I’ve just been listening to Keir Starmer on BBC World At One talking about Labour’s position on Brexit. It seems that he is clinging to the view that an end to freedom of movement must be part of that package. It is ironic that this view is being maintained in the face of the fact that Labour’s advance was secured by young voters who think that the right to move freely across borders is a very good thing.
It would be helpful if Labour reviewed the new facts that form the political landscape as of this moment in time. I think there are three elements to this:
1. The polls are showing that anti-immigrant standpoints are ceasing to have a role in mobilising opposition moods in the way they had been at other times during the past decade. This is not to say that racism/xenophobia has retired from the scene; rather that the national political mood no longer pivots around these attitudes in quite the same way as it has been doing in the recent past.
2. The long, hard look at the UK economy made necessary after the Brexit vote has helped make the case that workers exercising free movement rights have have helped the sustain a degree of buoyancy as well as the viability of crucial public services. Media reports have been full of stories about threats to UK-based companies, the NHS, the education sector, social care, construction, food industries, hospitality, creative industries, etc, etc if freedom of movement is allowed to go down the pan. Labour ought to be a part of the learning curve which the rest of British society is clearly on, and not stand out against it.
3. Nobody in politics or around the social policy industry has the faintest idea on how a UK immigration policy which meets the needs of the UK economy (to say nothing of being all-square with human rights obligations) would operate. The Home Office continues to operate well below par in terms of functional efficiency even in terms of current responsibilities which are limited to the control of so-called third country nationals. Extending its remit to the millions of EU nationals who cross UK borders promises administrative chaos that would feed into the way our labour and housing markets operate – already burdened with the task of checking immigration status – and also important public services like health and education. Whoever speaks for the Labour home affairs brief in the next Parliament should be asking the most searching questions as to whether an efficient system of control over migration which excludes the principle of a right of free movement is even theoretically possible.
These are powerful arguments for the Labour Party to fundamentally review its current stance, and start finding more opportunities to say that the loss of free movements rights would make it harder to achieve its principal requirement from Brexit – which is that it should be ‘jobs friendly’. It should look to the moods that are dominant among the millennials to amplify this message and work to strengthen the message that a rights-based freedom of movement can continue to exist even after the UK has left the EU.