Don Flynn finds Labour’s parliamentary confusion flies in the face of support for free movement among party members
The Immigration Bill currently making its way through the various stages of Parliamentary procedures ought to provide Labour with its best chance of defining a set of post-Brexit policies which are consistent with what most of the party’s membership believe to be its best values.
The bill (official title: Immigration and Social Security Coordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill) makes provision for EU nationals arriving after the transitional date for departure (or by the end of March if a No-Deal Brexit prevails) to come under the remit of UK-made regulations. It will mean, as the government has made clear in its promotion of the measure, a decisive end to the freedom of movement deriving from the EU Treaty.
When the bill came up for a vote on its second reading in the Commons at the end of February, the Labour leadership team seems to have allowed its stand on the matter to be determined by the blunt wording of its 2017 manifesto commitment to back the ending of free movement. The shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, initially let her view be known on how the Parliamentary Party should vote by stating that Labour “is clear that when Britain leaves the single market, freedom of movement ends, and we set this out in our 2017 manifesto. I am a slavish devotee of that magnificent document: so on that basis, the frontbench of the Labour party will not be opposing this bill this evening.”
Unfortunately, what Abbott should have been more alert to than any one else is the fact that the Windrush scandal had broken since that date. A much better understanding among sections of the public of what it meant to be subject to UK immigration policy has resulted from the media stories which told of elderly Caribbean residents being denied much-needed health care, dismissed from their jobs and evicted from privately rented accommodation. Some had been detained in immigration removal centres and a number, probably in the region of hundreds, actually deported from the country in which they had been legally resident for decades.
The news that Labour MPs had been instructed to abstain on a vote against a bill that threatened to extend the immigration control system to some 3.5 million EU citizens settled in the UK was greeted with alacrity by some backbenchers and others who found out about the proposal. Abbott attempted to calm nerves with a tweet that was supposed to assure people that she was aware of the bill’s deficiencies and the Parliamentary party would be seeking substantial amendments at later stages.
This provoked a storm of criticism across social media and, 90 minutes before the vote took place, the party leadership announced a change of plan and called upon its MPs to vote against the bill. Getting effective opposition organised at such a late stage was an almost possible task and, in the end, only 178 of Labour’s 256 MPs were present in the chamber for the vote. The second reading of the bill was then carried by 297 to 234.
Recent weeks have shown a strength of support among Labour party members for immigration policies that replicate the principles of freedom of movement in UK domestic legislation if Brexit does take place. The Labour Campaign for Free Movement advocates going beyond the current limit of beneficiaries of this policy to the European Economic Area countries and Switzerland and extending its scope to citizens of third countries.
The LabourList website, which has 12 million visits each day from people interested in news about the party, has surveyed the views of its followers on the question of freedom of movement in the event of withdrawal. Getting a response of over 5,000 people, 83% said they favoured keeping free movement after Brexit.
The bill will come under even closer scrutiny as it moves to its committee stage and further readings. Pressure needs to be kept up on the leadership to make sure there is no further confusion on where Labour stands on the issue as the debate becomes even more intense.