Corbyn, Labour and Immigration

14th January 2017

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-By Cllr Sean Woodcock-

Corbyn, Labour and Immigration

Muddle. Mess. Chaos. Disarray. These are just some of the words that were used to describe Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘populist relaunch’ this week.

They describe how the Labour leader appeared on the issue that has been drawn into focus by the result of the EU referendum last June; immigration.

Corbyn has been under pressure, from northern Labour MPs in particular, to take a much tougher stance on immigration which so clearly contributed to the Leave vote in so many of their constituencies.

The briefing ahead of his speech suggested that he had moved from his previous, very relaxed position on immigration and that Labour was “no longer wedded to Freedom of Movement”.

But then in the interviews and speech, altered at the last minute, he suggested another thing entirely; namely that the only thing Corbyn wanted to stop was the exploitation of immigrants, not reducing the number of them who come in.

It is fair to say that the way this relaunch was handled could have been better.

But the key reason why it went so wrong was because Jeremy Corbyn was asked to suggest that he would deliver something which he did not truly believe in; reducing immigration.

It should have surprised no one when Jeremy, pressed by John Humphrys on Radio 4’s Today, refused to put a number on what he considered acceptable immigration levels. He doesn’t believe in one. Immigration is not a matter of grave concern for him, rightly or wrongly.

This puts Corbyn seemingly at odds with an increasing number of his MPs, with Stephen Kinnock, Chuka Umunna and Emma Reynolds as well as the likes of John Cruddas and Andy Burnham calling for limitations on Freedom of Movement in response to the Brexit vote.

I have a lot of respect for MPs like Cruddas who have persistently over a number of years spoken or written about the need for Labour to get to grips with this issue. As a councillor I encounter the issue of immigration regularly on the doorstep. I have also written on this site about the need for Labour to deal with the issue and that was before the EU Referendum.

The problem is, unlike Corbyn, their position is not based on genuine conviction. It is largely pragmatic. The proof of that lay in how many of these MPs campaigned for a REMAIN vote in the first part of last year. They knew then, as they know now, that staying in the EU, or even the Single Market, meant accepting Freedom of Movement. Throughout the campaign to REMAIN, there were very few calls from Labour MPs for reform of that key plank of EU membership.

Instead, what we heard, if immigration was mentioned at all, was about how immigrants made a positive contribution to our country. Which is true. We heard how we need immigrants because of our demographics in order to plug gaps in the skills market and to pay for our pensions. Which is also true.

That explains why so few MPs spoke about reforming Freedom of Movement during the campaign.

So why, now, are so many coming down hard against Freedom of Movement? Yes, a conversation about immigration is necessary in the context of BREXIT. But surely Labour MPs, following on the referendum campaign, should be arguing for at least some retention of Freedom of Movement as hard as they are arguing to remain in the Single Market? The answer as to why they don’t is that they worry about the electoral consequences of taking a pro-immigration stance.

This is important because it lies at the heart of the party’s current impasse. Seemingly struggling to convince the UK electorate that Jeremy Corbyn should be Prime Minister with a PLP that clearly does not have confidence in him, yet with a party membership that refuse to countenance removing him as leader.

Corbyn’s popularity with members is rooted in the perceived authenticity of his views. His views are seen as having been consistent throughout his time in Parliament.

Against him are moderate MPs who are perceived by the party as careerist and unprincipled. This is unfair. But when Labour MPs can go from staunch advocates of the European Union with Freedom of Movement to wanting to end Freedom of Movement as a matter of urgency with such seeming ease because they think it will help them to win an election, is it any real surprise that members opt for Jeremy, the ‘man of principle’?

Mark Pack, contributor to Lib Dem Voice, wrote recently that in the Copeland by-election, his party should not be afraid to put off voters by being openly against nuclear power. His logic being that whilst it may put off voters involved in the nuclear industry, it would set out an honest stall of what the party stood for, building up a core vote for them to take forward to take to the next general election. It would also help counter the perennial accusation against the Lib Dems that their views changed from constituency to constituency depending on who their biggest threat was.

And I think he has a point. Labour are a party aiming for government and so should want to win elections. But we want to win elections in order to improve or transform people’s lives.

This lies at the heart of Jeremy Corbyn’s current strategy of populism in the vein of Donald Trump. Not mirroring Trump in policy or style but in being seen as genuinely authentic. This is why members like him. It is why he had such a difficult day earlier this week; because he was trying to advocate something he didn’t want to advocate. My advice, were I one of Corbyn’s advisers trying to sort out the presentation issues, would be to be himself and say what he thinks.

My advice to moderates is that it is no longer good enough to be focused on winning elections.

The Owen Smith campaign showed that it is not enough to simply tell the Labour membership that you have a better chance of winning an election than Jeremy Corbyn.

This means refusing to follow the electorate everywhere they want to go, especially when you know it will damage the country. And that means not necessarily going with them on immigration.

So for Moderates instead of showing how their programme will improve Labour’s fortunes and dabbling with policies or politics that they nor the party genuinely want, should instead be showing how their programme will improve people’s lives. Or there is no point to them.

By Cllr. Sean Woodcock

Councillor Sean Woodcock, The Labour Party Candidate for Banbury Constituency in the 2015 General Election

Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

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