If Labour MPs want to make ending free movement a Brexit red line, they’d better be ready to leave the single market

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.

Sound familiar?

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

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8 Responses to “If Labour MPs want to make ending free movement a Brexit red line, they’d better be ready to leave the single market”

  1. james says:

    Isn’t your attitude the reason why we are in this situation. Instead of pressing the case for reform to the UK’s strengths we should be explaining how Europe will be cutting off its nose to spite its face if it doesn’t compromise on the issue.

    This `Europe first` attitude is what is killing the non-conservative forces at the moment. Instead ask yourself `why are so many Eastern European and Eurozone migrants attracted to the UK?` Answer: It’s the economy stupid! Also our way of life and our language. Why do the left seem to have a ideology of guilt over these advantages?

    People voted Leave because they felt there were on the `bad end of a scam` – basically free movement was a system of undercutting their wages (particularly outside M25 to the advantage of well-connected Brits) in a conveyor belt to the bottom.

    The real issue is why the political establishment hadn’t the psychological and intellectual foresight to tackle this years ago with the EU and the British people.

  2. Madasafish says:

    The real issue is why the political establishment hadn’t the psychological and intellectual foresight to tackle this years ago with the EU and the British people.

    In reply I suggest that the more left wing of our society has been taken over by people whose concern is not for the betterment of the people of the UK – but for whichever pressure group they feel should be supported.

    Some of these may indeed be UK based.. but just look at the amount of TV time given to “the plight of refugees” – both on TV and in politics.

    It is largely considered wrong by the Left in politics to discuss: Muslim mistreatment of Christians and other religions, controls on immigration, terrorism and the impact of Pakistan on jihadism, the abuse of children by first or second generation immigrants, vote rigging in London by racial groups and so one.

    The Labour Party has effectively been taken over by people whose priority is not the betterment of their own constituents – but of others- usually foreign.. Or those who live on benefits. Or those who work for the state.

    Voters are not stupid. It is no surprise that the poorest areas in the UK have largely been represented by Labour in the past. What is surprising is they still continue to vote Labour when the Party has in effect ignored them.. As Glasgow found when compared to Iraq – life expectancy was higher in Iraq..for years and years.

    Labour no longer tries to improve the lot of those it ostensibly represents. (If it did, it would support immigration controls on those who are vying with voters for low paid jobs.. And it supports retaining benefit levels which made it stupid to work when you were better off on benefits.. thus destroying the will to work in the poorer areas of the UK.)

    Why? Because the Party believes the State is the answer to everything. It is proven not to be…

    But if you are brought up to believe it is, then to deny it is to bring your entire political beliefs into question.. And of course you end up losing the political jobs which pay money and the post politics jobs which pay even more. As evidence , see Neil Kinnock, Blair, various ex Labour MPs in the BBC, etc etc..

    I think Corbyn’s political solutions are rubbish but there is no doubt he does The real issue is why the political establishment hadn’t the psychological and intellectual foresight to tackle this years ago with the EU and the British people.resent teh revulsion many feel about that style of politics.

    (The Tories had their own revolt on a political issue – UKIP.. which nearly destroyed them after John Major..)

  3. Tafia says:

    Well said James.

  4. Rallan says:

    Atul Hatwal never ceases to amaze me. Truly, this would be UKIP’s dream scenario.

  5. Dadad1 says:

    These labour politicians are talking absolute rubbish, but why is nobody pointing this out to them, and us ? Perhaps people agree with them ? Or don’t do any research ?

    Have you not heard of the Leichstenstien solution ? Its been around for months. All you have to do is read Richard North at eureferendum.com.

    All we have to do, and I hope Theresa is reading this, is to use the EEA/EFTA solution which contains wthin it the absolute right, not discretionary, for the UK to remain in the single market and have control over its own immigration policy.

    Don’t these politicians read anything ?

  6. Yellow Submarine says:

    Atul is absolutely right about this but Labour can’t do it in it’s current form. It would involve throwing 20 to 30 ultra Leave parliamentary constituencies under a bus and moving into the centre where the Lib Dems and remain Tories were. Now that actually might be the best way of ever getting a Blair style majority again. But it would be a huge rupture with Labour’s history and Labour is a necropolis cult. It worships it’s history.

  7. nhsgp says:

    Very simple.

    The public have rumbled that politicians, mainly labour sold state services below cost. If you import lots of low paid migrants they don’t cover the cost of their services.

    Average cost 12K per person per year. More for low paid because of redistribution.

    So offer free movement by all means, but charge the full cost.

    ie. A min tax of 12K per EU migrant per year. More for adults to cover their pensions.

  8. nhsgp says:

    I’m in favour of second referendum. When the deal is negotiated, we have a referendum, do you accept the deal May has negotiated with the EU, yes or no?

    I’d put that on the table now. A good negotiation tactic. If the EU thinks it can force free migration and selling state goods below cost on the UK, it would have to think again.

    The UK won’t accept the EU exporting its unemployed to the UK, and the UK having to fund them.

    See the V4 group. If we don’t get free movement we will veto the deal [and in the process ensure we don’t have free movement] That tells me the EU isn’t thinking clearly.

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