Can’t we respond to migration, not leave the EU?

In a piece for
The Guardian, Sir Simon Jenkins makes very heavy weather of the obvious point that this, like most other elections, turns on the question of identity as well as economics. The Brexit plebiscite of 2016 was an anti-immigration vote - the posthumous revenge of Enoch Powell. Every referendum in European nations this century (bar two small ones) with the EU on the ballot paper has been rejected by voters.

Most countries picked themselves up, dusted away the xenophobia, and changed their rules or got the EU to change its rules and moved on. Only in Britain did we turn an anti-immigrant plebiscite into the psychodrama of "Brexit means Brexit" from Theresa May, unedifying fence-sitting from Corbyn and now the preposterous claim from Johnson that Brexit can be done by this time next year, instead of the inevitable Brexiternity of scratchy, difficult negotiations with 27 sovereign states to try and solve issues from city access, Japanese car firms in the UK, French fishing workers and Gibraltar, to British expats losing health care rights.

In talks across Europe I ask audiences how their countries would have voted in a so-called Europe referendum focused mainly on immigration or the claim that 79 million Turks would soon arrive. They all reply they would have voted as we did. So do we turn Europe into a loose grouping of nervous nelly nation states hiding behind protectionist national borders? That is what Presidents Trump and Putin want as well as other authoritarian leaders like Xi and Modi. Or do we change our rules so as to manage immigration better and reduce the prime cause for the Brexit vote?

The numbers of Europeans leaving Brexit Britain, as they are made to feel unwelcome, is rising fast. They are being replaced by African and Chinese immigrants. Might it be better to re-write the rules of the UK internal labour market so that like other EU member states we know the number of foreign workers inside Britain, can send home those that don't find work after 3 months, and train up young Brits to be doctors, nurses and other medical staff, as well as skilled craft workers, rather than rely on EU substitutes? All this and more can be done under EU laws and rules.

It is neither the politics of identity nor economics that matter, but rather a willful refusal by the Labour Party, trade unions and left think-tanks to outline labour market reforms that lessen the tensions over the volume and velocity of arrivals from the continent this century which led to the Brexit vote.

By Denis MacShane - former Labour Minister of Europe. His latest book is “Brexiternty. The Uncertain Fate of Britain” (IB Tauris-Bloomsbury)