Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

What are Labour’s new immigration divides?

Labour members are overwhelmingly positioned between being irritated by Brexit and full on anti-Brexit. But that is not the only divide – and they are forcing some unusual alliances, reveals Conor Pope

Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union.’ In that line, Labour’s 2017 manifesto featured arguably the most anti-immigration policy the party has put forward in decades. Indeed, in the phrase ‘we will not discriminate between people of different races or creeds’ some saw the implicit suggestion that freedom of movement had done; a line regularly trotted out by the United Kingdom Independence party, which contends that freedom of movement is ‘racist’ by allowing EU citizens greater immigration rights than others. Other than that, the immigration policy was woolly, saying that Labour ‘may include employer sponsorship, work permits, visa regulations or a tailored mix of all these’.

Despite this, the overall tone of Labour’s message was more pro-immigrant than it had been in a long time. The 2015 election campaign’s ‘controls on immigration’ mug resonated to the extent that shadow home secretary Diane Abbott opened a major speech on immigration last month with a gag about having no mugs with her. It felt like only Labour could contrive to spark an internal, mid-general election campaign row about a slogan that both did not mean anything – every government has immigration controls, after all – and that most voters did not believe. Under Ed Miliband, it felt like Labour wanted to be seen as strict on immigration, but failed.

Jeremy Corbyn has changed that. In the middle of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, which had become mired in unattractive arguments over migration, his team wanted him to visit a refugee camp. The visit did not go ahead, but the initial idea belied a greater mindset. Along with the aforementioned policy, the 2017 manifesto pledged that Labour would ‘not scapegoat migrants nor blame them for economic failures’ as, it was felt by many close to the leadership, the party had submissively done previously.

There is, essentially a split at the top of the Labour party that runs all the way down the Corbyn movement. Not enough to rupture the project, or anything so drastic, but still a divide.

It roughly falls along the lines of Abbott as a figurehead on one side, and shadow chancellor John McDonnell on the other.

🎙 NEW podcast: Pat McFadden MP on free movement 

Abbott is vehemently and ideologically pro-immigration. As she set out in that speech a month ago, she genuinely views much of the conversation around immigration in this country as a simple proxy to allow people to talk disparagingly about race. As such, she appears deeply sceptical of the motives behind any effort to reduce, limit or strongly control the number of people coming into the country.

McDonnell subscribes more towards an orthodox Bennite view which would, unfortunately, be best described as ‘socialism in one country’. For him, leaving the EU presents a remarkable opportunity to throw off the neoliberal free trade shackles of the European project, and build a truly socialist state in Britain. That does not forego immigration, but it does the single market and, as such, freedom of movement as it currently exists begins to make much less sense.

The biggest mover on Abbott’s side of the debate inside the Labour party currently is probably the Transport and Salaried Staffs’ Association; its general secretary Manuel Cortes is regularly vocal in his call for Labour to reverse Brexit, and holds the preservation of freedom of movement dear. The TSSA may not be anywhere near the largest trade union affiliated to Labour, but it does hold some sway: its London office previously housed Momentum and, before that, was the base for Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign. Unison falls into this camp more than any other too – although it does not push hard on the topic – as does Clive Lewis, who is now back on the party frontbench after resigning over the triggering of article 50.

The Trades Union Congress also backs free movement, although the relationship between the country’s main trade union body to the heart of Corbynism might be more distant than expected. Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani, an effective outrider for the Labour leadership, recently branded the TUC ‘centrist’ in response to its support for single market membership.

Not all on Abbott’s side are necessarily pro-single market, though. The Labour Campaign for Free Movement, backed by the TSSA, hopes to corral the enormous swathes of new Labour backers who are instinctively pro-immigration, without necessarily putting much importance on trade. The fear is that while the system is not perfect, rolling back on free movement plays into general anti-immigration feeling. What they care about is migrants, not markets.

Those supporters, though, are happy to give the leadership the benefit of the doubt. This seems, at least partly, due to the media portrayal of Corbyn. Not the volley of abuse from the newspapers, but the smart deliverance of his message carriers.

📖 Editorial: Fair rules without prejudice

Like Bastani, many of Corbynism’s well-connected outspoken media defenders appear happy to jettison free movement. Liam Young, whose book on Corbyn’s youth movement is out this month, recently called on those opposed to losing freedom of movement to ‘wipe away [their] liberal tears’, arguing that many young people ‘can’t afford a passport, never mind “enjoy untrammelled access to European markets”’. Paul Mason last month described himself to the Sunday Times as ‘against freedom of movement’ – although he did so, peculiarly, in an effort to distance himself from Corbyn.

