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15 November 2019

Ed Davey exposes the awkward truth about free movement and infrastructure spending

You can promise all you like about infrastructure but you can't deliver on it while cutting migration.  

By Stephen Bush

One of the areas of consensus in this election is about infrastructure spending: Sajid Javid is proposing £20bn of infrastructure spending, John McDonnell is promising upwards of £50bn. 

It was much the same in the speech given by Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader and finance spokesperson, which announced a swathe of infrastructure projects to combat climate change. The speech contained two headline generators: for the local and regional papers, a commitment to end Leeds’ unwanted status as the only major city in Europe without a public transit system and £100bn of funding for measures to tackle the climate crisis for the national press. 

But Davey made a point that hasn’t sufficiently entered the national debate about these infrastructure policies: the free movement of people within the European Economic Area, which the United Kingdom is currently a member of thanks to our membership of the EU. One of the many, many reasons that government spending is not like household spending is that building new infrastructure is not like going out and buying a kettle: you can announce as many infrastructure projects as you want but if you don’t have the people to carry them out they won’t happen. 

You are also significantly less likely to attract the workers you need on short-term visas that provide them with no security once their job ends and no real protections in the labour market. The blunt truth is that the form of Brexit envisaged by the Conservatives has real and immediate implications for Javid’s ability, or lack thereof, to keep his promises on infrastructure spending. If you don’t have the access to the European labour market that we currently enjoy, you cannot in the short term meet those infrastructure requirements. 

It’s also why the fight within Labour about whether or not to keep the freedom of movement in the new deal it would seek to negotiate with the EU – Corbyn appeared to back its continuation but the leadership has since rowed back, and the party is divided – matters. It is not just an electoral issue: whether you are in or out of the EU, the ability to meet these infrastructure promises will be severely compromised if you don’t.

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