Labour and free movement

Even more than everywhere else in politics, immigration is an area where the reasons politicians support a policy and the objective merits and demerits of that policy rarely have much to do with each other. Some of the most important merits relate to the benefits to people overseas, and those are never even considered. But even taking a narrower view, immigration policies are supported and defended for a variety of nakedly political reasons, many of them deeply morally troubling, which don't really have anything to do with their impacts on society.

With few exceptions, immigration is not a main driver of economic deprivation or even of social disenfranchisement. So it's usually right to be suspicious of politicians who come out saying they support reducing immigration. The policy is not going to be a way of massively improving the lives of voters; its actual effects, one way or another, are probably going to be marginal. So why are they bringing it up? Most of the time, the answer is that they're either inflaming or mollifying xenophobia.

That's the role that free movement within the EU has played in the UK's political debate for the last ten or fifteen years, and that's why people are reacting with anger to Jeremy Corbyn's statement today that he'd be willing to end it. Free movement was never a great force undercutting wages or people's access to social services. When Nigel Farage railed against it, it was really obvious that this was about racism. When David Cameron and (to a much lesser extent) Ed Miliband said free movement needed to be curbed, it was still pretty obvious that the only reason this was on their political agendas at all was that they wanted to appeal to that same xenophobia.

It's valuable to be clear about this. Allowing free movement of EU citizens to the UK is not obviously the best immigration policy on the merits. (Imagine someone proposed reducing overall net migration by slashing migration from France and Germany, and increasing the numbers admitted from sub-Saharan Africa by not quite as much.) The reason we could always be pretty sure that opposing free movement was a move driven by xenophobia was that, for a long time, there was no other plausible reason to make lots of political hay out of proposing relatively minor changes that would objectively not impact voters' lives much.

But things change. The reason immigration is on the agenda of things Jeremy Corbyn needs to take a policy position on is that the current policy has been burned to the ground. For several decades, British policy about immigration from European countries has been delegated to the EU. Nothing wrong with that: delegation is often good, and you shouldn't for a second believe that it constituted a sovereignty violation that we need to 'take back control' from. But if the delegation is going to end, then the UK now has to come up with a policy, and there's not really any reason to think that if you're designing a policy from scratch, full free movement for EU citizens is the only acceptable possibility. Put it this way: if we had a blank slate, and somebody asked you "why should we allow all EU citizens to migrate freely to the UK?", would "not doing so would be scapegoating immigrants" make any sense as an answer?

Of course the Labour Party has some recent history on immigration which rightly raises suspicion about whether this is really all that's behind the new anti-free movement stance. The answer, of course, is that it's always a bit of everything and no politician's motivations are ever totally pure. But for all that I'm not a Jeremy Corbyn fan, people who care about avoiding immigration policy that's either based on or stirs up racial hatred should be pretty glad he's the one in charge at this moment. Corbyn and the left wing of the party have long been some of the firmest critics of migrant scapegoating. Corbyn has already said today that although he thinks EU migration should be managed and that increasing protections against worker exploitation would reduce migrant numbers, he doesn't believe immigration is too high or the source of the UK's problems. Which is all to say that if the country needs to come up with a new position on immigration, much better it be done by noted pinko Jeremy Corbyn than almost any other Labour politician - say Andy Burnham, last sighted claiming that free movement has made the streets unsafe, or even Stephen Kinnock, who reckons  that while racism is bad, people are only racist because immigration is too high.

Now if you are in general an open borders person, none of this is going to satisfy you. But then it's weird to be so much more apoplectic about a proposal to stop free movement with Europe than about the ongoing, showing-no-signs-of-changing lack of free movement with all the other, much poorer countries in the world. And if you are a full-blown 'Brexit should be abandoned' person, it won't satisfy you either; but you should I think recognise that it's reasonable Labour has not adopted that position.

Free movement has been a good totemic red line for a long time. One way or another, though, the UK now has to come up with a new policy regarding migration from Europe. It's not plausible that open borders is the only moral policy choice, and it shouldn't be out of bounds to make other proposals. It should be out of bounds to blame immigrants for the country's problems, to design your replacement policy on racist lines, or defend it with race-baiting rhetoric. So let's focus on policing that.