If Labour becomes an anti-immigration party it will be the far-right that benefits, not us
The autumn statement revealed the enormous damage leaving the European Union will do to the British economy. Growth and productivity will be lower, while borrowing and inflation will be higher, as a direct result of Brexit.
Yet even now, the Government is signalling they favour an extreme ‘hard Brexit’, apparently regardless of the further harm this would do to the living standards of working people.
In these circumstances it is more important than ever that Labour wins the argument in favour of remaining a member of the single market, to minimise any further damage to our economy.
But winning this argument will require a far greater level of honesty about the trade-offs involved between single market membership and freedom of movement.
During the referendum campaign, the Labour party made it clear that simultaneously having cake and eating it was merely another Boris Johnson fantasy. Yet now, I regret to say, there are leading figures in our own party who are willing to collude in this fantasy. People who should – and I suspect do – know better, have become complicit in creating a fiction that our economy can remain within the single market, while at the same time cutting immigration and ending freedom of movement.
This is an extremely dangerous fantasy, and at some point in the next two years, this collective denial will collide with reality. As every European leader has made clear, this is not a deal that will ever be on offer. There will be no United Kingdom membership of the single market without freedom of movement. So as a nation we will have to make a stark choice: do we end freedom of movement or do we stay in the single market?
In answering this I of course recognise that I am not an elected representative, and that Labour members of parliament have to listen to and be accountable to their constituents. But we have to be honest that prioritising ending freedom of movement would inevitably mean a hard Brexit. Those in our party who advocate this choice need to be clear not only that this would cost £16 billion in lost tax revenue, but to be clear how their constituents would benefit from Britain being forced into trading on WTO terms, with the devastating impact on growth and living standards that would bring.
Some may argue in response that the politics must trump the economics, and that beating the United Kingdom Independence party means Labour must sound every bit as tough on immigration as they do.
Of course beating Ukip is a priority, but we need to ask whether conceding the argument that immigration is the underlying cause of every problem facing voters in Labour constituencies will in the end hurt or help Ukip – the party with the biggest lead on this issue.
It should be clear what would actually happen if we followed this path. Out of the single market, the British people will be poorer. But we will have left the EU, and freedom of movement will have been ended, so the Tory Government and a ferociously partisan tabloid media – desperate to avoid responsibility themselves – will need to find someone else to blame for the nation’s economic malaise.
Perhaps they will blame the EU migrants that were allowed to stay. Perhaps they will blame the non-EU migrants who will have come to help address the labour shortages we will be facing. Or perhaps they will blame those in our communities with a different religion or a different skin colour.
Where do we think the immigration debate will go then? Having conceded immigration is the problem, Labour will be in no position to hold the line. The rhetoric will continue to ratchet up, and who will be waiting in the wings to take advantage by offering ever-more extreme solutions? Far from dealing with the Ukip threat, Labour risks creating the perfect conditions for Ukip and the far-right to thrive.
Some in our party believe that by conceding this argument they are emulating New Labour and creating a route to electoral success. But the risk is they end up emulating only the parody of New Labour, abandoning our principles for scant reward from Ukip supporters. The real success of New Labour was finding new ways to make our values relevant to the challenges our country faced.
As a party we have had far too little to say to Labour voters for far too long. Our challenge is a crisis of relevance, not a race to the extremes. We must find an agenda relevant to the voters we need to convince, not imitate solutions that will make the country worse off. The truth is, if Labour becomes an anti-immigration party it will be the far-right that benefits, not us.
Spencer Livermore is a peer, and was an advisor to Gordon Brown from 1997 to 2007. He tweets @
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