With eight days to go until polling day, the referendum debate has become increasingly dominated by immigration. Many in the Remain camp, particularly on the Labour side, are (rightly) worried that anxiety about immigration is driving Labour voters toward Brexit.
For much of the campaign, the strategy of Remain has been to try to change the subject. This involves responding to people’s anxiety by either setting out the positive case for migration – that migrants bring in more in taxes than they take out in benefits; that they help prop up our NHS, that they add to our GDP. Or acknowledging people’s misgivings, but pointing out that the benefits of ending free movement would be outweighed by the price of losing EU membership. (All true by the way). Either way, the point is to change the subject as quickly as possible so that it can be moved on to terrain where Remain is stronger: economic security.
It doesn’t take a pollster to know that this strategy risks failing. As I said in my contribution to the recent Fabian book, Future Left, whilst immigration has small marginal economic benefits overall, it also creates winners and losers, at least in the short term. When politicians answer questions about high levels of immigration by either defending it or suggesting that its continual growth is inevitable and a ‘price worth paying’, they sound at best tin-eared, at worst like members of an elite closing ranks. To the voter, it can sound suspiciously like ‘like it or lump it’ – never a good political message.
Whatever one’s views about immigration, one fact is undeniable: British citizens were never given an opportunity to vote for the decision not to impose transitional controls on A8 countries in 2004, nor the accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. So it is not surprising that this referendum feels like a rare (perhaps the only) opportunity for a disempowered electorate to exercise power on an issue they care about.
This is causing angst across the Remain camp but for the Labour party, the consequences potentially go beyond the 23rd June. If Britain heads for Brexit, the party will have to live with the fact that it was Labour voters that helped swing the result; if Remain wins, the party faces being blamed for denying Labour voters the chance to exercise their voice. A Scottish-style backlash is not impossible.
So, assuming the ‘change the subject’ strategy is not working, what are the other options? Broadly, there are three.
The first is to acknowledge voters’ concerns about free movement and pledge to do everything in our power to ameliorate the negative impacts, within current laws. These include tougher labour market regulation, reform of the Posted Workers’ Directive, and greater expectations on employers to train young people, as a quid pro quo for hiring migrants. The trouble with this approach is that it is not particularly new (many of these policies were in Labour’s 2015 manifesto) and therefore risks not cutting through.
The second is to suggest that Labour will seek to reopen negotiations about free movement rules. Yesterday saw a flurry of interventions from senior Labour figures: Tom Watson, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls, suggesting that Cameron’s renegotiation should not be ‘the end of the story’. The advantages of this approach are that it demonstrates Labour has heard people’s concerns and are willing to act on them. It is also likely that in the longer term, free movement will probably have to be reformed. Concern about immigration is not unique to Britain, but is rife across Europe; securing consent for the European project will require reform eventually.
The problem is credibility. If a suspension of free movement – an ‘emergency break’ – could have been achieved, wouldn’t the prime minister had secured it? Will voters believe that Labour will be more successful in securing concessions from other member states than David Cameron? As the prime minister himself well knows, the only thing worse than making no promises on immigration is making a promise you can’t keep. There is a chance such a promise would be credible if Germany, spooked by the possibility of Britain leaving, could be persuaded to offer up further concessions on free movement reform before the 23rd. This seems unlikely. Alternatively, Remain could attempt to establish a new ‘double lock’: refusing to sign up to any further treaties unless we get free movement reform, and promising another in/ out referendum if we fail to do so. Though whether or not voters would want to be put through the same process all over again is an open question.
The third option is to signal the same intent, but make a promise that is within our gift: by changing our position on Turkish accession to the EU. Whilst Remain have repeatedly said Turkish accession is not on the cards, voters are entitled to wonder how credible such a promise is, particularly given the recent history of EU accession. Remain would of course need to make clear that this is nothing to do with being anti-Turkish, as well as acknowledging that there would be downsides from a foreign policy perspective (not least the removal of a powerful incentive for Turkey to reform). But it is precisely because the decision involves an element of pain that it would be more likely to be perceived as credible. The argument would be that we have learned from the experience of recent EU enlargement and are being realistic about the fact that Britain (along with Germany) would be a favoured destination of new EU citizens regardless of any transitional controls we might impose.
In summary, there are no good options; all involve trade-offs and it may already be too late. But simply crossing our fingers and hoping that the fear of economic insecurity will trump concern about immigration risks letting Britain slide out of the EU: an outcome that would be disastrous for our country.
Harvey Redgrave was head of home affairs policy at the Labour party and senior advisor to Ed Miliband from 2011 to 2015. He is currently director of strategy and delivery at Crest Advisory. He writes in a personal capacity.