It’s hard to put a finger on what the main message coming from the Labour party was on Tuesday. Overnight they released lines from a speech which suggested they were stepping back from their commitment to free movement. Then, when given a chance to clarify his position on free movement and membership of the single market, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn shifted focus to his thoughts on a maximum wage for top earners. By lunchtime Labour seemed to be back in favour of free movement. When the speech was finally made in the afternoon Corbyn said that “Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle, but I don’t want that to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out”. Well that, as they say, is about as clear as mud.
Is Corbyn toying with following the likes of MPs such as Stephen Kinnock and Emma Reynolds in backing away from a previous commitment to free movement within Europe? If so, that isn’t just profoundly disappointing to those of us who respect his track record of standing up for people no matter where they come from. It is also a gift to the Tories’ march towards a hard Brexit.
The truth is that to protect our economy, public services and environmental and social protections, Britain should remain a member of the single market. With Angela Merkel confirming just yesterday that being a member of that single market “is only possible under the condition of adherence to the four basic principles (movement of goods, capital, people, and services)” it seems that Labour is at least considering sacrificing our economic prosperity in an attempt to allay people’s concerns about freedom of movement. Indeed Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn seem to be just about the only party leaders in Europe who think there’s any chance of marrying a tougher stance on free movement with membership to the single market.
A free movement fudge isn’t just economically illiterate, it may also embolden those who point to migration as the source of all of our ills. This is despite ample evidence which suggests that migration from Europe has helped this country’s economy and had little to no downward impact on average wages. Indeed we know that the effects of EU migration on wages are relatively insignificant, when compared to the impact of a higher minimum wage or increased union density in workplaces. A new left-wing populism is all well and good – as are sensible policies like pay ratios within companies – but it will fall flat on its face if Labour allow the Tories fact-free rhetoric to continue to set the frame on a crucial issue like free movement.
The truth is that free movement bolsters our public services – as the Labour leader rightly pointed out in the more cogent parts of his speech. Ask yourself how many times you have been treated by a European doctor? How many older people you know who are helped everyday by carers from across the continent? Corbyn knows that we would be a poorer country without the taxes EU nationals pay, and the work they do in our hospitals, care homes and councils. That’s why it’s such a shame to see him equivocate over his support for free movement.
We know that the biggest boost the government could give to low-paid workers in Britain would be to give the country a pay rise by writing into law a real living wage. No one is claiming that rapid movement of people can’t affect wages temporarily – whether that’s from Coventry to Cardiff or Krakow to Cambridge. And no-one can credibly claim that Britain’s labour market provides nearly enough security. But we just need to have the right policies in place to protect people.
We needn’t throw away our chance of staying in the single market or accept the myths about the impact of free movement to propose policies which ensure that the benefits of free movement are distributed across the UK. To put it another way – it’s entirely possible to both support free movement and put forward the policies which improve rights at work and boost wages for all workers in Britain, whether they were born here or not.
I take no pleasure in watching Labour in disarray – indeed, it genuinely pains me to see them flailing as the government leads us off the Brexit cliff edge. When Labour MPs voted in favour of triggering Article 50 by the end of March, the government must have been pleased, but to have their official opponents countenancing support for their stance on free movement will have ministers dancing down the corridors of Westminster. My party won’t stand by and watch as the anti-free movement consensus strengthens its grip on British politics. We’ll continue to defend the benefits of free movement, celebrate the contribution that EU nationals make to our communities and propose policies to solve the persistent insecurity which plagues so many people’s lives in this country.
Make no mistake – it is the government which is most responsible for the serious problems this country is facing. But it’s not just those who hold power who are responsible for the state of a nation – it’s also those whose job it is to hold the powerful to account.