by Atul Hatwal
One of the reasons the Labour party is in such a terrible state is that the many of moderate mainstream, those meant to offer an alternative to Corbyn, are so bad at the basics in politics.
Yesterday’s foray into the debate on freedom of movement by Rachel Reeves, Emma Reynolds and Stephen Kinnock, was a case study in ineptitude.
By arguing that ending free movement to reduce migration should be a red line in Brexit negotiations, they have constructed an argument that will not survive first contact with a journalist and set a broader public expectation which can never be met.
The obvious immediate question which journalists will ask these MPs is whether they are prepared to leave the single market?
If the central European states such Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, western European states such as France and EU President Juncker stick to their public position of vetoing any reform, are these MPs prepared for hard Brexit?
Will they back a version of leaving the EU that would see the flight of financial services from the City of London, the movement of major manufacturers like the Japanese car makers to the continent, the imposition of a hard border between northern and southern in Ireland and condemn tens of thousands of their constituents to the dole?
Obviously, when the inevitable yes or no question is asked in an interview, the MPs will scramble around to avoid giving a definitive answer.
At which point they will look like the type of dissembling slippery, politicians that give politics a bad name.
Their only line to take will be that the EU will reform freedom of movement because Britain says so, despite what all of the senior representatives of the EU have stated.
This absurd position is redolent of Alex Salmond claiming that the Bank of England would let Scotland use the pound after independence, despite what the Bank of England governor was saying.
Or Vote Leave saying that the United States would prioritise a trade deal with the UK despite the President saying that we’d be at the back of the queue (spoiler: we’re at the back of the queue).
To place yourself in this position as a politician demonstrates the strategic insight of a political infant.
However, this is far from the most damaging aspect of the intervention.
In the longer term, language about red lines to cut the numbers of migrants sets a public expectation which repeats the disastrous mistakes of the past.
David Cameron talked tough on immigration. He set himself a clear target to reduce numbers. He doubled down on his target. But he didn’t go through with what was needed to come anywhere near meeting it, because that would have crashed the economy.
Instead, immigration hit an all-time high. Even migration from outside the EU, which is fully under UK control, is almost double the Conservatives’ target at 190,000.
Net result: increased public mistrust on immigration.
Ed Miliband tried his own version of talking tough, or rebranded for Labour, “addressing working class concerns.” He said Labour let too many people in during the 2000s and so implicitly accepted that numbers of migrants were the problem.
However, his policy prescription was all about fairness in the labour market, with minimum wage enforcement and action on abuses (all desperately needed). Unsurprisingly, the public smelt a rat.
This wouldn’t reduce the numbers of migrants coming to the UK. Labour’s policies were answering a question about fair access to jobs not cutting migrant numbers.
Net result: increased public mistrust on immigration.
When Britain engages with the EU in the detail of Brexit negotiations, it might be possible that there could be a deal on some reform of freedom of movement in return for substantive participation in the single market. But this will have virtually zero impact on numbers coming to the UK.
For example, if freedom of movement is reformed so that only those with the offer of a job can move between countries – one of the most frequent options canvassed – then the difference in numbers coming to the UK will be trivial.
94% of EU migrants in the UK have a job. There is such a thing as the internet. Before coming to the UK, migrants would apply for jobs online, get an offer and then come.
This point would be made by the hard Brexit brigade and they would be right.
In this context, the debate that the public would hear would be a choice between a reform of freedom of movement that wasn’t really a reform because it didn’t cut numbers and voting to leave the single market to take control.
At the EU referendum, David Cameron claimed his renegotiation would cut numbers. Obviously it wouldn’t. He, and the pro-EU side, lost.
The Labour MPs talking about red lines on reform of freedom of movement to cut numbers are signalling a position to the public that they cannot sustain. Any reform that might be viable with the EU will do nothing about numbers.
The underlying problem for those Labour MPs and Conservative MPs who want to stay in the single market is that the numbers game cannot ever be won.
The level of reduction desired to assuage doorstep concerns would require exit from the single market and then some. The economy would be shattered.
The only way through is to not to pretend about cutting numbers and just tell the truth.
If we want to stay in the single market in any meaningful manner and avoid the huge damage to the economy, then immigration from the EU will remain roughly the same as today.
Clearly this is not what constituents hostile to migration want to hear. It needs to be phrased sensitively and respectfully. But the truth should be told.
Not lying to the electorate about immigration would have the novelty of not having been tried in many years.
One of the myths about migration on the Labour side is that the party has been pro-migration for years and that this approach has failed. Johnathan Reynolds, normally one of the more sensible members of the PLP made this point yesterday in a Twitter exchange with Adrian McMenamin,
But the reality is that no Labour leader has made a case for the benefits of migration in the last decade.
Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” speech was nine years ago. Tony Blair, who was temperamentally more inclined to make the case, viewed EU enlargement and accession of the A8 eastern European states through the prism of foreign policy, specifically the post-Iraq effort to build a New Europe coalition against the recalcitrant old Europe of France and Germany.
It’s hardly surprising that the debate on immigration has been dragged to the right and public hostility has risen when Labour’s leadership and front bench has done nothing to make the case while the Conservatives, Ukip, the Mail, Express, Telegraph and Sun have vigorously made the case against.
Ed Miliband tried tilting to the right on immigration and was rewarded with historic low ratings on migration – according to YouGov, at the start of his tenure in September 2010 13% of the public backed Labour on immigration. At the end, after the Tories had failed utterly to hit their target, 16% backed Labour.
The public was right to see that Labour’s proposed policy package on migration before the last election would do nothing on numbers, just as the reform of freedom of movement mooted by Labour MPs now, will not impact numbers.
Telling the truth on migration and the economy would probably lose some votes. There would be some difficult headlines. But it’s impossible to lose that many votes given the appallingly low base from which the party starts on migration.
There might even be a dividend for being honest and making a clear choice. Certainly, given the polling, it’s hard to see how things could be any worse.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut