Labour’s new policy on Brexit would involve making the case for freedom of movement, whichever way a referendum went between remaining in the European Union and a Labour Brexit deal, Paul Blomfield MP, shadow spokesman on Brexit, and Lisa Nandy, the MP for Wigan, both told a British Future fringe meeting at the party’s Brighton conference.
“We have often struggled to find our voice” on immigration, said Blomfield, opening the meeting. Nandy also reflected on how the party’s campaign advice on immigration in 2015 had been to try to change the subject to something else.
“If we secure a referendum and there is a public vote to Remain, then that includes freedom of movement. If we got the Brexit deal that is being talked about, it is pretty unlikely that we would get a deal that did not include something that looked pretty like freedom of movement,” said Blomfield.
Nandy agreed that this would be a consequence of Labour seeking to negotiate a deal that involved prioritising a close relationship with the single market in a Brexit deal.
“I have been clear with my voters in Wigan that I think the best outcome is to leave with a deal – and a deal that protects free movement rather than ending it,” said Nandy. “The six tests on Brexit were not honest. We have to be honest. Those are trade-offs. We are the Labour Party: we put protecting people’s jobs first,” she said, adding that she had been able to make this case to voters in Wigan, where there was an appetite for compromise on how Brexit was delivered, but frustration if politicians could not achieve that.
Paul Blomfield said that he welcomed some shifts on immigration policy that had occurred in the transition from Theresa May to Boris Johnson – particularly the ditching of the net migration target which, he said, had “contributed hugely to the mistrust of politicians on immigration and was a big factor in the 2016 referendum.” He also welcomed the policy shift to be more open on international students, which was a response to cross-party campaigning on which Blomfield had worked closely with Jo Johnson MP.
But he noted that the Government’s shifts on student and skilled migration were only a partial shift of approach. “Boris Johnson’s Government is more economically liberal – but it is not necessarily more socially liberal, if those who come here do not acquire rights or a route to citizenship”, said Blomfield, arguing that proposals for more temporary migration could prove a route to exploitation of migrants by employers, and would damage the prospects of integration.
“The politics of migration have been the soundtrack to my life,” said Wilf Sullivan, who leads on race equality for the TUC.
“I was born in 1958, and have always been asked ‘where do I come from?’ by people who don’t find it easy to accept that the answer is Tottenham,” he said, arguing that an open debate about immigration and race could help to “humanise” what this is all about – and find the commonalities between people.
“People move. They always have and they always will. The immigration question is about the conditions under which they move. We should stop talking about immigration as a problem, by finding the commonalities, and integrating it with the issues of public services and workers’ rights that we all face,” he said.
Humanising the debate was a central theme for Alexandra Bulat of the campaign group the3million, representing EU nationals in the UK.
“Promises were made in the 2016 referendum – that people would have an automatic right to stay – that have not been kept,” she said. A Labour government could move closer to keeping the spirit of what was promised by having a declaratory registration system for EU nationals – so that the settlement scheme deadline did not inevitably lead to tens of thousands of people losing their legal status.
This was essential to avoiding a new Windrush – or “Windrush on steroids” – she added.
Stephen Hale of Refugee Action agreed that building local connections had a crucial role to play in shifting public attitudes on immigration. He cited the way in which Syrian refugee resettlement had galvanised people in rural areas, with little experience of migration and diversity.
Hale suggested that a useful way to engage with the “balancers” identified by British Future was to characterise the centre-ground of public opinion not as the “Anxious Middle”, but as the “Potentially Supportive Middle,” ready to support approaches which were good for those rebuilding their lives and the communities which they joined. The current asylum system could almost have been designed to minimise people’s ability to rebuild their lives and contribute to the society that they were joining, he said. The breadth of civic society, business and public support for asylum seekers being allowed to work, if their case took six months to resolve, was an encouraging sign of how this could succeed.
Lisa Nandy gave examples of how community voice and engagement had made a difference in Wigan – in dealing with flashpoints over asylum dispersal, and in the positive engagement with Syrian refugees, where 36,000 bags of donations were collected in the town.
“Two-thirds of Wigan voted to Leave. The intolerant characterisation of Leave voters as racist, intolerant little Englanders is wrong,” she said. Politics had become disconnected from communities before the 2016 referendum – the challenge now was to systematically institutionalise conversation and connection with a much stronger focus on devolving power locally, including over the future of immigration, she argued.