Labour’s migration wars

Jeremy Corbyn cannot ‘triangulate’ between soft Brexit and hard Brexit, writes Eddie Ford

Recent weeks have seen frantic manoeuvring over the terms of Brexit, principally concerning freedom of movement and immigration. This has taken a particularly acute form in the Labour Party, albeit often in a coded or slightly Aesopian language.

Broadly speaking, you have what could be called the ‘soft Brexit’ wing of the party, where the most important thing is retaining access to the single market. Hence Diane Abbott, shadow home secretary told the BBC’s Andrew Marrshow in December that “you cannot have access to the single market without a measure of freedom of movement”, reassuring viewers that Labour wants immigration rules that are “fair” and offer “reasonable management of migration” - adding that it “would be wrong to put the economy anything other than first” as part of Brexit negotiations.1

Strangely, this ‘soft Brexit’ outlook unites Diane Abbott with traditional Blairites and other pro-EU members of the Labour neo-liberal right. In order to retain access to the single market, and possibly the customs union too, so goes their reasoning, freedom of movement is an acceptable price to pay, no matter how enthusiastic or not you are about immigration. However, you can just as equally argue that this position effectively amounts to no Brexit at all: by accepting free movement you are signing up to the rules of the European Union club, but without any formal influence or say as to how those rules are drawn up or implemented. In which case, especially seeing that you are still paying significant sums of money into the club, you might as well have MEPs, a seat at the council of ministers, and so on. In other words, to hell with Brexit and just stay within the EU.

On the other hand, there are those the Labour Party who think that the overriding priority is ‘control over immigration’ - ie, ‘hard Brexit’. If that means no access to the single market, regrettably or not, then so be it: at least we now have ‘control over our borders’. A nation proud again. Of course, for the Labour’s ‘hard Brexiteers’ this is fundamentally about combating the UK Independence Party - you have to be seen to be tough on immigration and making the right noises. For Labour’s ‘hard Brexiteers’ the only way forward for Labour is to out-Ukip Ukip, just as many voices this year will be saying that the only way to defeat Marine Le Pen is to out-FN the FN - or at least show you are ‘listening to the concerns’ of the French people.

Brexit dilemma

Fear of losing the next general election if the party is unable to get to grips with the realities of Brexit is reflected in the Fabian Society report published on January 2 - Stuck: how Labour is too weak to win and too strong to die.2 The study essentially argues that the combined difficulties of plotting a course on Brexit and the loss of support in Scotland means that Labour may get as little as 20% of the vote at the next election, leaving it with possibly only 140 seats (though I suspect that even this figure might be a little optimistic). Some recent opinion polls have Labour on 26% or less, whilst Jeremy Corbyn’s personal ratings have collapsed to 14%.3

The report goes on to say that team Corbyn appears to have little idea how to win back the four million voters who supported Labour in 2015, but say they would not do so now. More precisely, using YouGov data, it calculates that the party has lost a net 400,000 votes since the last election among pro-‘leave’ voters, and 100,000 among those who backed ‘remain’, making its support more strongly pro-‘remain’ than before. This poses the “Brexit dilemma”, by which Labour needs to somehow appeal more to ‘leave’ voters without alienating those existing supporters who opposed Brexit - a near impossible task, you would think.

Anyway, the report points out that to gain an absolute Commons majority Labour needs to beat the Tories by more than three million votes - a higher margin than in 2001. Hardly surprisingly in a Fabian document, the author of the report argues that, given the “impossibility” of outright victory in the next election, then Labour needs to prepare instead for an era of “quasi-federal, multi-party politics” - meaning some sort of ‘progressive’ alliance or electoral arrangement with the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrats, Greens, whoever. As the title of the study suggests, Labour will not be completely decimated thanks to the first-past-the-post electoral system acting as a “firebreak”, so even if either Ukip or the Lib Dems could tie with Labour on 20%, the electoral system would mean neither would win more than 20 seats, with Labour remaining at 140 to 150. We shall see.

This Brexit tension, or desire to scoop up some of the Brexit vote, can also be found in a report published by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on social integration, which is chaired by Chuka Umunna, a one-time hopeful for the Labour leadership.4 The report says that all new immigrants to Britain “should be expected” to either speak English already or be enrolled in “compulsory” English classes upon arrival. Umunna remarked afterwards that immigration “has impacted on different communities in different ways and the pace of change has alarmed many”, warning that failure to address integration has “left a vacuum for extremists and peddlers of hate to exploit”. In other words, the only way to take on Ukip and the xenophobic right is to adopt aspects of their language. The APPG document comes in the wake of Dame Louise Casey’s report last month recommending that new arrivals to the country be required to swear an “integration oath”.

Naturally, communists are in favour of people being able to communicate through use of a common language. But forcing them to learn English is inhuman. What about your 80-year-old granny? Is she going to be kicked out if she does not learn the language to a certain standard within six months? The Daily Telegraph delightedly reported that, even though the APPG has a “leftwing majority” (ie, SNP, Labour and Lib Dems!), it too is in favour of tougher controls and requirements upon migrants.

