The organiser of a Labour pro-immigration group has warned the party needs to “have an argument” with some of its working class voters over the benefits EU workers.
Michael Chessum, who runs the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, told HuffPost UK he was “optimistic” that party policy could be changed to keep free movement after Brexit.
Amid signs that the issue is set to dominate the annual conference in Brighton, several local constituency parties have adopted an emergency conference motion calling on Jeremy Corbyn to “maintain and extend free movement” from the European Union.
The campaign’s backers say that its rapidly growing support stems from an unprecedented pro-EU migrant alliance between left-wing Momentum supporters and ‘centrists’ such as the Blarite group Progress.
Support for the change intensified on Wednesday, part of a backlash against leaked plans which detailed a planned Tory Government crackdown on migrants after the UK quits the EU 2019.
Trade unions are split over free migration, with some such as the GMB unlikely to agree it but others such as the TSSA train union, the BFAWU bakers union firmly supporting it.
Britain’s biggest unions, Unite and Unison, are undecided on the issue, but some insiders claim that the huge levels of support among party members means that Labour policy could change even with minority union support.
In the 2017 general election manifesto, the Labour tried to pitch to Leave voters in its heartlands, stating “Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union. Britain’s immigration system will change.”
But the “contemporary resolution” that is rapidly attracting support declares instead that “In government, we should maintain and extend free movement”.
The motion adds: “Free movement benefits all workers. Without it, only the rich and privileged can live and travel where they want, while migrant workers are more vulnerable to hyper-exploitation, making downward pressure on wages more likely. Limiting free movement further would damage the economy and hit living standards.”
Young Labour, the youth wing of the party, formally agreed the motion at its meeting on Tuesday, which ensures its bloc vote as part of the unions and societies section of conference. All members and unions have until September 14 to submit contemporary motions, which must be topical.
The Young Labour National Committee, which includes some members close to the Unite union leadership, unanimously adopted the motion.
The Labour Campaign for Free Movement will formally launch next week, and striking McDonald’s workers and other trade unionists are expected to attend as well as MPs and MEPs. Among its backers are journalist Owen Jones.
Key supporters include several members of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC), trade union bosses and MPs such as Clive Lewis, David Lammy, Geraint Davies and Tulip Siddiq.
Its backers believe that Corbyn and Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott would be happy to change policy to make it unequivocally pro-migrant rights, even after Brexit.
One NEC source told HuffPost UK that the main task at conference would be to keep hold of the support of both Remain and Leave voters.
“The biggest row at conference will probably be over free movement, not internal selection rules,” they said.
“Lots of members want to keep it but it would present electoral challenges and would go against our manifesto.”
Another party source said: “Thanks to Keir Starmer’s shift, the party has avoided a storm over the single market.
“But the second storm is freedom of movement. And it unites different wings of the party. Almost all ‘moderate’ delegates from London will back it, and all of Momentum, and suddenly it’s got a real chance.
“With overwhelming support among CLPs, it wouldn’t need a majority of unions to get it passed on the conference floor.”
TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes said on Wednesday: “The xenophobic toxicity stoked by the Tory Brexit referendum is being received by our EU neighbours as a ‘Not welcome here’ sign around Britain.
“Labour must lead the opposition to the Tories on Brexit, defend the freedom of movement on which our economy depends and cut this tightening noose from around our country’s neck.”
In an interview with HuffPost UK, Chessum – a former national treasurer of Momentum - said that the campaign wanted to take head-on the idea that lots of Labour voters had “legitimate concerns” about migration.
“In some instances, that will mean that we in Labour have to go out and have an argument with our own voters; to convince them that ‘no, migration is not the problem here, the problem is austerity, government policy, and the economic system’.
“We will have to go out and have an argument, but we are the Labour movement. If we can’t have arguments with working class people about what the real solutions are in society, what’s the point in us existing?”
Chessum said that party members were flocking to the contemporary motion because it struck a chord with many who agree with Corbyn’s refusal to blame immigrants for Britain’s ills.
