Will Labour lead or duck the debate on immigration after Brexit?

Posted on 25 September 2017

The decision of the Labour party conference to exclude Brexit from the list of eight “contemporary motions” for debate and vote may have spared the party leadership a potentially embarrassing conference row, writes Jill Rutter. Yet it has also drawn renewed attention to the party’s ongoing fudge over its answer to of one of the big questions of Britain’s post-Brexit politics: whether to prioritise market access over UK controls on immigration.

This indecision stems from a tension within Labour’s support, revealed in the General Election. While Labour voters were more likely to have backed Remain, around a quarter of Leavers and 18% of those who voted UKIP in 2015 are thought to have voted for Labour. The party gained votes and seats in both metropolitan areas – often aided by the student vote – as well in the post-industrial, Leave-supporting North. Labour wins stretched from Brighton to Bury, Canterbury to Crewe and from Kensington to Keighley.

Labour’s support comes from two types of voters. The first are typically young, university educated and live in London or a university town that voted Remain in the EU referendum. They are comfortable with the diversity of modern Britain and with present levels of immigration. The second group comes from the UK’s post-industrial regions, spanning all age groups and including many non-graduates. This group is more likely have voted Leave and to have concerns about the impacts of immigration on their neighbourhoods, on public services and on their conditions of employment.

Commentators have suggested that the Labour Party now has the task of keeping happy these two distinct groups of voters with opposing views on both immigration and Brexit. The political problem for Labour is that it may well risk failing with both: sceptical voters in northern seats will believe Labour remains more pro-migration than they would like, while pro-migration metropolitans believe that ending a commitment to freedom of movement is heresy.

There are, however, actions that the Labour Party could take to start bridging this divide and building consensus across both strands of support.

First and foremost must be the articulation of a clear, shared position on immigration and trade after Brexit. The party’s manifesto stated clearly that free movement for EU nationals, in its current form, will end after the UK leaves the EU but that the party would not make immigration a ‘red-line’ issue:

“In trade negotiations our priorities favour growth, jobs and prosperity. We make no apologies for putting these aims before bogus immigration targets”.

Labour’s new approach to the transitional period, set out by Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, means that the party would propose to remain in the single market and customs union for a two-to-four-year transitional period after Brexit, during which freedom of movement would continue. The proposal has been welcomed by those who see a transitional period as a necessary bridge during a well-organised exit and also by pro-EU MPs who hope that the temporary case could be extended indefinitely into something more permanent. So it is a position around which most of the party will be able to unite this Autumn – but that is partly because it defers the question of what happens beyond the transition.

The official policy in the longer-term is to maintain the benefits of the single market, while ending freedom of movement in its current form and adopting new controls on immigration. Many in Europe (and also in the Labour Party) think that this is unrealistic.

It is, of course, perfectly coherent to adopt one or the other position. Labour could opt to put single market membership first and make a case for the continuation of free movement, perhaps by emphasising the controls available within the current rules; or it could concede that single market access is not feasible without freedom of movement and back an alternative model to access as much of the EU market as possible, from the outside. Either way, the party leadership will need to set out its long-term view, beyond the transitional phase, if it does want to have a voice in shaping the debate about the right immigration settlement for Britain after Brexit.

There are other moves that the party could sensibly make in order to unify its support on this issue. Addressing some of the impacts of migration – on neighbourhoods, housing and public services – would also help to keep the support of Labour’s working class and non-metropolitan voters. Labour has committed to a new Migration Impacts Fund to address these local impacts, boosted with a contributory element from the investments required for High Net Worth Individual Visas. But to be successful, the changes made by such a fund need to be visible in the neighbourhoods it targets. Local Labour MPs and councillors need to get out and listen to communities, involving them in spending decisions about the new Migration Impacts Fund. They should also take action on other pressure points that can lead to the scapegoating and resentment of migrants.

The party also needs to hold a decent conversation, among its supporters, about its differences on immigration. Involving trade unions and local parties and adapting the methods used in the National Conversation on Immigration, is one way to hold such a discussion. Such a debate will need to to bridge geographical divides, as well as differences in politics.

There will be some who may oppose such an idea, voicing fears that migration policy is being handed to the mob and those who shout the loudest. But this is precisely the type of debate that happens at present, one that has ill-served the party and its voters. It is time for this to change and for the Labour Party to listen to those who don’t get heard, on immigration and on other important issues. Conference would have been a good place to begin this conversation.

Bridging the divides within Labour’s support will not be simple, but it is not impossible. Some within the Labour party will want to continue to avoid these questions for as long as possible, seeking a short-term tactical advantage in preserving party unity. But doing so would prevent the Labour party from having a clear and coherent voice in this crucial debate about the future of immigration.

Jill Rutter is Director of Strategy at British Future and co-author of the recent report ‘Time to get it right: finding consensus on Britain’s future immigration policy’

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