During the 2017 election, Labour made a specific manifesto commitment to end freedom of movement. This week’s intervention by Sir Keir Starmer signals a change in the Labour leadership’s stance. Sir Keir’s comments suggesting Labour ought to explore “qualified free movement” after Brexit is at odds with existing Labour party policy and the manifesto which secured us the endorsement of almost 13million voters.
It is widely accepted that the issue of immigration was at the forefront of the referendum campaign in 2016. The reasons for this are plain to see for anyone who understands the concerns of working-class communities. For years unmanaged immigration exclusively from the EU into the UK did fundamentally change the makeup of communities and increase pressures on the employment market and public services. Free movement is a policy which works solely for the interests of large multinationals and corporations providing them with an endless supply of cheap labour.
The Labour Party has always championed an internationalist immigration policy over a regionalist one. Hugh Gaitskell, the former Labour leader, believed passionately in the rights of Commonwealth citizens to have fair access to the UK. In his 1962 Conference speech, the theme was the need for the United Kingdom to have a global outlook. The significance of common market entry was its focus on a regional sphere rather the world as a whole, damaging the internationalist principles upon which Labour was founded and diminishing the status of the UK as a global nation.
Freedom of movement in its essence is the right of workers inside an internal market to move freely to any other part of the territory within the trading bloc. That market is largely made up of individuals who in comparison to the rest of the world occupy an extremely favourable set of living conditions as some of the most educated, wealthy, healthy and secure people globally. That internal market also tends to be predominately white.
Labour has always been a radical force in the world that has campaigned with other international liberation movements to advance the lot of peoples from the developing world. How the Labour movement ever managed to find itself in a position where it supported a structure of white privilege is beyond comprehension. What is more astonishing is that there are still those within the Labour and trade union movement who wish to see this neo-imperial model continued even after we have left the European Union.
Taking back control was the overarching message of the Leave campaign. Leaving the EU means the British government is once again in a position to determine our immigration policy. Maintaining qualified free movement from the EU will not allow a future Labour government to develop a policy that is truly inclusive and fair to all nations. Why should we adopt a position that gives a qualified engineer from Italy higher priority than a qualified engineer from Kenya or India?
Such a policy is even more exclusive and unfair than the existing settlement as it grants privilege and rights to only a small section of the European workforce. How can the Labour Party advance such a policy and claim at the same time to embody socialism by supporting the rights, protections and development of all workers? International solidarity extends beyond professionals and graduates in the European Union. Average life expectancy in the UK in 2018 stood at 80, in South Africa, a Commonwealth country it stood at 50. When Commonwealth citizens are denied progress because they do not have the same rights and privileges as Europeans how can we support this?
Instead of continuing to focus on supporting a policy that has been rejected by the British people Labour should look ahead at providing a fair immigration policy for the UK. British people support immigration and are one of the most welcoming and integrated countries in Europe. Most people in this country would support a points-based immigration system that allows workers from all over the world to come to the UK based on their skills, qualifications and experience and not based on which country they are from.
The primary objections to the current immigration arrangements are that people do not feel their government is able to control our borders. There is nothing racist or xenophobic about wanting to be able to determine the numbers of people arriving in your country, whatever Chuka Umunna or Anna Soubry tell us. Any nation and its economy require a degree of planning and organization. A government cannot adequately plan for public services, levels of expenditure, pensions, employment policies if it has no detailed and comprehensive analysis of the population variances.
One must question why some in the Labour Party continues to advocate a second referendum, maintaining a form of freedom of movement or favouring extending Article 50 when it is so blindingly obvious to all concerned that the electoral consequences for Labour would be totally catastrophic. Such pronunciations undermine Labour’s credibility in the country and by consequence undermines the authority and mandate of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.
Brendan Chilton is general secretary of Labour Leave