Free Movement of Labour - a View from the North

Why is Free Movement such a difficult issue for the Labour Party? Is it because since the 1980’s it has stopped analysing society in economic terms, accepted the neo liberal consensus and concentrated on social issues, thus resulting in the confusion of thinking we are now experiencing? 

The “liberal wing” of the party (stretching from Guardianistas to Corbynistas) along with the residual Blairites, view Free Movement as primarily a social not an economic issue. Progress was all about opening our society to the global economy in the belief that everyone would benefit.  For the Blairites, their quasi-religious support of the EU precluded any criticism of Free Movement as it was one of the four fundamental pillars of that institution.  I well remember an exchange in parliament in 2005 with a very prominent architect of Labour’s economic policy in which I raised my fears of the impact of Free Movement of Labour on our supporters.  I expressed the view it was politically bad news for us and economically bad news for our supporters.  He replied “it’s a good thing as it helps to keep inflation down” and I responded “in effect you are using Free Movement as an incomes policy for working class people”.

 It is fascinating to see many of these Blairite MPs representing seats outside of London, finally realising how out of touch with their constituents they have been, now changing their tune on this issue.  This switch, characterised by panic and an ultimate desire to save their seats, fills me with no confidence that they grasp the true reality of the issue.  Their opportunistic move also fortuitously gives them an additional stick with which to beat Corbyn! 

The Brexit vote highlighted the central fact that those earning below £20,000 a year overwhelmingly voted Leave.  A very big section of these people have been historically Labour voters. Our failure to speak for them indicates the disconnect Labour is experiencing in our heartlands. 

I think we should and can do something about it.  That can best be achieved by Labour developing a class and economic analysis of our society.  Bernie Sanders showed brilliantly that there is a growing audience for this approach.  Class does indeed “trump” identity politics!

When I retired from Parliament in 2010 I did not retire from active politics.  For the past six years, I have been fortunate enough to do political education for stewards in my union.  Undertaking these regular sessions enables me to share the concerns of a key group of working people – women and men, public sector and private sector. 

It soon became clear to me that this group of working people, mainly Labour but with varying degrees of enthusiasm, were going to vote Leave.  The claims from Remain that their economic future would be undermined didn’t strike a chord with them.  They were aware that their economic position had been deteriorating for decades even when they were in the EU.

Since the 1980s and the triumph of neo liberalism, Britain like most other “advanced economies” has become more unequal.  The share of the wealth taken by the top 1% has steadily increased – at the expense of the rest of us.  How has this been achieved? 

The intellectual victory of neo liberalism and increasing inequality has been achieved by undermining the position of labour.  The means have included the conscious weakening of unions, privatisation, technological and work pattern changes, financialisation of the economy and the out sourcing and export of jobs to cheap labour countries.  Many who class themselves on the left would have no problem agreeing with this analysis. However, this agreement breaks down on the place of Free Movement of labour in this process.   

Most of the stewards have not read Marx, Keynes, Friedman but they have grasped the simple truth that a surplus of labour drives wages down.  The capitalist class know this.  They are not supporters of Free Movement because they are in favour of people experiencing different cultures – they support it because it benefits them economically.  The failure by many in the Labour Party to grasp the primacy of economics in relation to this issue has resulted in a complete denial of reality and much muddled thinking.  “Who benefits?” should always be the question we ask in relation to economic matters.  Many working-class Labour supporters see Free Movement as helping to create an atmosphere of job insecurity and yet another way of holding down wages, terms and conditions.  In all the discussions I have had this is the dominant feeling and not one of personally blaming “Eastern Europeans” for the problems encountered.   

Labour must deepen and strengthen the understanding that Free Movement of Labour is fundamentally an economic issue.  UKIP attempts to simply blame “the foreigners” for the increasing economic insecurity working people are feeling.  Labour has to argue it is the top 1%, “our own rich and powerful class” who are taking advantage of people – both EU migrants and our own working people. 

As a party we should want to regulate the large financial institutions.  We should want to regulate in favour of combatting climate change and we should want to regulate all aspects of labour conditions.  And Labour has to finally say that there is nothing socialist or inherently progressive about the Free Movement of Labour in a capitalist society.  Coming to terms with this truth will help us to move the debate forward and also help us to reconnect with those of our people whose lives are dominated by insecurity and a lack of hope.  

Labour now has an historic opportunity,under a Leader who is not afraid of challenging stale orthodoxies,to demolish a key tenet of free market capitalism.This opportunity should not be wasted.

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