Should Labour back restrictions on freedom of movement of people?



Renie Anjeh

—Immigration has been an achilles heel for the left for a long time. Some progressives have laboured under the delusion that if they just waxed lyrical about its many benefits, the public would suddenly be won over by their powers of persuasion. Others pretend to understand people’s ‘concerns about immigration’ but then they deliberately obfuscate the issue and talk about labour market exploitation or skills instead. However, as the Brexit vote showed, both have been perfunctory responses to the popular demand for enhanced immigration control.

After the referendum, some of the Labour party’s brightest stars – Chuka Ummuna, Rachel Reeves, Emma Reynolds and Stephen Kinnock – sought to deal with the party’s intellectual aridity on immigration by calling for restrictions to free movement. The reaction from the left Twitterati (including some Labour moderates) was predictable. The former Europe minister, Denis MacShane, described them as ‘Red Ukip’. Others accused them of aiding and abetting Tory Brexiteers. Others went as far as to accuse Rachel Reeves of being a latter-day Enoch Powell. You could be forgiven for thinking that some soi-disant centrists are beginning to imitate the ideologues on the left and the right who they detest so much. The reality, however uncomfortable it may be for some, is that these figures are correct. If Labour wants to be a credible party, then it has no choice but to support them.

It is understandable why some would cavil at this suggestion. Only a few months ago we were campaigning for ‘Remain’. Many of us still feel aggrieved by the result. That Friday morning hurt. It still hurts. But we have to move on and accept it. That does mean accepting that the status quo on free movement cannot hold. If Labour argues that free movement, in and of itself, is a good thing then the public would rightly come to the conclusion that we support free movement worldwide. That would not just be an act of folly, it would be tantamount to political suicide.

Some would argue that if we abandon free movement then we would be relinquishing our access to the single market. It is a false choice. Lichtenstein is in the single market but has quotas on immigration. Norway has an emergency brake. Article 112 of the European Economic Area treaty allows countries to put in place unilateral restrictions to deal with ‘serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectorial or regional nature’. France does not have freedom of movement in capital and Germany does not have freedom of movement in services. Therefore, there is no reason why Labour should not call for the greatest possible access to the single market while also calling for significant reform of free movement.

But there is a very profound point that underlies the old hackneyed argument about ‘compromising with the electorate’. We should not support restrictions on free movement in spite of being pro-immigration, we should support them because we are pro-immigration. If people perceive the immigration system to be unfair or uncontrolled then faith in the system will reduce. The only beneficiaries of that are xenophobes, and those who stand most to lose are immigrants themselves. However, if people’s confidence in the system is restored, which is only possible by asserting control, then people would become more receptive to the positive case for immigration. It is for that reason Labour has to grasp the nettle and support restrictions on free movement. It is not just the politically sensible and centrist option but it is also the progressive option.


Renie Anjeh is a member of Progress




Ellie Groves

—Yes. Labour should back restrictions on unreserved freedom of movement of people – immigration controls are important for any country. However, when it is so clear that freedom of movement from those countries still in the European Union is directly tied with the question of access to the single market, then the government should take heed of this, and Labour should listen too. This is to say nothing of how important immigration is to every country, but rather that this specific question comes down to access to the single market and the impact giving this up would have on the United Kingdom’s economy and the finances of millions of people across the country.

The UK has, of course, voted to leave the EU. However, as many people are making clear, the terms of this have not been voted on. In fact, leading up to the referendum the ‘Leave’ campaign was saying that they were not proposing leaving the single market. The question is then: how far would they be prepared to go not to give this up?

We have already seen the harsh consequences of ‘Hard Brexit’: the pound has plummeted, the banks are contemplating leaving, and the economy looks precarious. Add to that further restrictions on trading and complications in trading with our neighbours, the UK looks to be in a sticky spot.

There are obvious reasons why Labour should back restrictions on freedom of movement. People voted to leave the EU and for the vast majority this was about controlling migration. Those people have legitimate concerns and should be respected. It would then follow that Labour would do well to listen to this voting public. However, the government and the opposition should also do what is best for the country.

People might be angry about immigration, but they will be even angrier if they lose their job, the price of food goes up in the supermarket, or find their holiday is now unaffordable. If access to the single market and freedom of movement were not so bound together then there would be benefits in Labour backing certain restrictions. Yet the reality is that these two issues are bound together and, while some incredibly talented negotiator may be able to get the support of other EU leaders to separate the two, with the threat of anti-EU sentiments in their own countries this looks increasingly less likely. To put it bluntly, there is no incentive for France, Germany and Italy to allow this separation.

With that in mind Labour should change the narrative and say that it backs staying in the single market – the single market which brings economic prosperity and job stability, which allows the UK to be a centre of finance and industry. If this means that it cannot at the same time back restrictions on freedom of movement then Labour shouldn’t. The Labour party should not be looking to impoverish the country, it should be looking for opportunities to improve it for all. Staying in the single market does just that. The voting public voted to leave the EU; they did not vote for the UK to go into recession.

Border controls are important, but so is our economy. Our elected representatives should prioritise the good of the country and the wellbeing of their constituents, as they were elected to do.


Ellie Groves is editor of the Young Fabians magazine, Anticipations