Many other people in the Labour Party want to accommodate to the politics of hard Brexit. Tom Watson, the unscrupulous deputy leader, said in an interview for Sky News that the party would lose the next election if it backs the “status quo” on immigration and free movement - he admitted that the party was not united on the issue and is still “formulating” its policy, because “we don’t know what is going to come out of the Brexit settlement”. However, Watson all but demanded that Theresa May comes out and says that “this country will have control over its own borders” - indeed, we should “be able to count the number of people in and count the number of people out, and make sure that a convincing, fair solution to people’s genuine concerns about immigration is addressed”. More border guards, please.

Clive ‘Dr Strangelove’ Lewis (or Nuclear Clive to his friends), the shadow business secretary, has called for immigration to be tied to trade union membership and in general argued for an “inclusive, civic, outward-looking, open, tolerant” English nationalism. Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, last year stated that immigration is “too high” - a view increasingly being backed by leading party figures. Writing in The Observer (January 8), Stephen Kinnock and Emma Reynolds - with the backing of Jon Cruddas, Rachel Reeves, Caroline Flint and others - called for a new “two-tier system” of immigration controls that would separate skilled workers from unskilled workers. They warned that “mixed messages” on immigration were proving “deeply corrosive” to voters’ trust in the party, which risks sliding into “irrelevance” in the eyes of the British public. Flint, a former minister for Europe, thought that Labour now “has to get real”. She claimed it was “ridiculous” that the party, which supports the regulation of businesses and markets, wants “no limits on an open-door EU labour market”. No, she declared, backing “fair controls” on immigration is “entirely in keeping with Labour values”.


Obviously Corbyn has been under intense pressure from those around him, and many others, to ‘readjust his position on Brexit to show that he is ‘listening to the concerns’ of the traditional Labour voter. Hence his January 10 speech at Peterborough - a marginal Tory seat that voted heavily in favour of Brexit and exactly the sort of place Labour needs to win if he is ever to get into No10 as prime minister.

Reporting his speech, the rather dramatic headline from Business Insider went: “Corbyn: Labour is willing to sacrifice the free movement of people” (January 9).5 More accurately, the BBC Radio 4 headline was “Corbyn sowing confusion on Labour’s immigration policy”, while TheIndependent declared: “Jeremy Corbyn muddies water over Labour immigration policy after appearing to back EU free movement”. Perhaps as part of his new ‘populist turn’, on the day of the speech Corbyn popped up on various shows like the Today programme and ITV’s Good morning Britain to promote his pre-released speech. New year, new Corbyn. We heard how Labour “is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle” and wants “reasonably managed migration” as part of the post-Brexit relationship with the EU.

Of course, when it came to the actual speech, it was a classic Corbynite fudge - trying to be all things to all people in the hope of maintaining ‘party unity’. What the party leader ended up saying was, no, Labour “is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle” - then immediately added: “but I don’t want that to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out”.6 Naturally, the Telegraph could not resist mocking Corbyn: “To summarise: Mr Corbyn appears to be saying that, while he no longer supports uncontrolled immigration, he still supports uncontrolled immigration, unless of course he doesn’t, although he definitely could. But please don’t misinterpret him” (January 10).

Frankly, the Telegraph’s derision is well justified. Corbyn now comes across as weak and vacillating - all over the place. So Jeremy, do you support free movement as a “point of principle” or not? The likes of Clive Lewis, Tom Watson, Keith Starmer, etc seem to think you can ‘triangulate’ between soft Brexit and hard Brexit - even magically cut across the Brexit/‘remain’ divide and reinvent the Labour leader as a popular challenger to ‘the establishment’. But this will simply not work. Anti-immigrant voters will not be attracted by the inconsistent messages coming from Corbyn at Peterborough. They will rather act to demoralise his activist base - which, after all, is the source of his political strength.

There is a simple principle. It is not the principle of free movement in the EU. It is the principle of free movement - full stop. Border controls do not serve the interests of the working class. They serve the interests of capital. People ought to have the right to live in any country they choose. Of course, for us that goes hand in hand with organisation. Free movement needs free trade unions and a mass, socialist, Labour Party working with likeminded parties across the whole planet. Now that would be a message worth defending on the Andrew Marr show.



1. www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/labour-block-brexit-trivial-way-diane-abbott-a7468886.html.

2. www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jan/02/labour-election-jeremy-corbyn-fabian-society.

3. www.totalpolitics.com/articles/news/support-jeremy-corbyn-be-next-pm-hits-new-low-14.

4. www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4089544/ALL-migrants-learn-English-moving-UK-Verdict-Labour-MP-s-time-ditch-failed-multiculturalism.html.

5. http://uk.businessinsider.com/corbyn-labour-is-willing-to-sacrifice-the-free-movement-of-people-2017-1.

6. http://press.labour.org.uk/post/155675139454/jeremy-corbyns-speech-in-peterborough.