After weeks of intense pressure from the Labour right (and from some supposed to be on Labour’s left), Jeremy Corbyn has retreated on freedom of movement. In a speech on 10 January he said: “Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle... Labour supports fair rules and reasonably managed migration as part of the post-Brexit relationship with the EU”.
But the same day he told the BBC that he was not proposing new restrictions on the rights of people to move to the UK and does not think immigration is “too high”. In his speech Corbyn hinted that Labour might back freedom of movement as part of a deal to keep Britain in the EU “single market”:
“But nor can we afford to lose full access to the European markets on which so many British businesses and jobs depend. Changes to the way migration rules operate from the EU will be part of the negotiations”.
This is a weak political position: it has neither leverage to convince working-class voters currently hostile to migrant workers, nor capacity to placate them and hold them back from UKIP. Nevertheless, it keeps the issue open.
Despite a large majority vote for freedom of movement at the 3 December National Committee meeting of the Labour left organisation Momentum, Momentum has put out nothing, not even a press release, to support that freedom. Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott have been left alone, as individuals, to deal with the concerted push against freedom from the Labour right. Momentum members should demand Momentum speaks out now. The political retreat here is huge.
Solidarity supports open borders — freedom of movement for all workers. That principle may take some time to win. But the immediate issue here is about retaining a right of free movement for workers from neighbouring countries which has been in operation for 44 years (for the core EU countries), over 30 years (for Spain, Portugal, and Greece), or 13 years (for Poland and the Baltic states). The issue is not about how far we can push forward for freedom right now. It is about stopping a retreat to decades past.
A bold, clear campaign by Labour could win over, or at least win assent from, the majority. Almost certainly a majority for at least accepting freedom of movement for EU workers has already been won in London, which has by far the biggest concentration of EU migrants. London has high house prices and rents: but a majority understands that the answer is increased council house-building and rent controls, not the exclusion of immigrants from the EU (or, for that matter, of “immigrants” to London from elsewhere in the UK, though the fact that a quarter of all English university graduates are gathered in London six months after graduation surely creates market pressures pushing up housing costs).
The answer to strain on the NHS and other public services is to tax the rich. In fact, those services depend on migrants working to provide them, and on the fact that migrant workers, mostly young and fit, pay much more in taxes than they get in benefits and services. Jeremy Corbyn declared: “Labour will take action against undercutting of pay and conditions by closing down cheap labour loopholes, banning exclusive advertising of jobs abroad and strengthening workplace protections”.
Labour should strive for working-class unity to win social improvements and freedoms — unity between British-born workers; the 3.5 million EU-citizen workers already in the UK; their friends, families, and compatriots who wish to join them; and other migrant workers. Meanwhile, the Tories and the ruling class are in disarray, disarray that would give Labour great openings if only it had a bold policy.
Ivan Rogers, the British ambassador to the EU, resigned from his job on 3 January, saying that he did not know what the government’s “negotiating objectives” for Brexit would be, and urging his staff to “continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking”.
Theresa May said on 8 January that Britain would not retain “bits of EU membership”, a position which (if she understands what she is saying) excludes Britain remaining in the “single market” or even in the customs union.
It would mean Britain being more walled-off from the EU economically and socially than, for example, Turkey, or Albania. As the Financial Times commented (10 January), “markets [are] now concerned by Mrs May s lack of a clear plan”. And so are the millions of EU-citizen workers now under threat, and their workmates and friends.