The free movement of EU citizens between member states was a major gain for ordinary working people. Brexit and Labour’s right-wing threaten it.
“I refuse to imagine a Europe where lorries and hedge funds are free to cross borders but citizens are not,” Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, October 2016.
In 2004 the New Labour government was one of only three in the EU to permit the immediate right of citizens from the new member states of central and eastern Europe to live and work in their country. Blair and Brown's decision in the matter was motivated by neither love nor international solidarity, but by a desire to dampen wage pressure in Britain’s inflated and credit-fuelled economy. East European migration into Britain was a policy of New Labour.
Yet, in the wake of the Brexit referendum leading right wing Labour MPs, including Rachel Reeves, Stephen Kinnock and Chuka Umunna, have called for Labour to end free movement. After Brexit, EU citizens will be able to move, live and work freely across the European continent, but the UK should, in their view, be locked out of free movement.
The hypocrisy and political bankruptcy of these right wingers is breathtaking. After rightly campaigning for EU membership, which guarantees freedom of movement, they subsequently underwent a conversion, now arguing that EU nationals should lose the right to live and work in the UK. Such an outcome would affect not only future arrivals, but also the million plus people already resident. Their reasoning is that the presence of people of other nationalities in the community prompted the Brexit vote; and the way to garner votes is to outflank UKIP and the Tory right by falling into step with the slogan, “Stop them coming; kick them out.” They probably know that such a policy by Labour would inflame xenophobia and further the racist attacks already taking place, but they presumably don’t care.
In their desire to curtail the free movement of people, these right wingers ignore a key fact. It was not those areas with the highest concentrations of non-British EU citizens (e.g. London, Manchester, Bristol) which voted for Brexit. The existence of strong multicultural communities did not lead to Brexit support. On the contrary, it was where xenophobic and racist propaganda was accepted and believed that a majority plumped for Brexit. The right wingers are not responding to a demand by those in places of high non-British EU settlement - they are accepting and building on the xenophobic and racist propaganda put out by UKIP and the far right, and are seeking to exploit prejudices and misinformation to their political advantage.
Socialists should condemn the whole mindset of these people. We should celebrate and support the fact that today people in the EU, including ourselves, can live and work in any EU country we choose. We need to defend that right for everybody, not undermine it. And as socialists in Britain, we should support workers and people in the community, be they English, Irish, Polish or whatever. Their idea propagated that we should favour one nationality and have others thrown out of their jobs, homes and the country is utterly repugnant. And fortunately, thanks to the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, the ideas put forward by these Labour MPs will have no support from the leader of the Labour Party.