Why Lisa Nandy is defending free movement

The Labour leadership candidate moved to dispel impressions she is the candidate of migration controls in a speech this afternoon.

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Is Lisa Nandy the leadership candidate of tougher immigration controls? That’s the question Labour MPs and members are asking of the ascendant Wigan MP this week – and she has sought to answer it conclusively in a speech at the RSA this afternoon. 

"We should have been bold enough to defend free movement, and the opportunities and benefits it brings. But this would have required recognising it has flaws, and not dismissing concerns as simply racist anti-immigrant sentiment. 

“We should acknowledge that over decades Governments have used the steady influx of skilled labour to cover up a lack of investment in skills and training in the UK and address this.

"I believe in free movement. If it were paired with renewed and radical investment that enabled opportunities for young people, decent jobs, training and skills - then the same concerns would have fallen away.

"I have fought for the rights of migrant workers in the UK all my life and unlike Boris Johnson, I know that the so-called Red Wall communities do too."

Sources close to Nandy describe the intervention as a “strong defence of free movement”. Politically, the point of offering it is clear: she has no hope of winning among the Labour selectorate if her agenda on towns and regional inequality is seen as synonymous with a rightward lurch on migration. 

In framing her reservations with EU migration as it currently exists in terms members like and understand – that is, the failure of successive governments to invest in education and skills training, particularly in the communities that need it most – Nandy will hope she has gone some way to defusing the issue.

Will it work? Questions will remain about whether the tension between Nandy’s call to listen to communities that voted for Brexit and her defence of the principle of free movement can be resolved. But the fact that she has moved to answer them in her own terms, before her opponents have had the opportunity to ask them, goes some way to explaining why it is her leadership campaign that currently appears to be gaining momentum.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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