No-one who has been following British politics over the last few years can deny that public discourse around leaving the EU has been dominated by immigration. From the start of the process until today, the influx of European nationals into this country was front on centre of political arguments from all sides.
When David Cameron went to Brussels to renegotiate British EU membership in 2016, an ‘emergency break’ limiting access to the welfare state for Europeans was among the concessions achieved. This was to address ‘concerns’ over the number of immigrants from Eastern Europe who came to the UK since free movement was extended to these countries, and their perceived dependency on benefits.
One of the most popular and attention-grabbing pledges during the referendum campaign itself was made by Boris Johnson, who stated that Turkish immigration to the UK will skyrocket as the country would eventually join the EU - despite the fact that Turkish EU membership does not look likely anytime soon.
Since becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May made it clear that she interprets the vote to leave as a mandate to reduce immigration and strengthen the UK border first and foremost. This culminated in the publication of the Immigration White Paper just before Christmas, setting out a new policy approach which will see the end of free movement, implementing a new skills-based immigration system, alongside commitments to Fortress Europe and the hostile environment. To stop freedom of movement remains a ‘red line’ for the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Deal negotiations, despite her failure to date to secure an agreement that will be supported by the House of Commons.
But the Conservative party is not the only advocate for the end of free movement. Whilst open borders used to be a common demand in left wing circles, since coming to power within the Labour Party, radical voices in the movement have conceded to triangulation on the immigration question and have come out in opposition to free movement.
In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party ran on a manifesto which promised to end free movement - and even more significantly, introduced a segment of the hostile environment, no recourse to public funds for immigrants - into its policy.
Some believe this move is necessary because ending freedom of movement is a vital part of fulfilling the promise of the referendum. The Brexit vote is being interpreted as a protest from working class Labour voters, particularly in the de-industrialised areas of the North of England, expressing their opposition to globalisation and the impact of high levels of immigration on wages. To not deliver on this promise would be undemocratic and a betrayal of core Labour voters in our heartlands.
For others, freedom of movement represents a form of privilege, which advantages European migrants over others from the Global South seeking to come to Britain in search of a better life away from the instability and poverty in their region. Lexiteers believe that an immigration system that advantages those from the Global South over immigration from European countries will help address inequalities that are consequences of the exploitation and oppression inflicted by imperial powers such as the British Empire. The Global North has a responsibility to make up for its past sins by allowing those who live in the conditions imperialism created to come to Europe as an attempt to rebalance this historic injustice.
Whilst many studies on the impact of immigration on the labour market have debunked the myth of its significant impact on jobs and wage growth, undeniably exploitative bosses who do not pay their migrant staff the appropriate wages do exist. The solution to this is not to shut out migrant workers but to build class solidarity between migrant and native workers by organising them together in Trade Unions. Only if the working class stands shoulder to shoulder against capitalist oppression, not divided along the arbitrary lines of nationhood, can workers win their struggles for fair pay and conditions.
Whilst the Lexiteers approach to immigration appears noble at first, it seems like little work has been done to challenge the narrative of the ‘undeserving and poor immigrant’ either in the wider discourse in society, nor in the labour movement. Given that a large part of Labour’s immigration policy and response to the Government’s White Paper centred around committing to and the endorsement of a skills based approach, the left has little to no political capital to advocate for low-skilled workers from less advanced and culturally ‘less similar’ countries to move to Britain more freely.
It is too simplistic to analyse the Brexit vote in working class Labour areas purely as a revolt against a globalised economy. To deny the cultural element - a fear of the other, of cultures that are seen too different from our own - is too convenient for a left that seeks to focus mainly on material conditions. The left needs to make a strong case for an open, diverse and pluralist society, and abandon the distinction between those who contribute to the needs of British capital and those who don’t to create the political power needed to implement a policy which gives open access to the country to working class people from across the world.
Abandoning freedom of movement as a principle will do little to aid this goal. Instead, the Labour movement should rally in defence of migration as a human right - and start addressing the fact that a large part of British society feels uncomfortable with changing communities.
Uniting all working people behind a common struggle is just the starting point. At the same time the labour movement must fight for stronger communities to combat alienation and foster a renewed sense of belonging. This must be combined with strong anti-racist politics and education to challenge institutionalised prejudice against foreigners and minorities.
Rather than abandoning the fight for free movement, this is what the Labour Party and the whole labour movement should be working towards. Politically, the only way forward to achieve a more open, fair system is to question the whole apparatus of immigration control - from immigration laws to their enforcement mechanisms to its natural conclusion, detention and deportation. As such, freedom of movement is an opportunity to build on and move forward. Giving up this fight would set us back enormously. The Labour Party, particularly one led by the left, should never do concede to this.
Sabrina Huck, Labour Party activist