Support for Labour will evaporate if it ditches its commitment to end freedom of movement

Support for Labour will evaporate if it ditches its commitment to end freedom of movement

There is an overwhelming desire among the British people to end the economics of austerity and build an economy based on high-skill industry and manufacturing. This desire was reflected in Labour’s 2017 election manifesto. However, most of the promises and policies in that manifesto could not be met if the UK stays in the single market.

It will be a dereliction of duty if the Labour Party wished the ends without willing the means. Calling for the UK to remain in the single market – as a group of Labour figures did in their letter published in yesterday’s Observer – is a camouflage for tearing up that acclaimed manifesto.

While much of the Tory Government’s policies are to be deplored, its declared intention to leave the single market and the customs union and end the freedom of movement are not among them. The EU Withdrawal Bill is a necessity for leaving the EU and Labour’s recent decision to vote against it at Second Reading on the grounds that it incorporates Henry VIII powers – which are open to be amended – was bizarre.

Labour must beware a knee-jerk reaction to anything the Government proposes. Opposition for opposition’s sake, playing fast and loose with the EU Withdrawal Bill, will be highly damaging to the country and any party that flirts with such tactics will be punished by workers in a general election. Nothing less than a three-line whip in favour of the Bill in its final form will do.

There is nothing Theresa May would like more than Labour obstructing the passage of the Great Repeal Bill or other necessary legislation to leave the EU. That would delight Tory strategists who would immediately advise May to call a snap general election on the grounds that Labour has failed to respect the wishes of the people as expressed in the EU referendum. May could then achieve what she failed to achieve at the 2017 election, presenting the Tories as the only party that can be trusted with Brexit and, this time, win an outright majority.

Economists who find the current combination of low unemployment rates (the lowest for 42 years) and the inability of wages to keep pace with inflation mystifying, need look no further than the large pool of labour from an EU plagued with high levels of unemployment for an explanation. Such a dampening effect on wages and conditions will be removed once we are out of the single market.

As we exit the single market and end the freedom of movement, the supply of cheap labour from the EU will dry out, the price of labour will begin to rise, workers will be properly rewarded and their skills recognised. This will, in turn, provide the incentive for business to invest in advanced machinery and improve productivity.

Agriculture, a sector predicted to face doom (cabbages left to rot and all that) in Brexit Britain is a case in point. When questioned at the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee in June this year, Minette Batters from the National Farmers Union and David Swales from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board accepted that the ease with which cheap labour can be sourced from Eastern Europe has diminished the incentive to invest in state-of-the-art robotic machines anywhere near the level of, say, the mechanisation in Australia, where migrant labour is highly controlled.

No doubt, there will be the inevitable pleas that this or that sector cannot afford even the smallest hike in wages, that profits will dwindle and businesses close. This has been the cry of capitalists throughout the ages from the 10-hour day in the 1850s to the recent minimum wage legislation. If such pleas were heeded, we would still be living in Dickensian times. As these changes filter through the various sectors of employment, the economy will begin to move towards the high-productivity, high-wage, high-skill economy for which the trade union and labour movement has long been calling.

The prospects of moving towards such an economy have never been more achievable than with Brexit. In fact, it is made possible only by the UK leaving the EU. In the process, we’ll be able to bring to an end the grotesque situation in which manufacturing parts and components that can be easily resourced locally, criss-cross the Channel before they are finally assembled into a complete product. This is a process which, apart from clogging the roads, is wasteful of resources and highly damaging to the environment, polluting the atmosphere with toxic nitrogen oxides and other gases, all for the sake of a miniscule uplift in profit margins. In the world that the EU inhabits, the smallest increase in profit trumps environmental considerations. Environmentalists note: the EU is no friend of the planet.

The turning point of the 2017 general election campaign was not Labour’s policies on austerity and the economy, as popular as these were, but the late inclusion of the bold statement that “the freedom of movement will end as we leave the European Union” to the election manifesto. That was the moment when workers began to see Labour as a serious and viable alternative government and the party was rewarded with increased support. Workers are not fools: they know that promises of re-nationalisation and borrow-to-invest are pie in the sky if we remain inside the single market.

But the support Labour received at the general election is not absolute; no vote in a general election is ever absolute. If Labour begins to equivocate on its manifesto pledge to end the freedom of movement of labour, that support will melt away as quickly as it was consolidated in the last few weeks of the election campaign.