Free movement: a self-inflicted wound that will fester unless we act

18 January 2017

JEREMY CORBYN kicked off 2017 by announcing that Labour was not committed “in principle” to defending freedom of movement for workers within the European Union. This major retreat represents an attempt to reposition Labour as a pro-Brexit party, despite the fact that 65 per cent of Labour voters and an overwhelming majority of members oppose leaving the EU.

The relentless pressure on Corbyn from Labour MPs and trade union leaders to “listen to people’s concerns about immigration” is motivated by the belief that opposition to Brexit and defence of free movement would be electorally disastrous for Labour.

Since reducing immigration was the principal motivation for voting to Leave, the conclusion now drawn by many on the left as well as on the right is that Jeremy must wake up and smell the coffee in Ed Miliband’s ‘controls on immigration’ mug.

Whether the stated motivation is to protect British workers’ wages or their culture, the end result is the same; a race down the bottomless pit of English chauvinism under the banner of British jobs for British workers.

Corbyn attempted to give this retreat a trade union gloss by suggesting immigration controls are needed to prevent employers using migrant labour to undercut wages. But in conceding the myth that migrants are to blame for low wages, unemployment and failing public services, something he rejected on several occasions in the autumn, Corbyn has now paved the way for Labour MPs to demand increasingly stringent anti-migrant measures.

A taste of what is to come can be judged from a report on “social integration” published by a group of MPs chaired by Chuka Umunna: all migrants should be required to speak English, regions should be given the right to issue or deny visas and the government should launch a strategy for “the integration of immigrants that includes issues such as access to the labour market, awareness of the UK’s laws, traditions and culture”.

According to the 2011 Census, just 0.3 per cent of the population speaks no English at all and 1.3 per cent said they could not speak English well. The borough of Newham, where 40 per cent don’t speak English as their first language, and well over half of the population were born abroad voted by 55 per cent to Remain in the referendum. These figures expose the demand for compulsory English lessons for what it is – a ploy to appear tough on migrants by retailing a vicious racist myth.

The demand for devolving control for visas to regions is more dangerous. Since migrants don’t move in large numbers to high-unemployment areas, devolved control of visas would do nothing to address underlying economic problems but instead serve as a political football fostering discrimination if not outright racism in areas where misdirected prejudice is on the rise.

The right wing of the Labour Party has always argued for the party to put British workers first. The recrudescence of a virulent ‘Blue Labour’ streak post-Brexit was an entirely predictable phenomenon which ought to have been categorically rejected by the membership.

Unfortunately Corbyn’s strategy of negotiation and compromise with his opponents, since Liverpool  has left the members watching with dismay from the sidelines, whilst the right extract ever more concessions from him. The spectre of an imminent General Election was deployed to justify shelving plans to democratise party policy-making and demobilise the pressure to make Corbyn’s own policies official.

The result was the isolation of Corbyn and the few MPs like Diane Abbott and David Lammy who maintained a principled defence of free movement, while the right wing tightened the noose. Jamie Reed, MP for Copeland forced the issue by resigning and triggering a by-election. Tristram Hunt followed suit, making a capitulation to pro-Brexit and anti-migrant positions inevitable.

But this was not inevitable. Corbyn’s opponents should be expected to act in an unscrupulous and treacherous manner; they are happy to attack migrants in order to win elections and prepared to lose elections if that advances their principle goal – removing Corbyn as leader.

The most serious problem has been the corrosive behaviour of Corbyn’s ‘left allies’. Instead of rallying support for Jeremy, Momentum’s leader Jon Lansman and media personalities Owen Jones and Paul Mason launched a diversionary witch-hunt against so-called “Trotskyist saboteurs”. John McDonnell has been calling for a ‘People’s Brexit’, while shadow cabinet ministers have been publicly undermining and contradicting Corbyn at every turn.

Left critics 

The repetition of myths by MPs like Clive Lewis who claimed free movement “hasn’t worked” for millions of Britons, or Emily Thornberry who recycled the myth that EU migrants depress wages, is part of an attempt to present the Labour Party as an organisation that stands up for workers because they are British, rather than as workers who face the common problem of exploitation and declining living standards, regardless of nationality.

Len McCluskey, a reluctant but strategically important supporter of Corbyn as general secretary of Britain’s largest union, Unite, piled on the pressure, asserting “workers have always done best when the labour supply is controlled and communities are stable”. This dog-whistling is a nasty backwash of the arguments trade unions used as late as the 1970s to try to stop Irish, Black or women workers entering the workforce.

