing a progressive, talented insider like Thangam with a Green MP who lacks any influence or power over anything will somehow make anything better is make-believe. That’s why I want a Labour government and I want Thangam in it. I admire and respect her. She’s sound. She gets it. She’ll be great. If she gets the chance.

I’ll leave you with the famous poem that James Oppenheimer wrote in 1911 based on the ‘bread and roses’ phrase first attributed to Helen Todd a year earlier. As Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Thangam would bring the roses.

Bread and Roses

As we come marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill-lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing, “Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.”

As we come marching, marching, we battle, too, for men—
For they are women’s children and we mother them again.
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes—
Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us Bread, but give us Roses.

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient song of Bread;
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew—
Yes, it is Bread we fight for—but we fight for Roses, too.

As we come marching, marching, we bring the Greater Days—
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler—ten that toil where one reposes—
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.

—  James Oppenheim, 1911.
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Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.


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