Labour Would-Be Leaders Must Face Up to Freedom of Movement

The one issue that Labour candidates walk in fear of is raising honestly the question of British and our fellow Europeans living or working in each other’s countries.

Writing in the Guardian, Sir Keir Starmer asserts: “The Leave-Remain divide must end. There are no leavers or remainers any more.” If this means we have to agree with Nigel Farage or the Daily Telegraph include me out.

But none of the candidates are prepared to echo the confidence and generosity of Winston Churchill who in 1948 declared: "We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think as much of being a European as of belonging to their own native land, and that without losing any of their love and loyalty of their birthplace. We hope wherever they go in this wide domain they will truly feel 'Here I am at home. I am a citizen of this country too'."

Now Boris Johnson wants to bring in a heavy, clunky immigration bureaucracy to stop precisely the vision Churchill had of being a European able to say anywhere in Europe “I am a citizen of this country too.”

Unfortunately, for all the leadership candidates who proclaim their support for a deal which protects jobs, the EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, could not have been clearer. Launching the 6 month EU rotating presidency dealing with Brexit negotiations she stated: “If there is no freedom of movement of people of course there can be no free movement of goods and services and capital.”

The two other EU presidents – David Sassoli of the European Parliament and Charles Michel of the European Council – have repeated this point. No freedom of movement, no win-win deal.

And that spells real difficulty for the jobs depending on unfettered trade with the EU that would-be Labour leaders insist is their priority.

So how can Labour deal with this difficult issue? Here are some guidelines for Lisa, Becky, Emily and Keir:
1) It would be useful to separate rules for immigrants coming from far away seeking permanent settlement, rather like those who make up 29 per cent of the Australian population and arrive over the oceans, via its much-vaunted point system.

 For workers from Europe, it might be possible to control and manage arrivals with controls and changes in the management of the internal labour market rather than a clunky, expensive Home Office immigration bureaucracy, that even with good intentions will produce harsh and Windrush type decisions that are unavoidable.

2) The UK could start by actually knowing which EU citizens are working here. Currently, the government has no such statistics. A registration system such as was set up in 2004 but abolished by Theresa May in 2011 would be a beginning. A card such as issued in the Netherland and Ireland for any access to public services would reassure voters that only legally resident EU citizens were getting free NHS care or school places for children.

3) Freedom of movement does not extend fully to state employment and it is possible to draw up job qualifications that support local British workers without excluding Europeans. The biggest employer of EU citizens is the NHS. Each year, thousands of young students work hard to get star results in STEM subject A/Ls in the hope of entering medical school. But the UK refuses to train up British citizens as doctors, nurses and other medical staff.

Labour should pledge to open new medical and nursing schools in the Northern and Midland constituencies.

4) Assuming the UK will not impose tourist visas on EU citizens they can come freely and then disappear into the UK unregulated cash-in-hand labour market. EU rules stipulate that anyone without a job can be sent home after 3 months. This needs to be enforced.

5) There is a chronic shortage of skilled craftworkers which also drags on productivity. A vocational training revolution based on best practice in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherland or Nordic countries would be welcomed by all families who voted Tory for the first time last December. They want to see their children equipped with skills for jobs currently being done by trained workers from countries which have proper apprenticeships which long disappeared from the UK workplace.

6) Employer abuse of agency workers often provided by modern gangmasters needs to end and joint CBI-TUC regional committees can oversee likely employment needs and workplace inspections.

To be sure such changes in internal labour market management would go against the grain of the ultra-liberal, de-regulated, low-pay UK labour market espoused as much by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as by Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron.

But with skilful design, it could firstly satisfy voters’ desire for getting back control of the labour market to support British citizens; secondly, allow enough freedom of movement from Europe to permit UK access to the single market in terms of trade in goods and services; and show Labour turning its back on the ultra-deregulated low-pay non-unionised labour market that has  come into being in Britain since the Thatcher era and left unreformed ever since.

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