With the Home Secretary getting her photo taken at the port of Dover and ramping up the anti-immigrant rhetoric, a topic forgotten for the past few months is being thrust back into the spotlight. As more routine political issues like this move to centre stage, Labour needs to throw itself back into this debate which it has traditionally struggled with.
Labour’s recent history of immigration has been turbulent, as the famous “controls on immigration” mug of the Miliband era stands as a testament to this. But in the era of Corbyn, the confusion remained present. In the 2017 manifesto, Labour committed to accepting the result of the Brexit referendum, and also ending free movement as we have known it through the European Union, instead, to be replaced with a system of controls. However, this only remained the case until the Party conference in 2019.
The conference passed a motion backed by the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, which declared that the party would “maintain and extend free movement rights” were it to form a government. This motion made no allowance for change in regards to Labour’s Brexit policy, but this did get a mention when, after the election, Diane Abbot pointed out on Sky News that outside of the single market, freedom of movement becomes extremely difficult. This is because of the “indivisibility” of the Four Freedoms (movement of goods, services, people and capital), on which the EU has said they will not compromise. It is this point which deserves the attention it has not yet received in the Labour Party.
The argument about leaving or remaining is dead, at least across most of the political landscape. Unless something drastic occurs, we are most certainly not going to be in the EU by the next election. Keir Starmer, despite being a ‘remainer-in-chief’ to some, has shown so far that he is unlikely to frustrate the process of leaving the EU.
The government has made it clear that they reject the “stark and binary” choice between a Canadian or Norwegian style deal with the EU, meaning even if they manage to secure the bespoke deal they desire, it is unlikely Britain will remain a full member of the single market. Unless Labour intends to re-join when it next forms a government, which would be politically dangerous at best, this means only one thing; Labour cannot maintain support for free movement and needs to develop their immigration policy.
It’s important to note that this question is separate from the morality of the existence of borders. Whether you think it is right that the structure of politics limits the freedom of human beings to roam the earth, it has no bearing on the political reality that total freedom of movement is not realistic.
The Schengen Agreement of 29 countries in mainland Europe is the largest example of open borders in the world. As with other arrangements of this kind, like CARICOM, the Andean Community, Gulf Cooperation Council and the East African Community, this level of freedom of movement is only possible through multilateral trade agreements, economic and political unions, and avoiding the labour market shocks that could occur with a free movement that lacks economic integration. Given that we are set to leave the world’s largest supranational union, with no plans to join any others, this is a reality the Labour Party needs to confront before it is ready to form a government.
It could be said that how liberal the potential Labour immigration policy will be is a different question. As of January 2021, the UK will be operating on the Conservative’s new points-based immigration system. This will give the Labour Party plenty of time before writing the next manifesto to analyse how this system works and develop a better alternative. None of this is an obstacle to ending the hostile environment or the newly intensified anti-refugee stance of the government.
It is possible to have a left-wing government with a controlled immigration system, which also treats migrants and refugees with the humanity and compassion they deserve, yet doesn’t allow domestic employers to exploit immigrant labour to undercut pay and conditions.
Starmer’s record on this issue is mixed. In 2017 as shadow Brexit secretary, he declared that free movement must end once we leave the EU. In January 2020, while fighting the Labour leadership election, he argued for a renegotiation with the EU post-Brexit, to secure a new arrangement similar to the free movement we are used to. These two statements embody the contradiction at the heart of the problems Starmer will face on immigration.
The public voted for Brexit and voted for a government which committed to ending freedom of movement in its manifesto, yet the Labour Party membership mainly voted to remain, and overwhelmingly supports freedom of movement, in or out of the EU. If Labour backs a return to free movement, political enemies can easily drudge up Starmer’s remainer credentials and accuse him of betraying the result of the referendum. If Starmer calls for controls on immigration, he risks large parts of the party publicly opposing this.
There may well be a centre ground on this issue, which pleases the internationalist party membership without alienating the public and the first time Tory voters that Labour needs to win back, but finding this centre would be an impressive political feat. As it stands, on immigration Starmer is in a position well known to the Labour leaders of the past, caught between the rock and the hard place of public and party opinion.
How he chooses to navigate this once Coronavirus dissipates, will prove a serious test of his political mettle.