They build on leftwing Eurosceptic arguments that critiques freedom of movement as no real freedom inside a ‘neoliberal’ framework of the EU. It is free movement of capital and labour, not true freedom for workers.

There is, of course, little in the way of consensus on the issue of immigration among Labour’s Corbynsceptics, and this also helped give the leadership cover when the ending of free movement ended up in the manifesto. It was not a topic that many members of parliament wanted to pick a fight on less than a year on from the referendum as they went to face the polls themselves. It is difficult to believe that figures such as Caroline Flint – or indeed, major trade unions such as the GMB – would have stayed quiet about the prospect of maintaining free movement with no changes post-Brexit. In the rushed setting of an unexpected snap election, ruling out free movement may have been a calculation of path of least resistance for manifesto authors Andrew Fisher and Seumas Milne.

Outside the immediate pressures of a general election, there is now a regrouping among both those with an ideological attachment to open borders and those, Progress included, who support the four freedoms as part and parcel of maintaining single market membership. What really divides Alison McGovern and Heidi Alexander’s Labour Campaign for the Single Market campaign and the aforementioned Labour Campaign for Freedom of Movement on immigration is the latter’s unclear insistence on ‘extending’ free movement. Open Labour, the soft left group, seems to straddle this divide, as does the wider party membership, which is somewhere between ‘irritated by Brexit’ and full on anti-Brexit.

The heightened tensions around the Irish border, exacerbated by the continuing vacuum of authority in Stormont, have led to greater scrutiny of the Labour party’s position. Irish Labour leader Brendan Howlin used an article in this magazine last month to say that ‘only the UK staying in the single market and customs union can deliver the type of border and future trade arrangements that Ireland and Northern Ireland needs’.

This was followed by a letter to Corbyn from Colum Eastwood, leader of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour party, arguing that ‘we need to ensure that we stay in the single market and custom union – anything less than that would be an economic and political disaster on this part of the island’. Labour’s own shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Smith appeared to stop just short of endorsing the message, but tweeted it out with a message that it is ‘important that we listen to voices from Northern Ireland’. He also used a television interview shortly afterwards to confirm that he would prefer the party’s position to be pro-single market and customs union.

It was in this context, with clear messages from our sister parties and from within his own shadow cabinet, that Corbyn made his recent speech softening Labour’s attitude towards the customs union – showing that he is willing to shift to the most useful Brexit position.

The role of Unite, as Labour’s largest affiliated trade union, will be key to determining the final policy. However, its leadership faces a similar dilemma to that faced in Norman Shaw South. General secretary Len McCluskey must find himself torn three ways: closest ideologically to McDonnell’s Bennism, politically in the union with the Abbott-esque stance and industrially with McGovern and the pro-single market policy. The union itself has at times appeared at strains not to back full membership – instead opting for the ‘best access’, which causes fewer current problems for Corbyn and McDonnell.

As things stand, the policy to end free movement stands supreme. But each major player in the movement has its own competing interests. The short-term priority for many in the Corbyn project is a massive overhaul of the party’s democratic structures, and in the horse-trading that ensues it is not outside the question that some stakeholders may put freedom of movement back on the table as a price for their support.


Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. He tweets @Conorpope


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Conor Pope

is deputy editor at Progress

1 comment

  • Dear Progress,

    It is clear to many that Brexit reflects the wounds, the silenced and the NEGLECTED in many parts of the UK. Brexit has certainly not been responsible for “divide” – It is a reflection of the reality of divide in the UK, throughout Europe… etc.

    Politics has become ambitious towards a globalised approach towards social and economic problem-solving. This, I strongly believe, is impractical – as the political need to rebuild communities and the lives that remain neglected whilst a reliance on our European friends become prioritised – rather than repairing the existing social, economical and psychological damage – is all too clear in the eyes and mind of the public.

    Business demands partnerships. But, what is the political goal when it remains clear the vast extend of ‘unemployment’ in Europe along with social, economic and psychological neglect reaches all time HIGHS!! Who are the politicians talking about this subject?

    With a need to continue the EU project, political voices seemingly shy away from talking about the outstanding work that needs to be done to repair broken bridges between politics and the public.

    Using immigration to hide the cracks in political failings and public neglect cannot, and is Not, a long-term strategy worthy of compassion and support. ‘Bridging the gap’ between the ambitious politics of today and public neglect is needed. But, is our media wiling to ask such tough questions via the VOICES of those who have already been silenced for far too long? I think Not.


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