The repentant ex-Trotskyist pundit Paul Mason has called for, “a significant, temporary retreat from freedom of movement. That means – and my colleagues on the left need to accept this – that the British people, in effect, will have changed Labour’s position on immigration from below, by plebiscite.”

For good measure he also advocates a policy championed by the likes of Stephen Kinnock and Emma Reynolds, “Labour needs to design a proposal that permits and encourages high beneficial migration, discourages and mitigates the impact of low-wage migration.” Effectively this means Britain should import skilled workers trained abroad, reducing competition for low-paid, unskilled jobs to be picked up by British workers.

What Mason is effectively saying is that there is no point in opposing the idea that immigration is to blame for unemployment, low wages or pressure or pressure on public services. Instead of exposing the lies promoted by racists and the ruling class and doing the hard work of building a movement based on the principle of working class solidarity, Labour should simply accept that some workers are prejudiced against migrants and give them what they want.

This approach, which is as patronising as it is unprincipled, simply abandons whole swathes of our class to reactionary Tory prejudices, instead of respecting them enough to tell them they are wrong and that class unity is the only way to overcome their problems. There is no evidence that adopting a tough line on immigration – and taking Labour’s real heartland in the multi-ethnic and ‘integrated’ cities for granted – will do anything except encourage unsympathetic workers to think Ukip were right all along.

Corbyn’s future

Though Jeremy continues to repeat the statement that he personally does not believe immigration is too high and that migrant workers do essential and valuable jobs, he is providing left cover whilst the shadow cabinet and MPs plunge the party into a xenophobic cesspit hunting for electoral credibility.

His statement that freedom of movement is not a principle but rather a matter of negotiation turns the rights of migrants’ into a bargaining chip, in a contest in which no side is willing to defend them. Given this, how much confidence can we have in a future Labour government to protect migrant workers?

For socialists, who believe that workers have more in common with our sisters and brothers in other countries than the exploiter class that shares our nationality, freedom of movement is a principle. It is a principle that ought to be defended more intransigently than ever at a time when European workers are under attack and being scapegoated for the problems caused by our own government’s policies.

We need to be clear that this retreat is only the thin end of the wedge. Having been forced to abandon a position that he recently courageously defended, Corbyn has been weakened, and his enemies strengthened; if he persists in this retreat it will fatally undermine his support and indeed his own leadership of the Party.

Worse, it has been a defeat organised from within the Leader’s office, in which the members have been assigned the role of passive observers. What else will he or his advisors decide is not a principle? As the retreat over opposition to nuclear power in Copeland shows, the right will now attempt to make Corbyn abandon the rest of his principles.

Before they go in for the kill they will turn Corbyn into an ornamental bauble who leads his supporters into confusion, demoralisation and, eventually, defeat. If his advisors persist in the idea of turning him into a populist demagogue they will turn him into a figure of fun for the media and the PLP right.

Accommodation to the PLP majority and a minority of pro-Brexit Labour voters and members will wreck any Corbyn renewal of the party. It will drive away the new members, probably as fast as they came. Then, and we can we can predict this with absolute certainty, the right will come for Corbyn himself. That is what is at stake, and it is why we must resist this retreat with all our strength.


In order to prevent this outcome, we need to start by opposing the capitulation to Brexit and rallying support for a socialist alternative.

The idea that making limited concessions on immigration now will allow Labour to consolidate its position is the political equivalent of drinking salt water. Unpleasant in small doses, it invariably proves fatal in large.

Whatever the justifications used, if Labour starts to parrot the idea that migrants are to blame for the problems in society, it will lend credibility to the Tories and Ukip, give confidence to racists and fuel a thirst it can never quench.

It is not possible for Labour to compete with the Tories or Ukip on the question of immigration. If Labour moves to the right, it will alienate its base in the cities and amongst young people.

But instead of ignoring the issue, or punting diluted Tory policies into their own goal, Labour should commit to exposing the lies about migrants and explaining the real origins of the problems people face: the systematic exploitation of workers, the uneven distribution of wealth, and the monopolisation of production by a class that produces for profit, not public good.

In areas where hostility to immigration is high, Labour should funnel resources into a campaign offering a practical alternative. Instead of promising to reduce immigration, which will do nothing to solve the problem anyway, we should offer a Labour government that will tax the rich and plan the economy to invest in homes, health, education and the environment, creating well paid jobs for all those in Britain and more besides.

This has advantage of providing an ambition that all workers, in every region and of any nationality can share. If there remain people whose prejudices are so ingrained, or simply racist that they can’t be convinced then so be it. They will be outnumbered and rendered insignificant by the collective strength of a labour movement aware of its own class interests and armed with a strategy to fight for them.

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