Freedom of movement is not a core Labour value, but leaving the single market goes against the national interest, argues Adam Harrison
Not so long ago, British politics revolved around the question of The Deficit. To try to answer this question, Labour promised to cut the deficit more nicely than those nasty Tories would. As many people couldn’t see the point of this, Labour then lost a general election and elected a leader who would have no truck with sounding ‘Tory-lite’.
Now, British politics is split in two by the fissure of Brexit. To try to keep a foot on either side of the gap, Labour promised to do Brexit more nicely than those nasty Tories would. Many people do not see the point of this.
Last summer, while Labour languished through another season of navel-gazing, the referendum result was defined by the Conservatives and United Kingdom Independence party as a vote against immigration. In part, it was. But that is not the whole story, and the United Kingdom deserves to have more than one future picked out for it by its politicians. It deserves politicians who fight for jobs and industries.
From the start of Theresa May’s premiership she has made clear that she prioritises immigration over single market membership. People complain she has no plan but in fact its broad parameters are clear.
Some in Labour have recently made efforts to think about what a post-Brexit immigration system would look like.
But this is to put the cart before the horse.
We may not see it yet, so bewildered do we feel, but an enormous swathe of political territory is opening up before the party. And planted smack in the middle of this territory is a great big sign reading ‘THE ECONOMY’.
For nearly 10 years, Labour has been the wrong side of the political debate on ‘the economy’. But now the prime minister has firmly placed her government on that same, wrong, side. What May has done is to make a bet that the public will tolerate a poorer country in return for less immigration. This may be a gamble that pays off; we will only know in hindsight.
For now, though, the country deserves to have an alternative course identified for it.
Freedom of movement is not a core Labour value. But plentiful jobs, good pay and shared prosperity are. Quitting the single market and the customs union puts these in danger.
There is more to work with than many think. Close to half of those voting in the referendum wished to remain in the European Union – after decade upon decade of relentless anti-European propaganda and lies, after Conservative leaders – May included; May especially – time and time again allow themselves to be dictated to by the extreme wings of their party, after a botched campaign led by a weak prime minister.
Those voters, and the millions who plumped for a ‘Leave’ vote but weren’t really sure as they put their cross in the box, deserve to see a major political party that is thinking about their economic interest – and the interest of all the 52 per cent who have been lied to.
Two-thirds of Labour voters backed ‘Remain’. More would have done so had the party enjoyed compelling leadership genuinely committed to the cause. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have earned the – unmerited – badge of the party of ‘Remain’.
A hard Brexit is not and never has been in the national interest on any front – economic, political, security. The words ‘economic interest’ and the ‘national interest’ should pepper the opposition’s discussion of Brexit.
Anger at immigration is deep and real, and politicians naturally feel compelled to respond. But so far no discussion about immigration controls has been accompanied by an honest message to the public that these controls look set to cause damage to jobs and industry. This is a dereliction of duty.
By trying to stand for two mutually incompatible things the Labour party risks standing for nothing. And what happens further down the line if May should succeed in concluding a deal which includes immigration controls and substantial single market access – what would there be to thank Labour for?
This is before we consider Labour’s parlous position in Scotland. As with any crisis, there is an opportunity buried in it somewhere. Labour should think about what the new political era can do to make a vote for Labour relevant for Scots. A nicer version of Tory Brexit will not cut it to say the least. Setting out a stall that puts the economy first, leading that fight from the front, would draw voters’ attention back to Labour as the sole party to unite a union based on prosperity and redistribution.
As Bridget Phillipson recently so eloquently wrote, the Labour party needs to reunite its ‘Hampstead and Hull’ wings of support. She asked why there has been a constant focus on immigration when this is the one issue guaranteed to upset both voter constituencies. She also warned, ‘Any form of Brexit that imperils single market access puts at risk the livelihoods of thousands of the people I represent.’ Phillipson therefore goes further than most Labour MPs in warning that mere ‘access’ to the single market will not be enough to avert economic harm.
Labour needs to have something to say on immigration. But the foundation of Labour politics is neither restricting nor encouraging immigration – it is representing and promoting the interests of working people. This means its politics should start from a deep, sustained and public consideration of what is best for jobs, industries and livelihoods. That is the whole point of the Labour party. And from that foundation, policy on other areas, including the most difficult areas, can be built.
So, how about it: Labour as the party of the single market and the customs union, the Tories as the party wanting to quit them. Labour on the side of jobs, the Tories against. Labour thinking about the whole UK, the Tories not.
Adam Harrison is a councillor in the London borough of Camden. He tweets at @AdamDKHarrison
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