The Fabian Society’s ‘Facing the Unknown’ is the first collective attempt by those on the centre-left to respond to the causes and consequences of the European Union referendum. The need for a coherent voice from the Labour party is essential, as Brexit has so far been conceived and nurtured almost entirely by those on the rightwing of the Conservative party. Given the government remains unclear what Brexit actually means, a genuinely unified position from Labour would put us in a strong position to help shape the agenda at a crucial time for our country.
As such, this collection of short essays, which in most cases seek to embed Labour’s values in the process, is welcome. Unfortunately, the overall conclusion – that ending freedom of movement should be a ‘red line’ in Britain’s negotiations – is most certainly not. Ending freedom of movement would be a betrayal of Labour’s progressive values, and ultimately a betrayal of the communities we seek to represent.
There are three major problems with the argument these essays seek to make.
First, who gets to decide how to interpret the mandate from the referendum? There was only one question on the ballot paper – to leave or remain in the EU. The reasons behind the vote to leave were many and varied: controlling immigration, yes, but also an additional £350m for the National Health Service, greater parliamentary sovereignty, not joining an EU army – the list could go on and on. Yet many of the contributors have decided that ending freedom of movement trumps all other reasons. Emma Reynolds writes: ‘leave voters clearly said that their concerns about immigration trumped their worries about the economic cost of leaving’. Given that much of the debate around Brexit focuses on democracy, how is it democratic for the mandate to now only be selectively applied?
The second problem is that the contributors essentially argue that conceding the fundamental principle of freedom of movement is necessary in order to win votes. James Morris puts it like this: ‘If we can get past our liberal disdain for these facts of life, there is tremendous opportunity in the anti-elitism of voters.’ But if arguing for some controls on immigration is necessary to demonstrate that Labour ‘gets it’, why do we think that stopping there will be sufficient to satisfy those who voted for Brexit? Do we genuinely believe this is all that is being is asked for, or is that only as far as we feel comfortable going? If we are being truly responsive, should we not actually be arguing for closing our borders altogether? Should we argue that those EU citizens who are already here must be sent home? And how about non-EU citizens? After all, non-EU migration (where we already have ‘control’) is currently running well ahead of EU migration. Where will we ultimately end up drawing the line in an attempt to show we are listening once we start down this path?
The final problem is that by Labour attempting to ape anti-immigration rhetoric, it makes a so-called ‘hard Brexit’ – leaving the EU without membership of the single market – all the more likely. Rachel Reeves writes that ‘we need the greatest possible access that we can get to the single market without free movement.’ As Jo Leinen’s contribution makes clear, tearing up the rules of the single market and setting this as a red line would exclude us from it.
Britain’s economy depends on the trade and inward investment that being in the single market brings. Turning our backs on the single market in the belief it will win votes in the short term would devastate Britain’s economy. Colluding in the deceit that there would be no economic cost is unlikely to be much of a vote-winner in the long term, when the price is being paid by the working people who counted on Labour standing up to protect their jobs, homes and livelihoods.
Ultimately, abandoning our principles means abandoning the very people those demanding we end free movement claim to understand.