Free movement is firmly back on the agenda for Labour

Nick Dearden takes a look at a rapidly transforming migration debate in the Labour Party – and the role we are playing.

28th September 2017

Clive Lewis addresses one of Another Europe’s fringe events at this year’s Labour conference

By Nick Dearden

The message from Brighton is that Labour is overcoming the crisis of Brexit. Last year’s conference in Liverpool was shell shocked by the EU referendum decision. The certainty of delegates was shattered, their principles cut adrift from the new reality they found themselves in.

But that’s been replaced by the most vibrant debate that Labour has had in a generation, about how to respond to the crisis the country finds itself in. Sure, there was no debate on conference floor. But dozens of overflowing fringe meetings, including a whole fringe conference – the World Transformed – discussed remaking Britain in the wake of the referendum. It has been passionately and energetically debated for 4 days by shadow ministers, MPs, union leaders, campaigners and ordinary party members.

This was not a divided conference, despite many reports to the contrary. It was a party engaging in mass politics. The atmosphere was electric.

Over the next few years, Britain’s constitution will be rewritten. The question for those on the left of the political spectrum is how to ensure this process creates more equality, tackles injustice, and undermines the insular xenophobia which stalks our country.

Last year, the principle of free movement in Europe was in the doldrums. Activists feared they would have to give up on cherished principles in order to win over an increasingly hostile public. Far from extending the right to move, leaving less people at the mercy of employers for their visas and ‘rights’, it seemed that increasingly violent borders would be erected around our island.

Over the last year, campaigning by groups like Another Europe is Possible, the Alliance for Free Movement and the Labour Campaign for Free Movement have convinced many activists to return to their principles. Together with the 2017 election result, many have recognised that they cannot give up on the rights of those who have chosen to make their homes in this country.

The greatest strides forward for the broader labour movement have come about when the most precarious workers – migrant workers, women workers – fought for their rights and were supported by millions more people. The selfish rhetoric that migrants and women lowered wages and conditions, was simply buying into the politics of divide and rule from which only unscrupulous fat cat bosses benefitted.

There is a long way to go, but the whole Brexit vote begins to look more reversible. This is important because in the modern global economy, a radical Labour manifesto cannot be implemented in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. Financial markets would make the economy scream. Big business would force us to undermine the standards and protections of our neighbours.

We need to be more ambitious. The EU, whether it recognises it or not, desperately needs a Corbyn-led government at its heart. The neoliberal policies of the EU have destroyed trust in the institutions that run Europe. The torture visited upon the Greek people. The shameful treatment of migrants at Europe’s borders, which have become a virtual war zone, to keep the wealth of the few out of the hands of the many. The widespread privatisation, deregulation and adoration of big business which have deepened poverty, hollowed out communities, eroded democracy.

The policies discussed at this week’s conference – building up public services, clamping down on tax havens, controlling big finance, large-scale public investment – are the only way out. They are what stands between a better, fairer, more equal continent, and the growth of a violent Trumpist nationalism. All of Europe is looking to us. We cannot let them down.