Immigration, and freedom of movement in particular, has threatened to drive a wedge through the constructive ambiguity defended by the Labour Party for the past two years. At its core, the immigration debate embodies the difficulties inherent in attempting to hold together working-class Leave voters in industrial heartlands, and the middle-class metropolitan voters that fuelled the party’s success in 2017. Much of the former rejects free movement for economic and/or cultural reasons; much of the latter, ‘Corbynite’ and ‘Blairite’ alike, defends immigration as an unqualified good.
The party’s initial decision to abstain on the Immigration Bill, ostensibly due to plans to amend at committee stage, was met with a derision by ‘left’ and ‘right’ of the party alike that appeared to force a change in direction. Owen Jones described the initial move as ‘really disappointing’, and argued that “Labour has to make a stronger case for migrants’ rights”; meanwhile, MPs including Chuka Umunna lined up to condemn the decision, with Chris Leslie characterising the actions of the frontbench as an ‘utter shambles’. Despite the subsequent climb-down, Labour had flirted with disaster on both flanks, and all on an issue where ambitious policy is in short supply.
Within this context, Sir Keir Starmer’s intervention on Newsnight this week is of the highest significance. Marking a step-change in rhetoric on free movement, the Shadow Brexit Secretary delivered a series of carefully crafted lines that raised the possibility of Labour defending a revised version of the principle in a future immigration system. Whereas the Shadow Home Secretary had omitted references to free movement in her September speech on migration, Sir Keir affirmed that:
“If somebody is coming to do a job and it needs to be done and it has been advertised locally beforehand with nobody able to do it, then most people would say I accept that. Most people say that if you are coming to join your family that is something I can accept. Most people would say if somebody wants to come here and study and it is genuine then of course please come and study”.
The phrasing of these statements is astute. It displays an awareness of the fact that much opposition to free movement hinges on the perception of a ‘lack of control’ and a concern about ‘open borders’, and successfully reduces a feared abstract principle down to concrete human cases that the public may support.
What is more, the cases deemed likely to meet the test of public opinion are largely compatible with legislation on free movement in its current state. Not only did the original formulation of the principle explicitly refer to workers, but the Citizens’ Rights Directive of 2004 allows Member States to restrict residency beyond three months to those who possess a meaningful chance of employment, are enrolled in an accredited study programme, or are economically self-sufficient. Further controls, including mandatory identification documents, are open to states that wish to impose them.
So what does Sir Keir’s intervention mean for future policy? The implications are two-fold. Firstly, some flexibility would be required from the European Union on job notification requirements. Whilst Switzerland have negotiated an ‘emergency brake’ to force employers in sectors with high unemployment to give local residents priority before employing overseas, this has not been extended to other countries participating in free movement. However, given the widespread desire to protect free movement rights on the continent, such a concession would likely be negotiable were the UK to recommit to the fundamental principle.
Secondly, the Labour Party will require an ambitious set of policies to tackle public concern with free movement, without compromising on a defence of the fundamental principle, and of the open and liberal vision for migration that Labour rightly seeks to defend. Sir Keir hinted towards this later on in the interview, stating that “we get stuck on the free movement discussion too early without saying what does a principled, effective and fair immigration policy look like? When we get into that debate we may find we can make better progress than we think”.
In our report Movement Control, Global Future argue for just such an approach, providing a series of actionable policies that segment concern with free movement, and deal with each such concern in turn. We propose a revolutionary electronic identification system with registration of foreign nationals to boost citizenship and to streamline and regulate access to services. Tougher labour market enforcement and new protections and training for British workers could help to level the playing field, including through the possible introduction of a unitary Labour Inspectorate and full implementation of the Taylor Review. Public service funding should be responsive to population changes, and financial support should be boosted for language and integration provision, with significantly increased funding for the communities that globalisation has left behind.
Exclusive conversations with politicians across Europe revealed an unanimous feeling that the UK could and should implement measures allowed under existing law to address public anxiety with free movement. Labour should seize the opportunity to do so, presenting a coherent case for the principle that stands up for the rights of migrants, and leaves neither of its core constituencies behind.