An uncertain country needs Labour to be a Brexit voice of reason

 

We are reaching the end of a difficult year probably more divided as a country than any of us can ever remember. The mood is tetchy; people are worried about the future. With the Government keeping the public in the dark about its Brexit plans, some are still re-running the arguments of the Referendum campaign. It feels like we are going backwards not forwards.

The usual tendency at this time of year is to say, in an optimistic way, at least next year can't be as bad as this one. I wish I could say that, but I don't think I can. From January, a new rabble-rousing rhetoric will be ringing out from the Oval Office, making sparks fly into the powder-keg Elections in France and the Netherlands. If one of these was to go the wrong way, it could have a domino effect on the rest of Europe. That, in turn, could stoke tensions here in a year where the possibility of a General Election cannot be discounted.

So we must go into the New Year with our eyes wide open to these considerable risks - and with a new resolve to protect ourselves from them.

The best way for Britain to insulate itself against the wave of hard-right populism sweeping the world is to build a broad, cross-party consensus around our response to Brexit, listening to what the public have said. This task is now bigger than party politics. Extremists thrive on fear and uncertainty and we must work across party lines to take it away. If we fail to act, we will be creating the ideal conditions for them to drip more poison. We need a plan that can bring a divided country back together.


That said, we are some way from finding it. For the good of the country, politicians on all sides must come back from the break having made a new resolution to build the new contract the country needs. It will require give and take on both sides, a readiness to challenge long-held positions and - for the Left of politics at least - plenty of soul-searching. If we are to learn lessons for the future, we need to ask ourselves how on earth British politics arrived at this point. 

For at least a decade, Labour activists have been hearing concerns on doorsteps about free movement and immigration. Some of it could be dismissed as xenophobia or, worse, racism. But not all. When people raised reasonable and practical concerns - such as pressure on jobs, wages, housing and primary schools - we had no real answer. Activists were left avoiding people's eyes and shuffling away. We all know the truth of this. But there has been a collective failure to do anything about it. That failure has had real consequences and contributed to the loss of the Referendum.


There are two inherent problems with the way the Left has approached the immigration debate.

First, because immigration is by definition a divisive issue, I think people on the Left of politics have a greater tendency than others to shy away from it. The trouble is politics sometimes requires us to face up to difficult issues early so that we stop them deteriorating into something worse. And, on this issue, we have failed to do that.


This first problem is compounded by a second tendency amongst some to be quick to label people who do speak up. Accusations of "pandering to UKIP", xenophobia or even racism are thrown around quite freely. This has the chilling effect of making people who do speak out fearful of ever doing so again. And so the Left's failure to debate this issue properly is perpetuated. It cannot possibly be healthy and it certainly isn't good for the country.

I have seen this dysfunctional approach to the immigration debate still in operation over the last week. In a speech to the Commons, I made the argument that the paralysis in the Left over this issue was leaving space for the Right to poison the atmosphere. This in turn has allowed others to undermine the cohesiveness of many communities and presented a growing threat to people who might look or speak as though they were born elsewhere. 

 

 I said I was no longer prepared to be complicit in this. On Twitter, my words were quickly twisted to claim I said immigration per se undermines community cohesion and safety. And people were queueing up to condemn me for it even though I didn't say anything of the sort and never would.


We can't proceed in this way. On this subject of all subjects, people need at least to take care to listen and accurately reflect what is being said. Secondly, it cannot possibly be the case that accepting the need for modest change to free movement is equivalent to xenophobia or even worse. 

 

There is a real danger of a growing class divide on this issue on the Left of politics. There is an impression building that some middle-class Labour Remain voters are dismissing or even sneering at Labour Leave voters who they see as uneducated or xenophobic. It needs to be remembered that many of the places in the North that voted Leave accept the vast majority of the country’s asylum seeks and refugees and do so without any difficulty. That is because they are warm and welcoming places full of decent people. They also highly value the role that migrants play in our public services. But, when they reasonably point out that there are limits to primary school places and homes, they are branded racist. It is insulting and wrong.


