Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Freedom of manoeuvre

Richard Angell outlines 10 changes to how Britain controls its borders that fit with Labour values, deal with the public’s concerns and keep us in the single market

‘It’s clear that many people voted for Brexit because they wanted more control on immigration.’ Not my words, but those of the head of the European Union and international relations department at the Trades Union Congress. Owen Tudor waded into the freedom of movement debate on LabourList in July 2017 to point out how ‘the [United Kingdom] could exert greater control over immigration through creative means that don’t require leaving the single market’. He was right to. In fact, it is an imperative to explore how if Labour is to show a ‘jobs first Brexit’ is available to this government and the British public.

Before getting into this debate there are three important things to make clear.

First, it is a UK success story that eastern Europe is with Europe and not aligned to a ‘Greater Russia’. Considering Vladimir Putin’s aggression towards his neighbours, the European Union itself and progressives in the United States, two decades after the Berlin Wall fell it is important for UK interests that Warsaw, Riga and Sofia look west not east. This is exactly why the accession of these eastern bloc states to the EU was a British priority in the 1990s, despite widespread uncertainty. While the challenges of integration are paramount, there have been huge benefits for the continent, its workers and UK profitability in the world. Regretting this policy aim would be a folly and a distortion of British interests now.

Second, there is no situation in which politicians can feasibly promise no, or significantly less, immigration post-Brexit. Nor would progressives want to. We know migration is good for Britain and British citizens. Diversity is good for our economy and society and is one of the UK’s strengths, meanwhile, one million of our fellow British citizens are exerting their freedom of movement rights across the continent as we speak. Moreover, the reasons why migrants – either economic or as refugees and asylum seekers – leave their country of origin are beyond our control. The reasons why they choose Britain – the English language, links with the world and a relatively good economy in Europe – are not just things the country does not want to change, they are the very things the ‘go global’ Brexiteers wish to deploy in trade deals with emerging economies. In fact, these trade deals will increase migration to the UK as visa for students and workers are the basic requirements of Indian, Chinese, Indonesian trade negotiators. So improved management of who comes in and out of Britain is our only option. The more confidence the public has in the border management system, the better we can make positive arguments for the benefits immigration brings.

🎙 NEW podcast: Pat McFadden MP on free movement 

Third, the status quo is not a ‘free for all’, as Catherine Barnard argued for Progress back in September, pointing out that ‘about 5,000 EU citizens are denied entry to the UK or are deported each year’.

So if the single market is best for Britain from a jobs, protections and prosperity perspective, is Tudor right? Can freedom of movement be reformed to allow Britain to stay in the single market?

Sure. It requires, as the director of  ‘Renewing the Centre’ at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change Yascha Mounk told listeners of the Brainstorm podcast, politicians need to ‘disaggregate the fears of immigration and the feelings of control’. Taking charge of the latter can deal with the former. As this magazine’s editorial argues, commanding confidence on ‘competence’ at the border and the ‘opportunity cost’ – job and public service pressures – caused by migration leaves only people’s ‘cultural’ anxieties, with which we legitimately disagree and should say so.

What is our freedom to manoeuvre? This piece looks at what those changes to free movement might reasonably be. They are all things the government could do today, could have done before the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU and things that we will most likely have to do after Brexit anyway. They are things not necessarily agreed to by everyone in the Labour family but none of them are against our values to consider. Before anyone launches a factional attack, and as Conor Pope points out, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party had a manifesto – the star of the 2017 show – that committed to ‘end freedom of movement’ and what some might considered regressive measures of ‘employer sponsorship, work permits, visa regulations or a tailored mix of all these’. It is socialist to take a lead, it is right to engage the public and, if it is done correctly, it could keep Britain in the single market.

Here are 10 measures worth considering:

One, counting all migrants in and out of the country. This was done in the UK before Conservative Michael Howard abolished it in 1995 as home secretary.  This was reintroduced quite recently, not at the border, but in the Home Office using travel companies data and technology, for non-EU migration. The system is clearly going to have to be extended post-Brexit, so why not do it regardless? It is possible under single market rules, as it was before John Major’s government removed it. It is expensive, which is why it has not been reintroduced previously, but if we have to pay the expense in the scenario of a hard Brexit, the annual loss to the exchequer would be £45bn a year, then it is clearly worth it.

