Politics & Economics

The Working Class supports free movement, Labour must too

08 April 2019

By Rebecca Anderson and Rob Schofield

During Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, Theresa May spoke positively about Brexit talks with Corbyn and the “number of areas on which we agree”, even suggesting the end of free movement as one such common goal.

In an interview Corbyn also used a conciliatory tone saying, “There is far more that unites people on both sides about the kind of society we can be than divides them”. Shortly after PMQs a spokesperson confirmed Labour was committed to ending free movement and supported “fair and reasonable management of migration”.

This is something of a U-turn from last Monday’s decision which saw Labour back ‘Common Market 2.0’ in indicative votes in the commons, which would lead the UK to retain freedom of movement with the EU.

In response to Labour appearing to back free movement in the House of Commons, Paul Embery, Fire Brigade’s Union Executive Council member and self-professed “Blue-Labourite” who spoke alongside Nigel Farage at the Leave Means Leave rally on 29th March, took to twitter to say this:

“Labour comes out in favour of keeping free movement – an utter betrayal of traditional working-class people, the majority of whom oppose it and voted to end it in the referendum. The party will pay a heavy, but deserved, price for this at the ballot box.”

Paul Embery speaking at Nigel Farage’s Leave Means Leave demo on 29th March

Embery’s comments are a result of a narrow strain of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy who have sought to pander to the “legitimate concerns” of racists. This is a fundamental ingredient of the ‘Lexit’ ideology which believes ending free movement is in the interest of the working class, and that “traditional” (read – white) working class people will abandon Labour if they do not do so.

But what do the working class really think about free movement within the EU?

In November last year Survation, who were the most accurate polling company in predicting the 2017 General Election result, published a survey on the Brexit attitudes of 20,000 people in the UK, one of the biggest surveys of its kind to date.

In one question respondents were asked, if it was a prerequisite to making a deal, should we agree “UK and EU citizens who wished to do so, could live and work in each other’s countries”, which is a description of EU freedom of movement as it currently stands. It was supported by a strong majority of 63%, with 20% opposed.

Low-paid working class people on less than £20,000 a year also supported a free movement deal 58% to 20%. In fact, across a wide range of demographics: income, education level, employment status, age and ethnicity all supported the policy by firm majorities, even leave voters. The only demographic Survation could find where more were opposed to a free movement deal than were in favour? UKIP voters.

The term ‘freedom of movement’ – almost as much as the term “immigration” itself –  has been fatally poisoned after a relentless campaign by the right-wing press to scapegoat migrants for the effects of Tory austerity. But by describing it in frank, transparent language ie. the ability to “live and work in each other’s countries”, the majority of people recognise it as a fundamental right they support.

The structure of the question also highlights the ever-forgotten 1.3 million UK citizens living and working in the EU. There is a clear double-standard in political discourse on free movement, British people moving to the EU are “ex-pats” whilst EU citizens moving to the UK are “migrants”. This is a colonial hangover from the days of empire, and seeks to paint free movement as a one-way system into the UK, when this is far from the case.


Politicians and the mainstream press take it for granted that the public are wholly opposed to the concept of freedom of movement, especially white, working class voters. But such assumptions, often based on a conception of public opinion as permanent and immovable like concrete, are usually wrong.

Despite pressure from the Labour left, during Ed Miliband’s leadership he failed to support the abolition of tuition fees, instead pledging a weak reform of reducing fees to £6000 a year. And yet Corbyn has made a bold, unapologetic case for free tuition, putting forward a more radical policy and leading public opinion instead of following it.

Unfortunately, Corbyn has not found the courage to apply the same logic to free movement, conceding that it would end in 2017, in part due to pressure from sections of the labour bureaucracy.

The anti-immigration ‘Lexiteers’ seize upon the idea that migration is good for capitalism and insist it follows that ending free movement must be good for the working class. Never mind that “managed migration” means any migrant worker who stands up for their rights and those of their colleagues risks deportation if dismissed. Never mind that it’s far easier to pay someone less than the minimum wage or deny them their holiday pay if their immigration status depends on your good graces.

The other Lexit camp support free movement for all workers, globally, but bizarrely argue that the way to achieve this is by scrapping what little free movement we have within the EU.

Lexiteers and the Labour leadership have the same problem – they believe that the British working class is so opposed to free movement that they must give a left-wing veneer to racism rather than challenge it if they are to get a hearing.

And so the Labour leadership adopts the Blairite logic of its predecessors, resorting to an electoral strategy of triangulation with its policy of “fair and reasonable management of migration” – which amounts to Ed Miliband’s “strong controls on immigration” mug with a Corbyn 4 PM sticker slapped on.

The Survation poll demonstrates how shallow opposition to free movement actually is, but this should be no endorsement of Labour’s recent manoeuvring towards a Common Market 2.0/Norway-style deal which would include free movement. Even if Labour came out in full-throated support behind such a deal, it would be a ridiculous course to take, excluding the UK from what little democratic processes the EU has whilst continuing to make payments, amounting to ‘taxation without representation’.

We know that there is near-universal majority support for free movement if the UK were made to accept it in Brexit negotiation, and since immigration was the key driving force behind the Brexit project, that means the case for delivering Brexit at all evaporates. Now Labour must take a principled stance, defending existing free movement within the EU and also fighting for it to go further.


The UK ruling class have always been fully committed to free movement in the EU for the same reasons that the EU is committed to it – for the bosses it makes good business sense to have a larger pool of workers. But all those years of immigrant-bashing for votes and failing to challenge anti-immigrant narratives meant that free movement was the totemic issue of the Brexit referendum.

Liberal remain arguments were too focussed on the benefits of migrants as if they were a commodity. Whilst it is important to note the huge numbers of foreign-born workers that keep our NHS and social care system functioning, socialists should not reduce free movement to a net profit on a balance sheet.

For socialists, the working class has no borders and linking up our struggles across nations is an absolute necessity. However limited and flawed EU freedom of movement is, scrapping it would entail the biggest increase in border controls this country has seen in decades. To advocate for the end of freedom of movement is to advocate for more border control guards, more restrictions on the international working class, more nationalist isolation and misery. Instead we must fight to defend and extend it.

It is impossible to out-Tory the Tories on the issue of immigration. More than ever the goal must be to stay and struggle for international socialism within the EU and beyond, instead of supporting Brexit and pandering to UKIP voters.

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