Socialist Worker

No to retreat on freedom of movement

by Nick Clark
Issue No. 2536

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn made a dangerous and serious concession to anti-migrant racism on Tuesday.

He said that Labour was “not wedded” to freedom of movement for migrants from the European Union (EU).

And in a series of interviews ahead of the widely-promoted speech he suggested that low pay is caused by migrant workers “undercutting wages”.

He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that, “migrant workers are recruited to undercut and undermine working conditions in this country.

“Some companies, particularly in the construction industry, are making a fortune out of getting rid of workers in this country on one set of paying conditions and bringing in others to undercut them”.

Corbyn insisted that his new position on immigration was not a “sea change”.

But it’s a big difference from his comments in June last year when he insisted Labour would “absolutely” defend free movement of EU workers.

The shift was part of Corbyn’s attempt to relaunch himself as a “left wing populist”.

His concessions on migrants came alongside a welcome proposal to cap high earnings and bring in a £10 an hour minimum wage. These issues—and the NHS crisis—are what Corbyn should have focused on.

His new rhetoric over freedom of movement has nothing to do with left wing politics. It is a significant concession to the pressure he has faced from high profile figures on the Labour right.

Labour Party deputy leader Tom Watson used an interview last Sunday to push Corbyn into taking a harder line on immigration.

Watson said he supported abandoning free movement for EU citizens.

This came as Labour MPs Stephen Kinnock and Emma Reynolds called for a “two-tier” migration system that discriminates against low paid migrants.

In an article for the Observer newspaper last weekend, Kinnock and Reynolds attacked anti-racists in the Labour Party who “claim the proponents of managed migration are ‘Ukip-lite’”.

Earlier that week the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on social integration blamed rising xenophobia on migrants’ failure to “integrate”.

Stand united—and don’t let the bosses’ myths divide us The Labour right identified immigration as a key issue to undermine Jeremy Corbyn long ago. On Tuesday they made their breakthrough.  He bent to the claims that migrant labour “undercuts” workers’ wages. There’s no evidence that migrants are to blame for falling wages.  In fact in the construction industry—which Corbyn singled out as a sector where migrants are used to drive down pay—wages are actually rising.  Average weekly earnings in construction rose in every month last year. In other industries where wages are falling it’s not because migrants are “undercutting” other workers.  It’s because bosses have forced through pay cuts and wage freezes for years and trade union organisation is too weak. The only way to stop this is if workers stand together and fight to stop bosses’ attacks.  Blaming one group of workers for undercutting another makes that task harder. Fighting for a £10 an hour minimum wage for all workers—which Corbyn has also rightly called for—and making sure it is strongly enforced—is a much better way to take on low-paying bosses. Demands such as this, fought for in workplaces and on the streets, should be at the centre of a left wing programme for Brexit. Unfortunately Corbyn’s only reason for not completely dropping his commitment to free movement is remaining in the bosses’ single market. This single market doesn’t protect workers at all—its rules prevent nationalisation and have been used to stop strikes. Corbyn’s new “left wing populism” won’t succeed by pandering to bosses and the racist right. It has to be based on fighting to defend all workers—wherever they’re from. Corbyn’s victory as Labour leader gave us all a boost. We must push to reverse this retreat.

WHAT WE THINK

Stand united—and don’t let the bosses’ myths divide us

The Labour right identified immigration as a key issue to undermine Jeremy Corbyn long ago. On Tuesday they made their breakthrough.

He bent to the claims that migrant labour “undercuts” workers’ wages. There’s no evidence that migrants are to blame for falling wages.

In fact in the construction industry—which Corbyn singled out as a sector where migrants are used to drive down pay—wages are actually rising. Average weekly earnings in construction rose in every month last year.

In other industries where wages are falling it’s not because migrants are “undercutting” other workers. It’s because bosses have forced through pay cuts and wage freezes for years and trade union organisation is too weak.

The only way to stop this is if workers stand together and fight to stop bosses’ attacks. Blaming one group of workers for undercutting another makes that task harder.

Fighting for a £10 an hour minimum wage for all workers—which Corbyn has also rightly called for—and making sure it is strongly enforced—is a much better way to take on low-paying bosses.

Demands such as this, fought for in workplaces and on the streets, should be at the centre of a left wing programme for Brexit.

Unfortunately Corbyn’s only reason for not completely dropping his commitment to free movement is remaining in the bosses’ single market. This single market doesn’t protect workers at all—its rules prevent nationalisation and have been used to stop strikes.

Corbyn’s new “left wing populism” won’t succeed by pandering to bosses and the racist right. It has to be based on fighting to defend all workers—wherever they’re from. Corbyn’s victory as Labour leader gave us all a boost. We must push to reverse this retreat.


The group, which is headed by south London MP Chuka Umunna and includes ten other Labour MPs, proposed draconian measures to make life harder for migrants.

These included “regional visas” that restrict migrants to a particular area and limit their ability to move freely inside Britain.

Also included are compulsory English language exams and classes for new migrants—at a time when such classes face vicious cuts.

Then a letter from Unite union leader Len McCluskey appeared in the bosses’ Financial Times newspaper on Monday.

It said the paper had been correct to identify “an increasingly Ukip party tone” from Gerard Coyne, one of his opponents in the coming general secretary election.

But McCluskey also wrote that he had raised the issue of changes to the freedom of movement well before Coyne had.

Corbyn’s concessions will still not be enough to satisfy those on the Labour right who want him to go much further and call for immigration controls.

Corbyn still says that he would prioritise remaining in the bosses’ single market over reducing immigration.

In a Sky News interview on Tuesday of this week he refused to say if he would back a cap on the numbers of migrants entering the country.

And he said he had “not formed an opinion” on Reynolds and Kinnock’s proposals for a two-tier immigration system.

Ahead of the speech some on the Labour right pointed out that, despite pandering to anti-migrant racism, it promised nothing. It simply said, “Changes to the way migration rules operate from the EU will be part of negotiations.”

Others attacked Corbyn for his plans to limit high pay.

Whatever the careful—and sometimes confusing—formulas and the hesitations, Corbyn’s comments will embolden those who want to blame migrants for low wages, lack of affordable housing and struggling public services.

And they will encourage the Labour right to step up the pressure on Corbyn to make even more concessions.

 


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