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The UK is at a crossroads in its relationship to the rest of the world, and so is our party. Immigrants and free movement are being scapegoated by a political and economic elite that is subjecting ordinary people to cuts and austerity. During the greatest refugee crisis in recent years, the Tories have responded with brutality and detention centres.
Labour should respond with clarity, humanity and solidarity. We fought the last General Election arguing against such scapegoating, and celebrating the contributions of migrants to our society. That tone must now translate into policy.
Migrants are not to blame for falling wages, insecurity, bad housing and overstretched public services. These are the product of decades of underinvestment, deregulation, privatisation, and the harshest anti-union laws in Europe. On the contrary, migrant workers have been on the front line of fighting for better pay and working conditions. Labour is the party of all working people – regardless of where they were born.
A system of free movement is the best way to protect and advance the interests of all workers, by giving everyone the right to work legally, join a union and stand up to their boss without fear of deportation or destitution. Curtailing those rights, or limiting migrants’ access to public services and benefits, will make it easier for unscrupulous employers to hyper-exploit migrant labour, which in turn undermines the rights and conditions of all workers.
Free movement enhances everyone’s rights. There are more than a million UK citizens living in the EU, and millions more who may enjoy the right to do so. UK workers in the EU have access to benefits, healthcare and other public services. Tens of thousands of UK students study abroad each year under ERASMUS schemes. UK and European citizens have the automatic right to family reunion.
Labour must build a society for the many, not the few. We need well-paid, secure jobs for all, with guaranteed hours, collective bargaining and stronger, freer trade unions. We need a policy of massive investment in council housing, public services and infrastructure. And we need to tell the truth about who and what is to blame for the crisis: an unaccountable elite who have run the economy in their own narrow interests. Ending free movement would be counterproductive to achieving all of this.