In the run-up to the referendum, the Leave campaign made contradictory pledges on what Brexit would mean: on the one hand, it promised to reduce and control immigration, espousing inflammatory xenophobic claims. On the other hand, it promised to keep Britain in the European single market. After the vote, Boris Johnson told the press that the UK would be able to achieve both, a claim that was quickly quashed by European leaders and a majority in the European Parliament. Theresa May keeps telling us that “Brexit means Brexit”, but it is embarrassingly obvious to all that the government themselves don’t know what Brexit means in practice.
The Tory government and the Brexiteers have recklessly thrown the UK into a vortex of risk and uncertainty, based on populist lies, misinformation and incitement, all for narrow political gain. They never prepared for the eventuality of winning, or thought through how they might deliver their false promises. The Electoral Reform Society has come out against the “glaring deficiencies” in the debate around Brexit.
On September 1st, at Theresa May announced that restricting immigration will be the central priority in her plan to “make Brexit a success”, apparently even at the price of losing membership of the Single Market. This is a dangerous move which all of the Left must stand up against, and here’s why.
There is the economic argument we hear about over and over: being taken out of the European market will mean enormous economic damage to the UK, with businesses of all sizes potentially having to face tariffs. The UK would then have to negotiate trade deals with the entire world all at the same time, and most of them are likely to be just as bad if not worse than TTIP that so many of us are concerned about.
But then there are much deeper social and socialist reasons to stand up for Freedom of Movement, and everything it signifies and enables: a truly tolerant, diverse and open society, which strives for social justice and fairness.
First of all, accepting limits on freedom of movement would mean going along with the pretense that immigrants are a problem. It would be a surrender to Leave campaigners’ lies about immigration, fuelled by latent or blatant xenophobia. EU immigrants have contributed immensely to the British economy, putting much more into the public pot than they take out. The right-wing and its tabloid press choose to scapegoat immigrants instead of highlighting the practices of abusive employers, and cuts in public services, the result of austerity policies inflicted on working class communities. Where there are regions that require support in order to provide real social inclusion for immigrants and local communities, investment must be made for the benefit of all. We must not give in to far-right myth-making, because if we do, we will have no way of re-building the tolerant multi-cultural society we want to see.
Originally, Freedom of Movement was intended by the EU to allow workers to benefit from the market as business does, opening up opportunities to many millions. More importantly, it has allowed the European Union to democratically legislate high common social standards of social protections, health and safety, gender equality, and anti-discrimination measures. If freedom of movement for goods and capital was detached from freedom for people, the basis for social Europe would be lost, and what would emerge instead would be a race to the bottom of deregulation as states aim to attract migrating capital.
If the UK was to remain within the European market, with limits on migration, that would essentially mean protecting the rights of money and capital, while taking them away from people. That would be the beginning of the Tories rolling back social legislation, and turning the UK into some kind of deregulated tax haven for corporations.
Finally, Freedom of Movement is about solidarity and reciprocity. European member states pay for the running and upkeep of the Union in order to share in its benefits together. Solidarity is a core value enshrined in the founding treaties of the EU.
European leaders who oppose giving Boris Johnson what he wants are often accused by our Europhobic press of being somehow callous. But why should they be willing to give us Brits rights that we intend to take away from their citizens? Why should they let us use the facilities of a club they pay to maintain, while we declare our refusal to pay our membership fees? They expect the UK to live up to our common reciprocal responsibilities.
I remain convinced that the process around the referendum was dangerously flawed and undemocratic, with all of the lies, misinformation, and vitriol, the deliberate exclusion of voters abroad, or of EU citizens, and young people. The farcical government reaction to the outcome vindicates all this. The Left must speak out loudly against the Tories’ Brexit plans, and challenge them every step of the way, until we get into government.
I came into politics in order to fight against austerity and social injustice, and against the rising tide of xenophobia which the referendum has fuelled. I have been a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn in his fight against injustice, and I believe that with the new momentum our party has gained we can truly transform our society.
We on the left must realise that in order to achieve the transformation we want, we must fight to retain our values of tolerance for diversity. We must fight to keep our Freedom of Movement, and all of our European social and environmental protections.
We must remember that Labour represents the 48% and all of the young people that voted remain, or that were not given the right to vote. By the time we see any results of Brexit negotiations, there may well be a much larger majority of Remainers. Our social transformation depends on them.