“The reason it’s so important for rank and file members is because we’ve just gone into an election where we have done astoundingly well off the back of a clear political alternative, a clear narrative that kicks back and says ‘here’s who’s to blame for the crisis…the policy of successive governments, the economic system rigged against the people and it is not immigrants’.
“Because the narrative that says are immigrants are to blame for your falling wages, for the housing crisis, for things that are going wrong in society, is Kryptonite for the Left.
“And if we feed that narrative, which is factually wrong, we are also establishing a terrain on which ultimately the Tories will always win, the Tories will always migrant-bash better than us. It’s a race to the bottom that we can’t win, but it’s also a race to the bottom that we shouldn’t win.”
Now “lots” of constituency Labour parties (CLPs) across the country were adopting the resolution, he said.
“We will have lots of CLPs that will submit this, it will be accepted on the agenda and there will be a prioritisation ballot. And then it’s our job to get CLPs and unions to get it prioritised.
“Everyone tells me to be pessimistic…I’m more optimistic because of the breadth of support across the party, I’m from the Left of the party but there are people from the centre of the party as well. I imagine a lot of CLPs will vote for it and then it comes down to the trade unions. No big union really has a full mandate against free movement.”
A senior ally of Corbyn said on Wednesday that it was “just a fact” that the Labour manifesto stated that as soon as the UK quits the EU, the associated free movement of migrants would end too.
But Chessum pointed out that the 2017 party manifesto was a “compromise” to keep happy those MPs who feared Labour Leave voters wanted migration curbs.
“It said the free movement of people ends with Brexit. Not free movement should end, but it just ‘will’. It wasn’t arguing that free movement shouldn’t end, but neither was it arguing that free movement should end. It was arguing that it would end. We are going to break that open with a debate.
“I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn believes in ending free movement on principle, there’s no way he does. There is a need to be seen to deliver on Brexit and there’s a danger that we see ending free movement as an inseparable part of Brexit. That’s simply not true, Norway has free movement, Switzerland has free movement.”
The activist said that Labour had only itself to blame for the way in which it had talked about immigration in the past, particularly with talk about getting “tough” on the issue.
“All over the world, partly because of the rise of the populist right, migration has gone to the top of the political agenda and the left hasn’t had the arguments to defend against it.
“The left has come from a place where it really hasn’t had the arguments to defend immigration, to talk of the benefits of immigration and to defend against the idea that immigration causes social problems. The Labour party didn’t do that for decades, Brexit is the whirlwind we are now reaping.
“We have to ask ourselves what does a progressive immigration policy look like? Free movement is overwhelmingly the best model for dealing with immigration, with strong social and economic protections. Any other model involves more border controls. We want a world with less borders, not more.”
Chessum added that the facts didn’t support curbs on immigration either.
“There is very, very limited evidence to support the idea that wages have been undermined by immigration. The report that I always like the best is the one used in the referendum and quoted by Boris Johnson, that says for every 10% increase in migration you have a 0.3% decrease in wages.
“That’s contradicted by other reports which say that wages go up with immigration. Even on the strongest evidence there is a very, very minor downward pressure on wages. If free movement goes away, downward pressure on wages gets worse because people will be forced to work illegally.”
But ultimately, Chessum thinks that Corbyn supporters will drive the change in policy. The infamous campaign mug from Ed Miliband’s 2015 election campaign – with the slogan ‘controls on immigration’ – was not repeated.
“The  campaign was very good. The tone was the most progressive Labour had struck on immigration in a long time and that’s because Jeremy Corbyn was leading it and he is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights.
“In policy terms, that wasn’t matched. .. We are in a position now where we might win a vote on free movement because there is a serious radical social and economic alternative, those are the conditions under which you can win the argument.
“The left will be doing well in the party for quite a while, but there’s a narrow window in terms of Brexit. Labour could be in power by Christmas, what then?”