The “I” word has caused the Labour Party no end of problems in the past few years. Remember the “immigration mug” before the 2015 general election and all of the furore that caused on the Left? It has got worse since. A lot worse.
Immediately following the vote to leave the European Union, many members of the PLP rushed forward to denounce freedom of movement. It had all the hallmarks of “okay, we get it, we get it, we’ll stop preaching about how great immigration is and do what you say as long as keep those safe Labour seats safe.” Which isn’t the worst reason for doing something – an MP should be in touch with what their constituents want. But after years of a very different Labour policy on the subject, it felt rather forced.
Now we have a split between different sides of the hard left on this subject, with Len McCluskey being less than thrilled with freedom of movement.
“In the last 10 years, there has been a gigantic experiment at the expense of ordinary workers. Countries with vast historical differences in wage rates and living standards have been brought together in a common labour market. The result has been sustained pressure on living standards, a systematic attempt to hold down wages and to cut the costs of social provision for working people.”
Do you know when Len said that? Three days before the EU referendum. At least he was ahead of the curve. He has been repeating this sort of stuff lately, albeit in less strident form, saying Labour must “get its narrative right on free movement”. Meanwhile, what does Jeremy Corbyn have to say on the subject?
“We should recognise that European workers in Britain do contribute massively to the health service, education, manufacturing industry, care work, agricultural sector. We’d be in quite a difficult place if they all went. We have to recognise that people do move around the continent, do move to work, do move to pay taxes and to benefit the economy that they come into.”
No matter what happens, Corbyn always sticks up for freedom of movement unreservedly (if only he’d shown that much desire to keep Britain in the EU, but I digress). Meanwhile, you have Keir Starmer taking a hard-ish line against immigration from the EU, with Gerard Coyne, McCluskey’s challenger in the upcoming Unite general secretary elections, going genuinely hard line on this topic:
“There is one principle on which the UK Government should not even begin to negotiate. That is over the question of control of our borders. My many conversations with Unite members leave me in no doubt that those who voted for Brexit expect that promise of an end to uncontrolled immigration from the EU to be kept, and will feel betrayed if it is not.”
Labour is getting caught in the same middle ground on immigration controls as they are on Brexit: not enough one way to satisfy the conservatives, not enough the other to make the liberals happy. With the added problem of a further Corbyn-trade union split, this could be enough to alienate the Labour membership completely and irreparably from the unions. That would spell the end of the Labour Party.