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Angry left-wing activists accuse Labour of being “massive wimps” on free movement

Migrants’ rights campaigners condemn their party’s reticence.

Freedom of movement, one of the EU’s key pillars, is precarious as the UK heads for Brexit. Thousands of Labour activists are in favour of protecting the principle, and are calling on their party to defend migrants’ rights.

A group gathered at Labour party conference to call on the leadership to protect the rights of migrants. At an event entitled “What Should Labour’s Migration Policy Be?”, held by The World Transformed (Momentum’s alternative politics festival), activists from the left of the party working on the Labour Campaign for Free Movement criticised the party’s reticence on the subject.

They expressed disappointment that party members had voted not to debate the details of Labour’s Brexit policy, including free movement, at this conference (a move engineered by Momentum).

“My impression of this conference has reinforced in my head the awful process that’s going on inside the Labour movement in terms of free movement and migrants’ rights,” said Michael Chessum, a Labour Campaign for Free Movement organiser who represents the left-wing Another Europe is Possible group, and used to be on Momentum’s steering committee.

He told the event that there is a section of the left aspiring to “older, Stalinist politics whose arguments about immigration being wrong, borders being great, used to be on the absolute periphery on the left”, finding their “straight-up, right-wing nationalist arguments” have “all of a sudden become mainstream on the left” after Brexit.

Chessum also blasted a “large section of the left who do believe in free movement, who are instinctively in favour of it, becoming massive wimps. We’ve just ducked a debate on Brexit because we’re scared.”

This was a reference to party members voting to debate other issues than Brexit on the party’s conference floor this autumn – a decision that was announced this morning.

Chessum tells me he believes Jeremy Corbyn is in favour of migrants’ rights but, as they have been tied up with the question of whether Labour would advocate permanently staying in the single market, he is avoiding the subject. “We cannot wait for white smoke to appear from the Leader's Office,” Chessum adds.

The question of free movement represents two growing divides in a Labour party at its most united since the summer of 2015.

Firstly, the most vocal activists in favour of free movement are on the party’s left but they find themselves at odds with – or at least frustrated by – the Leader’s Office and Momentum, with the former being reticent on the issue, and the latter not having a line on it (as with other policy). For example, Chessum criticises what he sees as an “opaque” decision-making process that led Momentum to rally its members to request motions other than Brexit to vote on at conference.

“Jeremy is now safe,” he tells me. “We are no longer under constant siege and constant threat of another leadership election. We’ve won the internal debate about having a left-wing leadership, and we can afford to have a debate about these issues.”

Secondly, they don’t want to be associated with voices to their right arguing for single market membership, such as Alison McGovern MP, who chairs the Blairite Progress group. They believe free movement being conflated with the politically contentious issue of single market membership hinders their cause.

“I don’t want to go into a room lined up with people who are from the centre of the party,” says Chessum. “I want to have a debate about free movement specifically.”

This is where many of Labour’s Corbynite members stand. Michael Walker, from the alternative left news platform Novara Media, told me in August that he and his colleagues will be covering freedom of movement “because that’s one of the contentious issues on the Labour left and the Labour party’s new members – less about the single market.

“We don’t, our audience doesn’t really care – I mean, I don’t really care about the single market. We talk more about migrant rights than we do about trade.”

The free movement issue provides an opportunity for Corbyn, therefore, to please many of his members without having to support membership of a single market he’s never been keen on. But his recent comments on migration from the EU suggest it’s not one he’s yet prepared to take.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”