Remain and Renegotiate! How to stop the Brexit bandwagon

Labour needs an urgent new offer on EU migration

Three Labour figures — Tom Watson, Ed Balls and Tristram Hunt — have, in the past 24 hours, called for a revision to the EU free movement rules. This needs to be translated into an immediate offer aimed at swinging the referendum for Remain. Labour has to explicitly embrace renegotiation of the EU Treaty.

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Currently the Leave vote is polling 53% and has momentum. Let’s be clear about why: the combined forces of the political establishment, the financial elite, the Labour centre, the scientific community and FTSE100 bosses are losing the argument they were trying to put.

This consists of three assertions:

  • the UK economy will collapse if we leave the EU
  • inward migration is good and there’s nothing you can do about it even if you don’t like its effect on you
  • the EU has delivered decent laws for British people, offsetting the fact that it’s undemocratic

Right now the polls show around 60% of Conservative voters don’t buy that, and around 40% of Labour voters do not either.

So Labour needs to make a clear and immediate offer: on migration, on public services — and on wider economic reform in Europe.

Corbyn is right to refuse to take part in the Remain jamboree. McDonnell is right to keep Labour focused on fighting Tory Brexit. But on their own the “remain and reform” arguments will not reverse the situation. Nor will vague promises to renegotiate the migration rules in future.

Most of the reforms Corbyn has called for are designed within the confines of the existing Lisbon Treaty. For example re-instituting the migrant impact fund, cancelled by the Tories; or reversing the anti-union Viking/Laval judgments by a new Posted Workers Directive, which again Cameron has opposed; or pushing existing state aid rules to the limit.

But the radical left in Europe goes further. Podemos, for example, wants to renegotiate aspects of the Lisbon Treaty, end mandatory austerity and launch a co-ordinated debt write off in the Eurozone.

Labour should, right now, switch its message to: Remain and Renegotiate the EU Treaty.

At a bare minimum Labour should be demanding an end to state aid restrictions; an end to privatistion and labour market flexibility initiatives; scrap the Stability and Growth Pact which mandates austerity, and scrap the deflationary bias written into the ECB’s mandate.

Pledging now to renegotiate Lisbon opens three new lines of attack for Labour.

First it says to workers who fear a 250k per year net inward migration driven by EU stagnation (the Migration Watch scenario): there’s a different kind of Europe possible. It shows Labour is prepared to offer solutions to the cheap labour supply problem.

Second, it throws down a challenge to the governments of Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands — and the Commission. If they rule out any renegotiation of Lisbon, and go on insisting on austerity and attacks on labour rights, they will be shown as partly responsible for what happens after Brexit (ie the slow collapse of the whole EU project).

Third, it offers Tory euroskeptics what David Cameron refused to give them: the potential for a further negotiated reform of Britain’s relationship with the EU, short of Brexit.

Most urgently, Labour needs to make a new offer to its own working class supporters on migration.

Tom Watson has pledged Labour will renegotiate free movement. Ed Balls too has called for a rethink on free movement. He says, in the Mirror:

“While a limit has been secured on the benefits paid to migrant workers — I don’t think that can be the end of the story. We need to press Europe to restore proper borders, and put new controls on economic migration.”

That, too, means renegotiating Lisbon. But there is no guarantee the rest of Europe will agree. So here’s what Labour needs to do specifically, today.

For a start labour movement activists have to stop dodging working class objections to low-wage inward migration, or assuming it can all be resolved by an appeal to anti-racism.

If some inward migration depresses wages, and puts excessive strain on local services, the argument “but overall its beneficial” does not work — as hundreds of Labour activists are finding out as the bash the phones and knock on doors.

So Labour has to say: we have clear, urgent programme to stem the demand for low-wage migrant workers, especially in the private sector, and especially in small towns where, together with austerity, it creates a strain on services.

Strategically the instinct Corbyn has followed is right: Labour’s new heartland is millions of progressive, liberal minded, globalist people, especially among the young and in the salariat. Forging an alliance between them and the old, manual working class is the challenge — because these are different political “tribes” with sometimes divergent values. But it’s doable, because radicalism on the economy can unite them.

However in the next 10 days we have to change the minds of a much wider group of people, not necessarily Labour voters, who are sick of seeing their own communities blighted and neglected by successive Labour and Tory governments (and councils) alike.

Wrongly they see migration as the main reason. And subtextually they are seeing Brexit as a way of “getting one over” not just on the elite but the liberal middle classes in general. This group does not only include white workers: it includes some black and Asian voters too.