Two, a worker registration system. In Germany, new arrivals from within the EU attend their local town hall; many others across Europe do the same. But as Harvey Redgrave at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change argued in a paper, ‘unlike other continental systems, the UK has chosen not to operate a worker registration system for EU nationals and thus has no way of tracking where they are or what they’re doing. This could be changed tomorrow, if the government were so minded’.

Three, entitlement cards. Established but never fully rolled out by Labour, abolished by Theresa May at the Home Office at the behest of the Liberal Democrats, but much missed in future debates with the United Kingdom Independence party doing their normal dog whistle politics in the 2015 general election and in the EU referendum itself. If Britain still had a form of identity cards the debate on health tourism would be irrelevant, easily dismissed or not even rear their ugly head. The sense of ‘free for all’ would dissipate. Going forward, ‘ID cards for all’ would show a serious change from the status quo for the voters, allow government to improve its ability to enforce the rules that exist and give confidence in the system.

Four, a Belgium-style system of ‘no job, no stay’. The seat of power for the whole EU project has some of the most onerous rules asking EU visitors to register with the authorities within 10 days of entry and those who have not found work within three months to leave. If the host country of the European parliament can do it, there are surely no conflicts with single market membership.

Five, support Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to beef up the posted workers directive. In fact, Jeremy Corbyn is at one with the French president here. In 2016, the Labour leader argued that ‘a little known EU directive … allows companies that win contracts in another part of Europe to … post their workers abroad temporarily, rather than go through new recruitment processes’. However, he argues, ‘legal judgments have opened up loopholes meaning that these companies are able to undercut the going rate in one country by paying the going rate in another’. The current government is resisting the change but instead, the UK could make common cause with Macron and strengthen the rules. This would help both local communities and ‘posted’ workers – a win-win for workers and communities across Europe.

Six, transform the rules on job vacancies. Tudor argues that one option is to ‘restrict public sector jobs to nationals only’, and another is to require ‘all vacancies in sectors where unemployment is above average to be published with the government’s own employment service, with applications allowed only from those unemployed people already registered with the service’. Switzerland, where the public have voted against free movement but wish to stay in the single market, have agreed with the European Commission preferential advertising of jobs to local workers. A British version must, therefore, be viable.

Seven, a migration impact fund. Gordon Brown created it, the Tories (obviously) abolished it, but Corbyn has called for its return. It was in the 2017 manifesto and the funds would be used for English language classes, extra resources for schools with new migrant pupils and community cohesion work. This can only be a good thing, and the spring statement on 13 March should reinstate it immediately.

Eight, reforms to the labour market. As James Bloodworth argues, there are vital changes we can make that stop business exploitation and power imbalances, as Labour people and trade unions have been arguing for years. These issues were comprehensively set out in the 2015 and 2017 manifestos, for a start. Together, they would stop local workforces opting out of dead end employment, prevent migrant labour abuses and the entrenching of the position because of on-going wage disparities.

Nine, properly funded public services. The NHS was ruthlessly used by Vote Leave to bring over Labour voters – the very reason why the bus was red. People are concerned that the NHS is under pressure – because it is. If migration plays a role in that it is because European workers are leaving its employment (and the country) in what is becoming an unwelcoming environment. The real reason is funding. It is time the left championed an NHS tax to ensure it is funded to the same level of its European counterparts. Ending austerity across the board will help further – considering leaving the single market will cost so much in lost tax revenues, this is vital, not optional.

Ten, we should go into negotiation with the EU, starting with our sister parties, on reforms to free movement, as Harvey Redgrave sets out.

These measures, taken together, would be a step change in the way we deal with EU migration while rejecting the dog whistle politics of the right nor engaging in the numbers debate that has been so disastrous. Implemented, they would be a serious change to the status quo and show that Labour, and parliament, is listening to those who voted ‘Leave’ while not chucking out the economic baby with the fiscal bath water. It would make the ‘no change’ of staying in the single market and customs union acceptable to the country overall and maybe, just maybe, bring the country together. Future divisions and a hard Brexit can only be bad for Britain.


Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets @RichardAngell



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Richard Angell

is director of Progress

1 comment

  • All this sounds fine to a London centric educated population but to the millions of previously solid labour voters in the north and midlands it is essentially meaningless. The problem is that we do not include nor can communicate with what was the labour core vote who in some areas voted leave by 7 to 1. This population is poorly educated socially immobile and sees their country being taken over by foreigners and they are right. Their lack of skills means they have no global economic traction as manufacturing and services can either be done better and cheaper by younger more agile work forces in Eastern Europe and China and India. Whatever the answer is it probably mean disenfranchising this population.

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