Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

We are internationalists or we are nothing

Freedom of movement is a tangible benefit to Britain – it is not too late to make the case for immigration, argue Alison McGovern and Richard Angell

Immigration has made our families, our cities and our country strong, not weak. And it is time we said so. For too long, we have questioned this truth. But we should equivocate no more.

It was no surprise that the topic of immigration played such a toxic role in the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. It was one of the reasons Progress opposed the referendum in the first place. In the 2015 general election, Nigel Farage made gratuitous and untrue comments about health tourism, turning his scorn on people with HIV. And 10 years earlier, the 2005 general election was fought on immigration, with Michael Howard’s Conservative party making a dismal attempt to create division. The 2005 election was won by the left with a progressive argument on immigration, but by the time of the referendum, Britain no longer had a progressive prime minister – let alone a prime minister prepared to make difficult arguments to voters.

The concerns that led people to prioritise ‘control’ over ‘continuity’ have been expressed on doorsteps throughout the country in every election as long as we have been knocking on doors for Labour. It is not surprising, and nor is it wrong for voters to raise it. Change has consequences, and can feel threatening – or at least discombobulating. That is why you need strong, well-funded public services, with action on integration to help new people coming to the United Kingdom to work and study.

Our ageing population needs younger people in its workforce, but immigration is always presented as a threat, never as an opportunity

Integration is required because without those coming from elsewhere, our country would face severe challenges. After all new entrants are not a drain on our economy, our public services and infrastructure – they were, and still are, literally helping sustain the economy by working in vital public services like the National Health Service and funding the public realm.

Our ageing population needs younger people in its workforce, but immigration is always presented as a threat, never as an opportunity. This is despite the lived experience of many on the left who recall family members seeking work abroad as part of their own path from hardship.

We should remember too that, despite the strong desire of many to live and work in Britain, life can also be tough for new entrants. Many work below their skill level, or are treated with disrespect because of their background. Even with a decent employer, the work immigrants do is often low paid, stressful and takes a physical toll. And while the British public can be very welcoming people, and thankfully racism and xenophobia has declined, that is not much reassurance to the victims of the bigotry that persists. Immigrants are entitled to our solidarity and our help.

Those of us who are internationalists know that we must always be the vanguard against such hard-right views

Contrast that with the Conservative government and its austerity – especially local government cuts – which has put a strain on the public realm’s ability to respond to all people’s needs and to deal with the challenges above. There are many – the ‘Leave’ campaign, the Conservative party, United Kingdom Independence party and the alt-right – who have tried to blame the challenge for public services on numbers (migrants) and not money (cuts). This is wrong. This attitude treats other human beings as ‘the other’ rather than just another person, trying to make the best of life and provide for their family.

And the consequences are not just the stark rise in hate crime numbers since June 2016, but also the broken rib cages of Polish people who have made Britain their home, and the intimidation of NHS staff who are abused. The likes of Boris Johnson and Priti Patel – who played an appalling divide-and-rule political game telling those from a non-EU migrant background that migration would be easier for their families with less EU migration taking place – should hang their heads in shame.

Those of us who are internationalists know that we must always be the vanguard against such hard-right views. We know that there will always be unscrupulous and morally bankrupt political actors ready to blame foreigners.

So, while it was no surprise that the debate in the EU referendum was not considered or nuanced on migration, the debate then and since has been disappointing. Because of the failed Tory policy of a ‘net migration target’ and the perception that integration post-2004 had not worked, few on the ‘Remain’ side felt able to make a positive case for migration, let alone an alternative model of control within the four freedoms integral to EU membership.

And what has been the response of the opposition since then? Labour in the shape of the 2017 manifesto ended up with a puzzling Brexit triangulation: promise to ‘end free movement’ and leave the EU but retain the ‘exact same benefits’ of the single market.

But what worked in the context of the general election now leaves the party hamstrung. The frontbench – following an effective campaign from the Progress-incubated Labour Campaign for the Single Market – has conceded membership of a customs union and the need for a single market deal. When the Tories say Labour supports membership of the single market, no one seeks to correct them.Of course, when it comes to immigration, progressives understand that change is not always easy. Sudden increases in new entrants to an area can impact the housing market locally, new languages can cause practical issues for schools and other services, and exploitative employers make matters worse. Change requires activist government and responsive public policy. Trade Unions play a central role in making sure that all workers are protected, and that no one can exploit new workers.

Progress magazine in February explored many of the proactive changes that could bring control to free movement. They are still on the table for any government minded to embrace good policy rather than populism.

But still there is a problem. Some remain attached to the promise to end free movement. This is especially important, it is argued, to working-class voters, whose support the party was expected to haemorrhage due to defence and security concerns. But what is best for British people and creating a more socially just country? Leaving the single market would be a £45bn annual hit to the treasury coffers – making worse austerity under the Tories and rendering meaningless the £50bn of tax revenues identified by shadow chancellor John McDonnell in the 2017 manifesto; every penny would be spent on existing commitments, with nothing left for free university tuition or ending the public sector pay freeze.

Read next: Rethinking immigration

Furthermore, Britain’s labour market without free movement would be much worse off. The potential negative impact on the health service, on universities, on social care is huge. Free movement is a right exercised by many British people – retirees living in France or Spain, young people who travel while studying, or the summer months in the Costa del Sol. And the corresponding right of our EU neighbours coming to the UK has been a boost for British farming, and many small businesses in the creative sector, retail or restaurant trade.

And without free movement, we will experience a significant power shift from the many to the few. If companies are able to enjoy free movement of capital, goods and services, it can only be right that working people can make choices about where they work too. Without this, opportunities for the many are fewer. The poorer get poorer. International connectivity brings innovation and opportunity, for example, diverse cities like Leicester out-perform cities of similar size. And the benefits of being an open, not closed, economy are not just economic. They are social. Diversity and relationships with people across the world are strengths. Our culture is better for it, as places like Liverpool with its thriving art scene demonstrates.

Immigration has made our families, our cities and our country strong, not weak. And it is time we said so. For too long, we have questioned this truth. But we should equivocate no more.

Labour has time to do the right thing for the country, end its flirtation with Brexit and immigration triangulation, and be honest with the people: there is not a successful future for Britain as a closed economy and society. Only membership of the single market can deliver a ‘jobs first Brexit’ that Corbyn espouses and that means support – with added rules and regulations to improve it – for free movement.


Alison McGovern is member of parliament for Wirral South and chair of Progress and Richard Angell is director of Progress. They tweet @Alison_McGovern and @RichardAngell


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Richard Angell

is director of Progress

Alison McGovern MP

is chair of Progress

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