While we are right to point out that immigration provides an overall net benefit to the country, we have been slow to realise the macro figures at a national level gloss over the fact that it has a differential impact on different places. Free movement helped build the dynamism of our big cities but it made life harder in places where there is a high concentration of lower-skilled, lower-wage employment. The Bank of England has produced evidence that, in the lowest-paid occupations, immigration has created a downward pressure on wages. Big companies have used free movement to move people around like commodities to drive down labour costs and create a race to the bottom. What on earth is socialist about that?


The time has come for the Left to break out of this dysfunctional cycle of denial and over-reaction. However, I am worried that we are failing to do that and making the same mistake all over again.


By specifying Single Market access as our highest priority in the Brexit negotiations, we are getting things in the wrong order and, once again, avoiding the real issue. The clear implication of this policy position is that, if Europe made accepting full freedom of movement in its current form its price, we would accept it. But that is it is not what a majority of people voted for.

We can all debate what we thought the Referendum vote meant beyond the decision to leave the EU. But, above all else, I am clear it was a majority vote for an end to the current system of free movement.

A new consensus on Brexit can only be forged if we start there. We must accept that the status quo has been defeated at the ballot box. As a result, we must now open our minds to options for reform that provide for greater control and judge each on the effect it would have on our access to the Single Market. This is the crux of the Brexit debate that will unfold in the New Year and Labour needs to get ahead of it.


I believe it is perfectly possible to devise changes for a balanced Brexit that respect the views of people on both sides of the argument.

 

At the moment, the debate seems dominated by two extremes: one side saying no changes to free movement at all, and the other side effectively saying pull up the drawbridge. I believe there is a clear majority of people in this country – whether they voted Remain or Leave – who want us to continue to be an open, outward-looking country that welcomes people from different cultures, and particularly refugees, but which also wants more fairness and more control in our immigration system. 

 

That is what we must now deliver. To help lay the right foundations, the Government should move now to guarantee the right to remain of all EU nationals who came here before 23 June. It is not just the right thing to do; it would also build goodwill with the EU for the negotiations that lie ahead.

There will be those who argue that any changes we make must be minimal so as to maximise access to the Single Market. They may well be right and it could be that this is where the national interest lies. But the test will be whether the changes to free movement meet the public concern. Also, as part of this, there needs to be a separate debate about the trade-off between Single Market access and greater flexibility on EU state aid. 


The challenge facing the North of England is not just to hold on to the industry we have got but to build a new industrial base in future-facing, high-value sectors such as advanced manufacturing, life sciences, digital and green energy. This will probably require more direct public intervention and there is a genuine debate to be had about how that can be achieved whilst maximising market access.

So we need to be ready to re-examine long-held positions. Somewhere along the way, the European Left became the champion of an unfettered free market approach to the movement of goods, capital and people. We failed to see the impact of these policies on people and places that had suffered the effects of de-industrialisation and on widening inequality. European state aid rules could be easily negotiated by fleet-of-foot service sector companies in big cities. But they weren't so easily negotiated by heavy traditional industry in the smaller towns. And, in those places, the wages of the lower-skilled jobs that replaced the old ones have been held down by free movement.

Keir Starmer is absolutely right to indicate a willingness to reassess these things. The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, have made a conscious decision to speak only for the 48% and the status quo by re-running the arguments of the Referendum. That might work for them in by-elections in the short-term. But, in the long run, it is a strategy that is profoundly wrong. It will widen the post-Referendum divides in our country between people in cities and outlying areas and between the social classes. It also denies the democratic decision of the public at the Referendum, which is an odd thing for any self-styled democrat to do.


As politics across the world continues to polarise, the British national interest urgently requires people to swim against the tide and find compromise. Labour has an opportunity to speak for a clear majority of people on both sides of the Referendum divide by advocating a balanced approach to Brexit that starts with a change to free movement but which preserves Britain as an open, welcoming place. An uncertain country needs to hear that voice of reason now more than ever.