Our new partnership with Europe will define this parliament and the balance between single market membership and free movement is pivotal. Some believe we can ignore public opinion on immigration. This is self-defeating when so much concern is concentrated in Labour areas. Others have said free movement must end entirely with single market membership sacrificed as a consequence. Our economy would not recover and Labour areas would suffer. Instead, our starting point should be to seek to retain single market membership while honouring concerns about immigration by reforming free movement.
The challenge is to give meaning to voters’ call for ‘control’, about which there is no common view, while defending an open economy and society.
If we returned to the concept of free movement of labour rather than people, the system would no longer be ‘limitless’ but instead limited to those who want to work and make a contribution. If there was an emergency brake on inflows, we would have control to take action if there was actual evidence of negative economic outcomes from European Union migration. And if this could be negotiated as compatible with single market membership – which would necessitate a pan-European approach – we would protect our manufacturing and service industries.
This is a high bar to set for the government, but isn’t that the job of the opposition? There are signs Europe may be open to such a discussion, so shouldn’t we hold the government’s feet to the fire to ensure it is pursued and work backwards? To go further and concede single market membership when even the Treasury is reportedly fighting for it within government seems an odd opening position for Labour. This would permit the government to make potentially endless compromises on market access to justify its immigration policy, which would initiate the fallout so starkly outlined by the Japanese government and which Labour would be unable to contest.
It is cliché to say we are at a historic juncture, but it is true in relation to our global status and true of our approach to immigration. Some Tories have long indulged a blame game on immigrants, just as they did against so-called ‘scroungers’. This includes a target to reduce numbers which has proven unworkable and corrosive to trust – not least damaging David Cameron’s credibility during the referendum. Rather than indulging a wrongheaded prescription for legitimate economic grievances, we should call this out. Immigration is a net positive to our economy, in both high skilled sectors such as engineering and lower skilled sectors such as agriculture, and where a Leave vote correlated to numbers of migrants concerns related to local influxes. We should therefore argue for policy which seeks to simultaneously confront this issue and protect our economy.
A holistic approach would mend rather than end free movement; strengthen cohesion and integration; support minimum wage enforcement; introduce a fully-funded migration impact fund; and invest in UK border forces. If governments need migration to help grow the economy, which they do, they should support conditions in which it can flourish.
It is of course true that some people voted for immigration control, but many also voted for an economic argument that has already proven false. The nirvana of new trade deals is not coming, our access to our largest and most important market will be significantly diluted if we are outside the single market, and there is no £350m a week for the National Health Service.
Labour’s approach should balance control with opportunity – which is what people voted for. But opportunity appears incompatible with leaving the single market. Our membership adds four per cent to GDP, is linked to millions of jobs and leaving would weaken public finances. The wider rebalancing of our economy that many have rightly said must come post 23 June would be fundamentally undermined by erecting trade barriers.
If we lapse into the belief that remaining part of the single market means somehow supporting capital over labour we in fact undermine workers’ interests, which are served through increased employment opportunities and common workplace rights. Leaving would open the door to a bonfire of rights and standards with less to invest in public services, which we know is the ultimate aim of ‘hard’ Leavers. No one in the north, Wales or Midlands voted for that.
Furthermore, if we conclude that business interests will have the greatest influence over this government’s Brexit decision-making, it will be harder for Labour to build a coalition that includes their voice if we appear unconcerned about their desire for maximum market access – or labour mobility.
From regional investment to national security, stability in Northern Ireland to environmental protection, the debate over UK-EU relations will determine our country’s future, but there is perhaps no greater challenge than balancing single market membership with mending free movement. Labour’s role should be to ensure the government delivers control with opportunity in equal measure.
Joe Carberry is co-executive director at Open Britain. He tweets at @joecarberryUK
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