Labour should say:

a) You are right to be angry about low pay, shit jobs, terrible services and the political neglect of your communities. EU migration is not to primarily to blame for that.

b) However migration does suppress wages for the low-paid end of the workforce, especially in parts of the private sector where unions barely exist and migrant-only businesses have been allowed to flourish. But we have a plan to remedy that.

c) The plan will reduce low-wage EU migration into private sector jobs. That is its explicit aim. It will still allow the NHS to go and recruit nurses from Spain and Portugal; but it will make it harder to set up an anti-union migrant-only fruit-picking business in Kent, or staff a small factory entirely with low-paid workers from the EU.

d) Specifically we will:

a. Hike the minimum wage to £10 an hour within a year and £12 by 2019. Raising the minimum wage quickly would create a one-off change in the dynamics of the low-paid private sector, deterring business models based on the exploitation of temporary migrants.

b. Hire thousands of workplace inspectors to enforce the new minimum wage; set up a whistleblowing service to expose employers who are undercutting it; empower trade unions to enforce the new minimum by giving them representation rights in every workplace

c. Set up a compulsory a training levy for all companies so that every employer hiring a non-UK worker has to pay a small amount towards the training programmes to equip UK citizens for jobs where skills are in short supply

d. Change the Equalities Act to make it illegal for employers to hire only specific nationalities for specific job functions, workplaces or grades; the aim would be to end “migrant only” recruitment practices.

e. Legalise the “closed shop”: ie where workers and managers agree, it can be compulsory for workers to join a union, across a whole firm or industry. That would give trade unions oversight of hiring strategies, so they could oversee fairness and eradicate practices that exploit migrants.

f. Finally, if after three years there is no significant fall in EU migration to low-paid private sector jobs, Labour should be prepared to temporarily suspend free movement.

g. For a five year period Labour could incorporate all EU migration within the existing points-based system. This could be done by the same mechanism as Cameron’s March 2016 reforms: a 28-country agreement deposited at the UN. The temporary opt-out would, as now, allow the NHS and high-paying tech and finance businesses to go out and recruit workers from inside the EU. But it would discourage the recruitment of workers from the EU into low wage businesses, just as the current rules discourage this for non-EU workers.

e) On top of this, Labour needs to pledge an urgent fiscal stimulus on coming to power. The focus of that stimulus would be to revive Britain’s blighted towns; boost public sector pay; and massive, targeted help for places where inward migration has put a strain on health, education and local government.

While making these arguments, Labour activists should go out of their way to attack anti-migrant racism. I’m hearing a rising tone of worry among migrant workers over the levels of hostility this campaign is creating. By swerving around migration arguments we are not just failing to win the Remain argument, we are dodging the opportunity to be robust in defence of migration’s benefits.

Labour should praise the contribution migrants make; assure those already here they will have full rights to stay and work, and indeed to apply for British citizenship.

This proposal is about boosting consent for migration, and ending the atmosphere of resentment and racism that the Brexit referendum has stoked.

Beyond this, strategically, Labour has to argue for a new deal on free movement within the EU, as Balls and Watson suggest. Schengen is falling apart; Dublin a dead letter. The EU itself should have a Green Card system; a refugee dispersal scheme; a Europe-wide labour market policy designed to even out migration flows; and a constitution that prevents ECJ judgments like Viking/Laval. This, again, means revising Lisbon. But to get there we first have to win the referendum.

People are rightly very wary about late-stage offers and promises. But Labour has to show it is listening. Think about it: if Remain scrapes a slight majority — what then is Labour supposed to say to millions of its own voters? Forget your worries about migration?

The above plan would be a departure from Labour’s current position. It’s my suggestion, nobody else’s at present.

It retains commitment to free movement now, but makes radical moves in the domestic labour market with the explicit aim of reducing that form of migation that places most strain on wages and services: namely low-wage migration into the private sector in small towns.

It will not go far enough for right wing nationalists and racists among UKIP and the Tories. But most of those who want to vote Brexit to reduce migration are not racists or nationalists.

I believe in the Britain needs inward migration. And right now it should should honour its duty to tens of thousands of refugees. But we have to do something new and significant to rebuild consent for this — because the Brexit referendum has changed the atmosphere.

The arguments of technocratic centrism aren’t working — they never do. Remain’s assertion that “you can’t change the migration rules unless you leave Europe”, and even then you can’t change them…has driven people into the Brexit camp.

So we need an offer.

The radical thing for Labour to do now is pledge to:

  • renegotiate the Lisbon Treaty;
  • reform the labour market to reduce demand for low-wage migrant workers in the private sector
  • restore popular consent for migration and for honouring our duty to refugees by focusing massive extra spending on towns where public services are stretched.

If you did all this you could also scrap Cameron’s tawdry 4-year emergency brake on migrant benefits. Once people are here, and working, they should be treated equally and fairly.