Since the referendum in June last year, Labour’s position on Brexit has been muddled. Divisions over strategy have gone some way to giving Theresa May relief at a time when she should be reeling from her failures. And Labour’s 263 MPs seem irreconcilably divided.
The divisions run in four directions. We have the staunch Remainers—think Chuka Umunna. We have the ‘Labour Leave’ delegation, which includes the likes of Kate Hoey. We have a rather large number of the opposition bench that has resigned to the result and is pushing for a so-called ‘soft Brexit’.
It’s the fourth, and most powerful, camp that appears to be at odds with Labour’s members over Brexit policy. I’m referring to the leadership itself, the original Bennite ‘Lexiters’, who never really believed in the European project.
Last month, Jeremy Corbyn faced a liberal backlash after apparently endorsing an end to freedom of movement on the Andrew Marr Show. “What there wouldn’t be,” he said, referring to his preferred outcome for Brexit, “is the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry.”
Many took this as a criticism of free movement of labour—a leftist concept in itself—rather than a legitimate critique of EU laws. But many of those voting Remain were unaware of issues like those surrounding the Posted Workers Directive, which has been used to exploit migrant labour. In Rotheram, migrant workers were brought in and paid the minimum wage, which was less than half of the national industry-agreed level for construction workers. In the 2009 Lindsey Oil Refinery dispute, the EU rules allowed employers to undercut British workers and exploit migrant labour, which prompted Unite to propose to overturn the EU legislation. There are legitimate arguments that the artificial ‘race to the bottom’ created by EU rules led to the alienation of British workers.
The disgruntled ‘white working class’ that many feared had defected to UKIP over the issue of unfettered immigration had genuine cause for concern. Simple economics will tell you, as Paul Krugman explained in The New York Times, that “large increases in the number of low-skill workers relative to other inputs into production” make a decrease in wages inevitable. Combined with the rules described above, the inflow of immigrants did cause wages to go down.
Yet it would be a fallacy to blame immigrants. It’s those at the top—those who relied on EU loopholes to initiate this race to the bottom—who bear responsibility for the alienation of the British worker. Now, instead of unionising or showing solidarity with other workers, the working class itself is becoming divided.
Both the Democrats in the US and the Labour party in the UK have historically stood up for immigrants. And the favour is being returned every election cycle. While 65% of ethnic minorities voted for Jeremy Corbyn, the Democrats held a 38 point advantage with Latino voters in last year’s Presidential elections. The links between immigrants and the left have been vitally important.
But both Labour and the Democrats have shifted rightward in their rhetoric, effectively allowing the right to dictate the terms of the debate. Seemingly capitulating to the growing anti-immigrant sentiment, Fareed Zakaria recently wrote in The Washington Post that the Democrats “should find a middle path on immigration. They can battle President Trump’s drastic solutions but still speak in the language of national unity and identity.” The last few words, in particular, disturb me for reasons similar to what made Corbyn’s Marr interview so jarring. It seems liberals and centrists are adopting the language of homogeneity and nationalism that have been pulled into the mainstream with Trump’s presidency.
Demonising immigrants is a successful tactic that has been used for decades by nationalists, and even Conservatives, to win votes. But Labour is better than this. And it has a lot to lose if it abandons its traditional openness to immigration and commitment to the worker.
Jeremy Corbyn’s criticism of EU legislation is a step in the right direction—many EU rules favour employers over employees, especially as regards migrant workers. But this must be combined with pro-immigration rhetoric and policy. As David Wearing wrote in The Telegraph, “it is neoliberalism, not immigration, that pushes down wages and tears up worker protections”. Corbyn would do well to echo this view. Labour should work to promote a fair, but open, immigration policy after Brexit that contributes to worker unity rather than divide, and which is consistent with the principles that the party has traditionally stood for.
It should reinvigorate the idea of openness and promote the interests of the worker. These are the values the party was founded on—values that it should not now stray from.