The Labour Party, free movement and Brexit

Labour needs to resist its drift toward a more ambivalent position on free movement.

Owen Parker
10 December 2016

Labour MPs Jeremy Corbyn, Tom Watson, and Angela Eagle campaigning for Remain in June 2016. Frank Augstein/Press Association. All rights reserved.

How the Labour party aligns on the issue of free movement could have huge consequence for the direction of future Brexit negotiations. Following the British High Court decision on 3 November, it looks likely that parliament will enjoy a greater role than envisaged by the government in establishing the negotiating terms for Brexit. If Labour were to unambiguously support the status quo on free movement it could – along with willing partners – form a coalition to avert the current direction of travel towards a so-called hard Brexit (as many of its MPs would like to do). More important for the purposes of this intervention, it would ensure the maintenance of the status quo on free movement itself. From a progressive position, this should not be regarded simply as the price to be paid for single market access – as it is currently portrayed even by many pro-Europeans – but as one of the major achievements of European integration that should be preserved for its own sake.

Unfortunately, towards the end of the referendum campaign in June 2016 we saw a number of pro-Remain Labour heavyweights such as Tom Watson and Yvette Cooper suggest a need to reform free movement. In the aftermath many pro-European Labour MPs, including Rachel Reeve, Stephen Kinnock, Emma Reynolds, Keir Starmer and Chuka Umunna – individuals who we would expect to be most determined to preserve single market access for the UK in any Brexit deal – have followed suit, apparently prioritising restrictions on free movement and suggesting that to not do so would be to “hold the voters in contempt”.

As for Corbyn and his closest allies in the party, they first appeared to support the status quo on free movement, and following the high court’s decision Corbyn initially implied that Labour could block the triggering of Article 50 in the event that the government did not prioritise single market access (and presumably concede some ground on free movement). However, Corbyn swiftly reneged on those latter comments and it has been reported that he and his allies may currently be preparing to align with their more circumspect colleagues on free movement.

Split mind on immigration

Labour has long been divided on immigration, and even before 2016 many had lamented the decision by the New Labour government to open UK labour markets to citizens of the new member states following the 2004 ‘big-bang’ enlargement. Though the estimates of the numbers that would come to the UK were not as far out as widely reported, those numbers were certainly significant. For growing numbers in the Labour party the decision is regarded as a spectacular ‘policy failure’.

For growing numbers in the Labour party, the 2004 decision to open UK labour markets to new EU countries is regarded as a spectacular ‘policy failure’.

Significantly aided and abetted of course by the 2007 recession, this failure is understood as laying the foundations for the party’s electoral demise and for the outcome of the 2016 referendum. Many in the party watched on as both the coalition government’s efforts to delimit the rights of EU citizens to claim benefits – following the highly politicised opening of labour markets to Romanians and Bulgarians in 2013 – and former prime minister David Cameron’s partially successful renegotiation of the terms of the UK’s relationship on free movement in early 2016, failed to defuse the issue.

During the referendum campaign in 2016, the Leave campaign’s core and highly effective trope – the need to ‘take back control’ – was presented to and perceived by many voters (including traditional Labour supporters) as most real and urgent in relation to the question of free movement. To the extent that this story is true, it is little wonder that the Labour party has begun to question its official support for the principle of free movement.

The progressive’s dilemma

At the heart of this UK-centric debate in the Labour party sits a broader dilemma – the so-called ‘progressive’s dilemma’ – that has been the object of significant theoretical and empirical debate among academics across a range of social science disciplines. The dilemma suggests that there is a trade-off between, on the one hand, permissive immigration regimes and the high levels of diversity that they deliver and, on the other hand, labour and welfare rights that require trust and solidarity that can only be achieved in a delimited and cohesive (usually national) community.

From this perspective, EU citizenship and the right to free moment that it entails makes the EU more ‘human’ but less ‘social’. The Labour party can be understood as caught on the horns of this dilemma. The New Labour proponents of the 2004 opening focused on the human (and economic) benefits of such mobility, but this was at the expense of developing better-protected labour markets and more substantive welfare settlements.

Conversely, those that are now intent on ameliorating the economic trauma inflicted in Labour’s heartlands over the past decade present this as logically entailing the overhauling of a free movement regime that currently (to a large extent at least) outlaws discrimination between nationals and non-nationals. Those who suggest that we can manoeuvre between the horns of this dilemma and combine free movement with stronger labour market and social protections in the UK – as Corbyn seemed to initially do following the referendum result – are, from this perspective, wrong and called out for their naive “cosmopolitanism and utopian egalitarianism” (as former Labour leader Ed Miliband’s former pollster James Morris recently put it).

Is the trade-off between human diversity and social benefits real?

But is a reconciliation of the human and social truly utopian in the context of free movement? In other words, is the trade-off between human and social implied by the dilemma real? In a sense, this depends on what we mean by real. To the extent that many people believe it is real, it has become real. In the UK, growing inward migration from the EU has, since the mid-2000s, broadly correlated with recent government cuts to welfare and decreasing labour standards. Many certainly believe that the former is an important cause of the latter. This, in turn, has been sufficient to drive attempts to discriminate against non-national EU citizens as much as possible within a context of legal uncertainty; for instance the aforementioned moves by the coalition government to restrict welfare access.

Sorting data from perception

However, correlation does not imply causation, and evidence of the latter is sorely lacking. On the contrary, such migration has brought significant overall net economic benefits. There is no evidence of benefit tourism and no general effects on pay or employment rates even at the lower end of the wage scale. Notably, even an advisor to Cameron acknowledged in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum that, “we failed to find any evidence of communities under pressure … [I]t was clear that immigration is at best just one of several factors that are putting pressure on public services, along with globalization, deindustrialization, automation and aging populations”.

This assertion aligns with expert opinion that points to the far more significant effects of the ‘Great Recession’ and suggests that immigration may actually have offset those effects to some extent. A lack of macro-level, causal evidence is not to suggest there has been no tangible effects on public services in certain locales at certain moments in time since 2004. As Corbyn has suggested, the migration impact funds – abolished by the coalition government in 2010 – could and should be reintroduced. But the substantial and widespread hostility to the status quo on free movement is rooted not in the material realities of a progressive dilemma at work, but in widespread tabloid myth-making – itself a driver of a long-term hostility to both the EU and immigration – that in recent years has been endorsed rather than challenged not only by UKIP, but by the political class across the spectrum.

To endorse policies that unnecessarily draw new lines between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ on national(ist) lines is to risk legitimating a post-Brexit ethno-nationalist turn that deflects from the underlying causes.

If the progressive’s dilemma is myth rather than reality with respect to free movement in the UK, then what should the Labour party do? While in a ‘post-truth’ context it may seem electorally expedient to be seen to accept that popular myth, this is to ignore the potential electoral losses from such a position in terms of alienating pro-EU constituencies; both those who support free movement per se and those who – while ambivalent on freedom of movement – would at this juncture prioritise ‘soft’ Brexit.

More importantly for the purposes of this argument, to endorse policies that unnecessarily draw new lines between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ on national(ist) lines is to risk legitimating a post-Brexit ethno-nationalist turn that deflects from the underlying causes of economic deprivation and discontent (that even a Cameron advisor has acknowledged!). The evidence suggests that it is in fact far from utopian to suggest that the free movement regime could be sustained alongside attempts to address those deeper causes and promote greater social and economic rights. In the context of rising populism it is more important than ever that the Labour party makes a case for the evidence, refuses the terms of the progressive’s dilemma, and strives for a politics that is both human and social.

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