Interviewed by ITV on 15 May, Jeremy Corbyn said that Brexit means the free movement of citizens between the UK and the EU is going to end, even if Labour wins the election. In January Corbyn had said much the same, only later to retract, saying that he was not proposing new restrictions on the rights of people to move to the UK. At that time he hinted that free movement would be part of a negotiation to keep the UK in the single market. No such clarification now.
Although Labour’s shadow Brexit Secretary Kier Starmer has given a commitment that Labour would “unilaterally guarantee” the existing rights of EU citizens in the UK if elected, it is extremely disappointing that a stronger commitment — to keep the borders with the EU open and to continue freedom of movement — is off Corbyn’s agenda. In any case Starmer’s commitment is the one Tories have recently accepted.
In part Corbyn’s latest statement is a further retreat from fighting Brexit and from being clear that the UK should be closely integrated into the EU. That too is disappointing. In part Corbyn was aligning himself with Labour’s manifesto commitments on immigration. That uses the formula which Corbyn has been repeating for some time — that Labour will apply “fair rules and reasonable management” on immigration.
Although Labour’s manifesto condemns Tory scapegoating of migrants, says migrant workers make a valuable contribution to the UK’s economy, and deplores the growth of hate crime, neither this, nor the “mother and apple pie” approach of “fairness and reasonableness”, is good enough. For Labour to consistently oppose scapegoating migrants, it should spell out what its stance is on such things as the detention and swift deportation of asylum seekers, or the proliferation of immigration checks in the health service and by landlords. Neither of these things is mentioned in the manifesto, so it is difficult to know whether they will be ended by the stipulation to introduce “fair rules”.
The detailed issue that is mentioned is the stipulation that spouses of migrant workers have to have a certain level of income to be allowed into the UK. Labour says it will “replace the income thresholds for family attachments with an obligation to survive without recourse to public funds”.
That’s good, but what will happen to spouses who rely on their partner’s income and then become victims of domestic violence? Having “no recourse to public funds” will leave them stranded. The main thrust of the manifesto seems to be aimed — in a not a very explicit or clear way — at stopping employers using migrants as a reserve army of very low-paid workers; the implication being that this tactic is responsible for low wages throughout the UK economy. The argument is based on a poor statistical assumption. The evidence is that higher migration depresses the lowest wage levels only a little.
The way to tackle low wages is to stop employers from paying low wages to all workers. Labour proposes measures that will help here — proposing rights at work from day-one of employment, banning zero hours employment. But there is also a nod to economic nationalism — Labour will “stop employers from recruiting only from overseas”. That shift is worrying. Such a stance could become a full-scale “British jobs for British workers” policy in the future.
The manifesto says that the way to help migrant workers is to strengthen union rights and organising. That’s right. But to do that effectively, Labour needs to reverse all the anti-union laws!
Despite wide support on the Labour left (in Momentum) for freedom of movement, there has been no active campaigning. The result is that those on the left that have compromised on this issue (for example, Paul Mason), the union bureaucracy and Labour’s right, have made the running. That is why the manifesto, is, at best, a vague compromise.
Win or lose on 8 June, the left has to take the lead on building a labour movement campaign that defends migrants, pushes for a comprehensive freedom of movement policy between the UK and the EU and indeed the rest of the world. That campaign can build on Labour’s other commitments, to reduce the strain on the NHS, education and other public services by investing in those services.