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16 June 2017

Labour has quietly shifted right on immigration – with troubling consequences

Ending free movement under a Labour government would represent the biggest expansion of border controls in decades. 

By Michael Chessum

As someone who has long insisted on the electability of Jeremy Corbyn, you might expect me to spend the post-election period basking and gloating. In the event, there is barely any need to do so. Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Smith and Corbyn loyalist Chuka Ummuna are doing it for me. However bad the radical left’s hangovers were on 9 June, we could all console ourselves with the fact that we weren’t John Rentoul.

But there are other good reasons not to gloat too much. While Labour has advanced further in terms of vote share than at any point since 1945, not all of the direction of travel at this election was to the left. Hard Brexit may have been defeated at the polls, and it is even conceivable that Brexit might soften itself out of existence. But underneath the Brexit debate, on the central issues of immigration and free movement, this general election witnessed a significant shift to the right.

Labour’s positioning on immigration at this election was, in rhetorical terms, more progressive than at any other point in its recent history. For the left leadership of the party, hitting back against the idea that immigrants are to blame for falling wages and the housing crisis – and pointing the finger at the political and economic elites – comes as second nature. In the debates and in interviews, Corbyn was relatively unequivocal. Yes, migration can put pressure on public services, he said, but the answer was investment, stronger unions, and the restoration of migrant impact funds.

The manifesto struck a similar tone. It talked of valuing the contributions made by migrants, reviewing Britain’s harsh asylum system, and abolishing income thresholds for residency. But it also talked about prohibiting migrants’ access to public funds. On the core issue of the day, it stated – by sleight of hand as if a passive fact – that “freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union”.

Corbyn’s triangulation on free movement has been hailed by pundits as a tactical coup. To an extent, they are right. Being able to say on the doorstep that free movement would end after Brexit may well have won votes. But compromises like this store up problems for the future. For starters, the central assumption of Labour’s policy, that free movement must end simply by virtue of Britain leaving the EU, isn’t true. Norway is not a member of the EU, but has open borders with the rest of Europe. This is precisely because Norway, like Labour, prioritises access to the single market.

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Ending free movement under a Labour government would be a conscious choice – and it would represent the biggest expansion of border controls in decades. Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen. Free movement is the only way to guarantee migrants’ rights. Take it away and migrants are pushed into a life of illegality, precarity and black market exploitation. This is the situation in which the undercutting of wages is most likely.

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And by virtue of how well Labour did at the ballot box, its retreat on free movement could come to fruition very quickly indeed. With her majority gone, Theresa May will be forced to seek cross-party agreement for Britain’s Brexit settlement at a much earlier stage than planned. Corbyn could find himself signing away the rights of future generations of European migrants from the opposition benches. That wouldn’t just be a moral defeat. It would also leave space for the nationalists, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats to champion immigration, and cosmopolitan Britain, in a far more uncompromising way than Labour.

This, then, is the reality of the softer Brexit that has advanced following the shock election result. Britain is now far more likely to retain access to the single market than it was before, and May will find it much harder to grant herself sweeping powers to undermine protections for workers and the environment, or to pursue attacks on human rights. But unless Labour changes course, June 2017 could be the election at which the left abandoned its principles and lost the immigration debate. If there is anything that Jeremy Corbyn’s success should teach us, it is that sticking to your principles is, in the long run, the best way to win.