Immigration and the EU: Tory ministers play with fire

All parties know that open borders are required to stay in the single European market. But there is

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has told the Daily Telegraph that contingency planning is under way to address the prospect of a surge in immigration from crisis-stricken countries (chiefly Greece) in the event that the single currency collapses or members are forced to leave.

EU states are not supposed to restrict movement of people within the  union (with some “transitional controls” applied to relatively new members). The single labour market is an essential component of the whole project to create a unified trading space. Some tightening of controls is permitted in “exceptional” circumstances and Britain is not a signatory to the Schengen accord that waives border checks between most continental EU members.

Still, a unilateral imposition of visas and other restrictions on Greek or Portuguese workers coming to the UK would be an irregular and, indeed, extraordinary contravention of the spirit of the European economic cooperation. That isn’t to say it wouldn’t be popular.

The role that the European single labour market plays in Britain’s constantly anxious debate about immigration is a peculiar one. It substantially limits the capacity of UK governments to pre-determine the number of foreign nationals working in the UK; it also offers British citizens many lucrative opportunities to live and work elsewhere in Europe. Indeed, that is the point – mutual advantage for all EU workers.

But politicians from all parties hate discussing the free movement of labour because they are all, in theory, signed up to the single market project. There has always been some nervousness in Westminster about broaching the subject for fear that wary and sceptical acceptance of Britain’s EU membership would drain away completely it were being portrayed as the engine of mass immigration. The consequence of this squeamishness is nonsensical policies and pronouncements around the whole immigration topic: Gordon Brown’s meaningless pledge of “British jobs for British workers”; the coalition’s immigration “cap” that only applies to non-EU nationals.

There are signs, as hostility and anxiety around the EU grow, that Conservatives are getting ready to be a little bit more explicit and aggressive on this subject. Employment minister Chris Grayling told an audience at an event run by the ConservativeHome website last week that the Tories should be more forthright in mobilising fear of immigration in their anti-Brussels message:

It’s much easier to explain to a voter that we are unhappy with what the EU is doing because, for example, it wants us to allow people to come here and settle and be able to access our benefit system without the safeguards that we have in place today. That’s something everyone can understand.

It is not a particularly attractive political proposition or even a very honest one given the parallel benefits that Britain gets from the single market. But it has the potential to be crudely, nastily effective.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Labour's trajectory points to landslide defeat, but don't bet on a change at the top any time soon

The settled will among Jeremy Corbyn's critics that they need to keep quiet is unlikely to be disrupted by the result. 

Labour were able to tread water against Ukip in Stoke but sank beneath the waves in Copeland, where the Conservatives’ Trudy Harrison won the seat.

In Stoke, a two-point swing away from Labour to the Tories and to Ukip, which if replicated across the country at a general election would mean 15 Conservative gains and would give Theresa May a parliamentary majority of 40.

And in Copeland, a 6.7 per cent swing for Labour to Tory that would see the Conservatives pick up 52 seats from Labour if replicated across the country, giving them a majority of 114.
As the usual trend is for the opposition to decline from its midterm position at a general election, these are not results that indicate Labour will be back in power after the next election.. That holds for Stoke as much as for Copeland.

The last time a governing party won a by-election was 1982 – the overture to a landslide victory. It’s the biggest by-election increase in the vote share of a governing party since 1966 – the prelude to an election in which Harold Wilson increased his majority from 4 to 96.

To put the length of Labour’s dominance in Copeland into perspective: the new Conservative MP was born in 1976. The last Conservative to sit for Copeland, William Nunn, was born in 1879.

It’s a chastening set of results for Ukip, too. The question for them: if they can’t win when Labour is in such difficulties, when will they?

It’s worth noting, too, that whereas in the last parliament, Labour consistently underperformed its poll rating in local elections and by-elections, indicating that the polls were wrong, so far, the results have been in keeping with what the polls suggest. They are understating the Liberal Democrats a little, which is what you’d expect at this stage in the parliament. So anyone looking for comfort in the idea that the polls will be wrong again is going to look a long time. 

Instead, every election and every poll – including the two council elections last night – point in the same direction: the Conservatives have fixed their Ukip problem but acquired a Liberal Democrat one. Labour haven’t fixed their Ukip problem but they’ve acquired a Liberal Democrat one to match.

But that’s just the electoral reality. What about the struggle for political control inside the Labour party?

As I note in my column this week, the settled view of the bulk of Corbyn’s internal critics is that they need to keep quiet and carry on, to let Corbyn fail on its his own terms. That Labour won Stoke but lost Copeland means that consensus is likely to hold.

The group to watch are Labour MPs in what you might call “the 5000 club” – that is, MPs with majorities around the 5000 mark. An outbreak of panic in that group would mean that we were once again on course for a possible leadership bid.

But they will reassure themselves that this result suggests that their interests are better served by keeping quiet at Westminster and pointing at potholes in their constituencies.  After all, Corbyn doesn’t have a long history of opposition to the major employer in their seats.

The other thing to watch from last night: the well-advertised difficulties of the local hospital in West Cumberland were an inadequate defence for Labour in Copeland. Distrust with Labour in the nuclear industry may mean a bigger turnout than we expect from workers in the nuclear industries in the battle to lead Unite, with all the consequences that has for Labour’s future direction.

If you are marking a date in your diary for another eruption of public in-fighting, don’t forget the suggestion from John McDonnell and Diane Abbott that the polls will have turned by the end of the year – because you can be certain that Corbyn’s critics haven’t. But if you are betting on any party leader to lose his job anytime soon, put it on Nuttall, not Corbyn.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.