“Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union,” stated Labour’s 2017 manifesto – as if it was a fact of nature and not a political decision affecting millions of people. Corbyn’s strategy of deflecting attention from Brexit to focus on austerity meant that, for almost two years, this section of the manifesto largely avoided scrutiny.
When the Labour Campaign for Free Movement launched in 2017, speaking out about migrants’ rights in Corbyn’s Labour often felt like an uphill struggle. At the 2017 Labour conference, a motion on migration and free movement was deprioritised, as Momentum recommended picking less contentious policies for discussion. In 2018, it was cut up beyond recognition and composited into the notoriously ambiguous compromise motion on Brexit. However, the overdue immigration debate in Labour couldn’t be avoided forever. Labour’s reluctance to oppose the Tory Immigration Bill, and refusal to defend free movement in the Brexit negotiations, brought the question back into the spotlight.
Let us, then, take the opportunity to once again consider the arguments. Why freedom of movement? The short answer is: because people move, always have and always will. The alternative necessarily means immigration controls and deportations. While all borders won’t be eliminated overnight, the left’s ambition should at the very least be lowering them, not building new ones.
Freedom of movement primarily benefits rich Europeans, we still hear. This, however, ignores the fact that the wealthy few can already move, live and work freely nearly anywhere in the world. Any kind of “skills-” or points-based system will necessarily benefit the more privileged migrants.
Those who need free movement most are working class people; whether escaping poverty and unemployment; homophobic, transphobic or other kinds of discrimination, or simply following their heart. Among those who benefit from European free movement are thousands of Latin American nationals who come to the UK on EU passports – such as the migrant cleaners who, in recent years, led the wave of successful living wage and anti-outsourcing campaigns in London universities.
It’s true to say that, statistically, those from more comfortable backgrounds are more likely to travel. However, the same could be said about internal migration. The fact that many working class people would struggle to buy a train ticket from London to Manchester is not a reason to build a fence with barbed wire somewhere across the Midlands. Equally, the fact that middle class teenagers are still more likely to go to university than their poorer peers doesn’t discourage Corbynites from advocating for free education. Rather than creating more boundaries, let’s strive to remove them.
What about wages and hospital queues? Study after study proves that the negative effects of free movement are vastly exaggerated by its opponents. Even last year’s government-commissioned migration advisory committee report showed a largely positive impact of European migration on public services and little to no impact on jobs and wages. In the few sectors where immigration does put some pressure on pay, this could be mitigated by a higher minimum wage and stronger union rights.
Closing the borders with Europe would do nothing to help the left behind, whether with or without UK passports. Nevertheless, it is set to particularly hit those already most disadvantaged. Homeless people, disabled people, children in care, victims of domestic violence and travellers are among those most likely to be unable to prove their right to stay, opening the doors to a fresh immigration scandal.
Finally, freedom of movement is fundamentally unlike any other immigration system: in that the power to decide where one can live lies not with their employer or the state, but with the person in question. It means migrants don’t rely on the charity of their country of destination, or on skills that make them economically useful, but have control and agency over their own lives. This has implications not only for the individual but also for the labour movement as a whole. When one’s visa depends on their employer, they have little protection from exploitation and abuse. A migrant worker is less likely to join a union and demand better pay and conditions – or even complain about obvious mistreatment – if losing their job means deportation. This not only harms migrants but also creates a particularly precarious layer of the workforce that can be used to undercut conditions for everyone. So while migration itself doesn’t drive down wages, border controls might well.
It’s undeniable that EU free movement doesn’t cover everyone and, as such, is discriminatory. Instead of scrapping existing rights for migrants, let’s then talk about levelling them up. Labour is committed to closing two detention centres – can we be more ambitious and eliminate them all? Should we get rid of No Recourse to Public Funds laws which cause destitution by barring many migrants from access to the welfare state? Should we consider easier routes to asylum, permanent residency, citizenship, expand voting rights? The list could go on.
A radical Labour government could transform the national conversation about immigration, from one dominated by fear, myths and prejudice to one focused on solidarity and seeking the best outcomes for everyone. But kind words about immigrants are not enough. Labour, let’s talk policy.