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In a speech scheduled for today, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will outline new policies on immigration and Brexit. It won’t be universally popular. Some of his allies will see it as abandoning a dearly-held point of principle. Others may see it as trying to trade principles for power, as the Blairites did for so long.
It will not be an easy sell.
Large sections of the mainstream media are, openly or otherwise, hostile to Corbyn. So are a proportion of the Labour right who would be keen to fire any ammunition they can find. Expect Corbyn’s internal opponents to present this in the most negative way possible, and expect their mainstream media allies to devour these offerings like bird seed, regurgitating them as anti-Corbyn coverage.
That isn’t to say that, for many within Labour and without, free movement isn’t a genuine point of principle. It doesn’t mean everybody criticising the change of line is a covert class traitor, closet Tory, wrecker, fifth columnist or any type best cast into oblivion. Neither are those supporting the policy change to be simply labelled as racists or Little Englanders for wanting a change in tack.
Corbyn’s rivals have already used the shift as an opportunity to score points. Green MP Caroline Lucas lost no time in claiming Corbyn has capitulated to the Tories on immigration, stating;
In the space of a few short weeks Jeremy Corbyn has gone from backing free movement in Europe to joining the Conservatives plans for Brexit by abandoning his commitment to it.
Like it or not, Ms Lucas. Brexit is currently a reality. So is the fact that, while free movement has many supporters, it also has enough opponents that their view has to be acknowledged if not necessarily agreed with.
Liberal Democrat Tim Farron has sneered at the move, stating;
Jeremy Corbyn has ceased to be Leader of the Opposition to become cheerleader-in-chief for the Conservative Brexit government.
This from the party formerly in coalition with a Conservative government that supported the destructive welfare reforms and generally existed as the ineffectual tail on the Coalition dog.
That the dog had fleas didn’t stop the Lib Dems from being an active part thereof, though that consisted largely of soaking up public hostility by defending the indefensible. Public hostility that might otherwise have been directed at their Tory masters. Even if Farron was right, ‘cheerleader-in-chief’ would still be less demeaning than turning an entire party into the Tories’ electoral body armour.
With that in mind, let’s look at what Corbyn is expected to say and what it actually means.
Firstly, Corbyn will say;
Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle. But nor can we afford to lose full access to the European markets on which so many British businesses and jobs depend. Changes to the way migration rules operate from the EU will be part of the negotiation.
There are certain realities to address. Not everybody agrees with free movement and, like it or not, their views exist and have to be considered. Without access to the single market, where do those British jobs and businesses go from here if not into decline? Brexit is a new situation where the older rules won’t apply. New situations require new responses.
Labour supports fair rules and reasonably-managed migration as part of the post-Brexit relationship with the EU. Unlike the Tories, Labour will not offer false promises on immigration targets or sow division by scapegoating migrants.
This is also supported by probably the majority of the British public. We live in a democracy, not a one-party dreamland where everybody has the same viewpoint. Unlike the right wing, employing migrants as cheap labour with limited employment rights and lower wages while rabble-rousing about their mere presence isn’t on our agenda.
But Labour will take action against undercutting of pay and conditions by closing down cheap labour loopholes, banning exclusive advertising of jobs abroad and strengthening workplace protections.
We’d like to put a stop to employers using migrants as cheap labour with worse pay and conditions and fewer rights. In turn, restricting their ability to do that limits their ability to get round labour laws while quietly reminding British workers that they can always be replaced with migrants if they make too much fuss or in times of high unemployment.
People voted for Brexit to regain control over our economy, our democracy and people’s lives. We will push to maintain full access to the European single market to protect living standards and jobs. But we will also press to repatriate powers from Brussels for the British government to develop a genuine industrial strategy essential for the economy of the future. Tory Governments have hidden behind EU state aid rules because they don’t want to intervene. But EU rules can also be a block on the action that’s needed to support our economy, decent jobs and living standards. Labour will use state aid powers in a drive to build a new economy, based on new technology and the green industries of the future.
We’re concerned about Brexit’s potential effects on our economy and acknowledge why many people voted Leave. Brexit would offer the potential for less restrictive policies and, as Brexit is currently a reality, let’s see how that might be useful. Better for Labour to use state aid rules, rather than Tories abusing them before shrugging their shoulders and blaming EU red tape for their actions.
There will be other ideas put forward. Halting NHS privatisation and rebuilding it with proper funding, for instance. Firms with government contracts worth over £250,000 would have to train apprentices and pay tax in the UK. Government contracts wouldn’t go to any company if it or a parent company were headquartered in a tax haven, thus clamping down on corporate tax avoidance.
Those are merely a few examples among many. These are unlikely to ignite as much anger or spark debate in the same way as the immigration question. Nor are Corbyn’s media and political opponents likely to want them to. Wading into him as a hypocrite, traitor to the cause, accusing him of flip-flopping on major issues and so on are grist to their mill, after all.
But, while his words won’t necessarily endear him to everybody, they hardly make him an opportunist, slithering his way to power in the Blair mould. He isn’t a tub-thumping Little Englander or a jack-booted bigot goose-stepping his way toward the levers of power, either. Nor is Corbyn, unlike Theresa May or Tim Fallon, either refusing to provide any kind of workable Brexit plan or scared of being fond not to actually have one.
Just don’t expect rival parties, internal opponents or their friends in the mainstream media to say that.