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Business News/ Opinion / Immigration continues to divide Britain

Immigration continues to divide Britain

Immigration is such a toxic issue that no party in the UK can speak the language of bargains and trade-offs

Jeremy Corbyn masterfully manoeuvred the election away from Brexit with a hopeful turn towards traditional Labour-left themes. Photo: AFPPremium
Jeremy Corbyn masterfully manoeuvred the election away from Brexit with a hopeful turn towards traditional Labour-left themes. Photo: AFP

The European Union will not grant unfettered access to the single market without free movement of people within the EU, one of their cherished “four freedoms". Ask the Swiss, who capitulated after their own anti-immigration referendum. Yet, immigration is the faultline running through both major British parties. While the recent election consolidated votes with the Conservative Party and Labour, these parties remain fragile internal coalitions vulnerable to splitting over immigration.

The British want to have their cake and eat it too: the “soft Brexit" of continued, unfettered access to the single market without the free movement of people. The EU would baulk at such a request, so political elites face the compromise of trading off some market access for some limitations on free movement. But immigration is such a toxic issue that no party can speak the pragmatic language of bargains and trade-offs while holding its troops together and bringing the electorate along.

Recall that the reason for former Prime Minister David Cameron calling the referendum in the first place was Tory infighting over the EU. Cameron hoped to silence the racism-tinged eurosceptic wing of the party once and for all. He failed, and so the pendulum swung in favour of a hard Brexit: complete departure from the common market and no free movement of people. When Prime Minister Theresa May tried to push that through in this election, she too failed. The Tories remain poisonously divided on the issue.

Yet, Labour is similarly divided. Jeremy Corbyn and his team masterfully manoeuvred the election away from Brexit with a hopeful turn towards traditional Labour-left themes of anti-austerity, public services and public investment. A substantial youth turnout responded, lifting the party to 40% of the vote. This newly-mobilized young brigade are fiercely pro-EU and would have voted to remain if they voted at all. Yet, a substantial part of the Labour vote in this election also came from those northern post-industrial towns where many of the citizens voted to leave in the referendum and voted for the UKIP (UK Independence Party) in the last election. This section is broadly anti-immigration.

This division within Labour expressed itself in the lukewarm manner in which Corbyn argued for Remain during the referendum. There had always been a left-wing position against the EU—the Bennites, led by Labour icon Tony Benn—and Corbyn no doubt has some sympathy with it. But to be for Brexit was to be in bed in UKIP and the racists, so the space to make a progressive argument against a neoliberal, undemocratic EU had simply vanished. Corbyn split the difference by arguing for Remain but only weakly, enraging the party’s Blairite establishment.

All these cracks in the Labour movement were papered over by a rush of youthful, internet-fuelled energy into the rank and file in this election campaign. Yet, with headwinds of a toxic tabloid media, a Blairite party core, and terror attacks to boot, Corbyn could diminish but not defeat the divided and poorly led Tories.

With the election now done and Brexit negotiations looming, this single issue will again dominate the headlines. And perhaps counter-intuitively, Labour is in a vulnerable position. Brexit allowed Corbyn to present his youth vote with a fait accompli: free movement is off the table and it’s not my fault. The absence of free movement placated old labour without demobilizing the pro-EU youth. Labour’s coalition held together.

But now after the election, the establishment seems to be circling around a fudge of their own: exit the EU but pay for access to the single market and retain free movement of people as a “temporary" (read: hopefully permanent) measure while the dust settles. There are various versions of this from the Norwegian model to the Swiss model, but all of them entail the conceding to an intransigent EU on “mass immigration".

This puts immigration squarely back on the agenda and therefore threatens Labour’s internal cohesion. Corbyn is back to a position where he has to actually have a view on it rather than having the referendum take it out of his hands. He will be acutely aware that dissident Labour voters who had fled to UKIP have only just returned to the fold. While UKIP was just decimated and might be a spent force, can Corbyn really gamble that such dissidents would not be attracted by Tory eurosceptism. Viscerally anti-Tory Scotland going substantially Tory this time stands as a warning.

The irony is that Labour’s new youth vote and the media-party establishment are united on the issue of immigration, with the establishment happy to leverage the youth’s liberal, anti-racist sentiments to discipline working people by keeping labour markets completely open.

Corbyn’s success in this election came as a result of smashing Blairite shibboleths and returning to classical left-wing themes. Yet, the left wing argument against the EU remains forgotten. This was Benn’s argument from democracy rather than nationalism: Brussels is unelected. Since no one wants a fully sovereign, federated Europe, it falls to the nation to be the seat of democracy. There is an argument for Brexit that is progressive rather than nationalist.

Corbyn might have to recall this argument if he is to hold the Labour coalition together. Liberalism and democracy can pull in the same direction without being hijacked by angry nationalism.

Anush Kapadia is assistant professor in the department of humanities and social sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

Comments are welcome at

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Published: 19 Jun 2017, 11:37 PM IST
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