With the Tories in disarray on how to conduct Brexit negotiations with their increasingly frustrated European Union counterparts, the labour movement debate about how to approach Brexit is also hotting up. A welcome recent development is the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement (LCFM) on 4 August with the prominent support of Labour MPs Clive Lewis and David Lammy.
More than 2,000 people from across the labour movement have now signed the founding statement, which aims to reshape the immigration debate in the Labour Party and wider working-class communities. At the moment, the upper hand in that debate is held by people from the Morning Star tradition of a "British road to socialism" and hostility to the EU. These people oppose free movement saying it is just a tool of neoliberal bosses for driving down wages. Regrettably, they seem to have persuaded Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to sing their tune.
Jeremy Corbyn has recently made several statements that suggest free movement for European workers is simply a conspiracy by British employers aimed at undercutting pay and conditions for British-born workers. That idea is mythical. There is scant evidence that migrant labour undercuts wages; in reality, EU migrant workers fill vacancies in the jobs market for low-skilled labour that longer-settled workers prefer not to do. Recent labour shortages in the NHS, currently employing around 60,000 EU migrant workers, have highlighted the problem; without EU workers many sectors of UK life would be severely disrupted.
LCFM hits back at the idea that free movement and immigration undercut wages. The campaign's founding statement says: “A system of free movement is the best way to protect and advance the interests of all workers, by giving everyone the right to work legally, join a union and stand up to their boss without fear of deportation or destitution. Curtailing those rights, or limiting migrants’ access to public services and benefits, will make it easier for unscrupulous employers to hyper-exploit migrant labour, which in turn undermines the rights and conditions of all workers.”
The debate is going on among the unions with different unions lining up on different sides of the argument. At the LCFM launch, Manuel Cortes, General Secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (TSSA), said: “We are fully committed to challenging and fighting unscrupulous bosses who exploit EU migrants. We put the blame firmly on the perpetrators not the victims. We strongly believe that free movement enriches our society. Our slogan is powerful but simple, end workers' exploitation, not free movement.”
The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) took a position of supporting Brexit in the referendum, but is backing the LCFM: “Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn’t mean scrapping freedom of movement. We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning strike action at McDonalds, through solidarity."
Among those on the other side of the debate stands Tim Roache, general secretary of the GMB, who argues for staying in the single market but marrying it with immigration control, claiming that migrant workers have been driving down the pay of some of his union members. He is wrong, and those who think so should be vociferous in taking him on. A motion supporting freedom of movement has been submitted to Labour Party conference in September.
Right-wing politicians of UKIP and the Conservative right have made the perceived threat to British workers from EU migrant labour a hot political issue. In some areas of traditional Labour support — though perhaps remarkably few — this has lost Labour some political support. But it is Labour’s job to make the counter-arguments, to unite British born and foreign born workers against the employers that set out to exploit them all.
Labour Campaign for Free Movement statement
The Labour Campaign for Free Movement statement says: “The UK is at a crossroads in its relationship to the rest of the world, and so is our party.
“Immigrants and free movement are being scapegoated by a political and economic elite that is subjecting ordinary people to cuts and austerity. During the greatest refugee crisis in recent years, the Tories have responded with brutality and detention centres.
"Labour should respond with clarity, humanity and solidarity. We fought the last General Election arguing against such scapegoating, and celebrating the contributions of migrants to our society. That tone must now translate into policy.
"Migrants are not to blame for falling wages, insecurity, bad housing and overstretched public services. These are the product of decades of underinvestment, deregulation, privatisation, and the harshest anti-union laws in Europe. On the contrary, migrant workers have been on the front line of fighting for better pay and working conditions. Labour is the party of all working people — regardless of where they were born.
"A system of free movement is the best way to protect and advance the interests of all workers, by giving everyone the right to work legally, join a union and stand up to their boss without fear of deportation or destitution."