The freedom of movement across borders which the European Union has created is one of its great gains. The labour movement should defend that.
Attempts to give a “left cover” to restrictions on movement within Europe by saying that they could go with a more generous attitude to non-EU refugees should be refuted. The EU’s response to the recent flood of refugees from Syria, Eritrea, etc. has been despicable, but Britain’s has been worse. And no EU rule is stopping Britain from having as liberal a response as Germany, for instance.
The referendum result does not create a democratic obligation for Labour to block free movement from the EU. Plebiscitary democracy, democracy by snap votes between ill-posed alternatives, is not real democracy. We can now see that even the Brexit leaders didn’t really know what they wanted.
Polls found that while “more than three quarters (77%) of those who voted to remain thought ‘the decision we make in the referendum could have disastrous consequences for us as a country if we get it wrong’”, “more than two thirds (69%) of leavers, by contrast, thought the decision ‘might make us a bit better or worse off as a country, but there probably isn’t much in it either way’.”
We can surely guess that most “Leave” voters want immigration blocked. But that guess no more creates a democratic obligation on Labour to support blocks than the consistent opinion-poll majorities the same way do. Or the consistent opinion-poll majorities for the death penalty, at least in some cases, ever since it was abolished in 1965, oblige Labour to bring back hanging.
Big-business groups like the Adam Smith Institute, anxious about the effect of Brexit on trade and capital flows, are not hesitating to argue that Britain should go for something like EEA status (the Norway option, “almost” in the EU, and retaining freedom of movement). The labour movement should fight for the rights of our brothers and sisters of diverse origins, and our links with workers across Europe, more resolutely than those big-business groups push their angle.
High rents, shortages of housing, and low pay, result from government and bosses’ policies, and should be mended anyway, migration or no migration, by policies for more social housing, rent controls, union rights, and a better minimum wage. Migrants contribute £2.5 billion more in tax than they claim in benefits.
Generally, countries with more immigration are economically more dynamic and prosperous. If the labour movement organises the migrants, the movement becomes stronger, culturally richer, broader-horizoned. It was good that Jeremy Corbyn spoke up for freedom of movement in the referendum campaign, and bad that he let himself being pushed on 25 June into announcing a “review” of Labour Party immigration policy.