Jeremy Corbyn's immigration policy isn't a muddle, but it is a mess

Labour risks being stranded in no-man's land. 

NS

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Has Jeremy Corbyn really changed his policy on immigration three times in one day? The short answer is “no”. Here’s what really happened.

The Labour leader’s team started by briefing extracts of his speech in which he said that Labour was “not wedded” to the free movement of people in Europe on a point of principle.

There then followed a series of interviews in which Corbyn said that the level of migration in the United Kingdom was not too high and that the party would be willing to concede the free movement of people in order to secure a better deal.

He ended the day with his speech, in which he declared that "Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement, but I don’t want that to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out".

Labour’s line on immigration is actually very clear. Corbyn is saying that the Labour party doesn’t particularly care about the right of EU citizens to move freely within the EU area but is prepared to accept it if that’s the cost of a good standard of access to the single market.  

What the leadership is trying to do is at once appeal to people who want immigration to go down without taking the economic hit that a hard Brexit – the only way to avoid the free movement of people – would represent.

There are some big risks with this line. The first and most obvious is it will widely be reported as nonsense, as few people will understand what the line is. But the bigger risk is that it increases Labour’s weakness on the Brexit issue.

It’s clear what the Conservatives and Ukip are offering on Brexit and immigration: they want it under British control and are willing to take the economic pain of bringing that about. And it’s clear what the Liberal Democrats and the Greens are offering: jobs come first, with the Greens making a more explicitly pro-migrant case, the Liberal Democrats a more pro-immigration case. (Think of it like this: the Liberal pitch is to voters concerned that hitting immigration will lose them their job or make their house drop in value, the Green pitch is to voters who support immigration as a good in of itself.)

It’s not clear which of those voters is better served by putting a tick in a Labour box. The party’s usual reply is “only we can win an election”. Unless Labour can trigger a revival of its fortunes in Scotland it needs to win Kensington and Chingford to win a majority, neither of which have been Labour-held at any point in their history and both of which have Conservative majorities in excess of 6,000. As neither the polls nor, more importantly, actual elections, indicate either will happen any time soon, why not vote for the Liberals or the Greens?

All of which means that Labour’s halfway-house position on immigration in particular and Brexit in general risks leaving them as the party of nobody, the middle-of-the-road option. And we know what happens to people in the middle of the road: they get run down.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.