Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Farewell Free Movement?

It has been a strange day for the Labour leadership team, with the new 'populist' Jeremy Corbyn coming off rather a lot like death bed-era New Labour.

There was the 'human touch' tweet involving "teaching" Piers Morgan about Arsene Wenger. Then the pre-briefed volte-face on Freedom of Movement. The strained morning sofa appearances. The semi-retraction cum botched explanation that Corbyn hadn't "changed his mind" on immigration (just maybe his policy - or then again maybe not). A raft of other "thinking aloud" moments. And all this before the trailed speech had even been given.

So, for those still listening, where does Corbyn now stand on immigration? The answer is - exactly the same place. Only striking a slightly different pose. This is one problem that populists sometimes run into: with the emphasis on rhetoric, we are supposed to suspend concerns about substance. But eventually the posturing of populists can lead to exactly the same cynicism it's designed to counter.

Now, there's also the specific problem of thinking you can talk your way out of the "immigration issue." Blair once promised "tough immigration laws that work." He policed borders. He went after "illegitimate" asylum seekers and opportunistic economic migrants. New Labour created much of the Right's anti-immigrant language.

At its best populism creates new cleavages between the majority and the elite few. It is able to name its political enemies and isolate them. Needless to say this has risks. But it is important to accept that in politics there are enemies and we should call them out - the billionaires, the oligarchs, the tax dodgers and the political elite. Bernie Sanders does all this very well. But its limits can be seen in the wink-wink-nudge-nudge discursive contortions of Podemos. What they call "transversalism" sometimes just looks like a fudge. Trump's asset is his clarity. Left-wingers looking to dodge difficult questions with a rhetorical gloss end up backed into a corner.

Corbyn has sunk rapidly into the latter group. His stance on immigration risks satisfying no one. While much of the public want 'answers' to immigration 'problems', this sounds like New Labour waffle. There is nothing to say people will believe anything Labour says about migration, even and perhaps especially if it starts announcing targets.

Also, it's not at all clear if the public appetite for migration controls can really be  satisfied, as if all the migrant bashing will end if numbers dip below 250,000 or even 100,000. There's of course the small economic matter that fewer migrants will reduce GDP, see a fall in employment, reduce the tax base, and lead to more poverty. But besides the 'material' side of it, there is the fact that sadism is by nature unquenchable.

Corbyn was confusing and looked insincere. He managed to remain pro-FoM throughout the entire Brexit campaign. His new tone just sounds off. Labour won't be wooing back thousands of disenchanted white people on the strength of this.

Meanwhile, the liberal centre and the hard right are revelling in Corbyn's supposed ditched principles. He's given the worst people in the British media further fuel and in the worst, disorganised, Thick of It way.

Although I wrote at the time of the EU referendum that I thought freedom of movement should be defended, I don't want it to be the sword the left dies on. Immigration has many upsides and almost no downsides. The few negative effects that can feasibly be attributed to it can be counteracted by a decent government with a constructive industrial policy. My evidence for all this was a recent LSE report (link below). Moreover, migration is a good for labour as such: if capital is free to move, labour must be too. Otherwise wages really do become a race to the bottom, with capital free to choose the lowest wage areas.

But with Theresa May content for Britain to leave the single market, a change to Britain's migration system is assured. Free movement between Europe and the UK is effectively dead already. This a cold political fact. Jeremy Corbyn is perhaps attempting to communicate that truth today. But his intervention lacked clarity to say the least.

The speech was overshadowed by Corbyn's precise language on immigration and the meaning of legal cap on pay - but perhaps that was the idea. Part of me wonders if Corbyn's whimsy has just been the beginning of an apparently spontaneous (though secretly tightly managed) process of flooding the press with contradictory ideas designed to spur on the base a la Trump's Tweetstorms. But then I remember: no, that's  just Corbyn. No doubt someone somewhere has called yet again for his resignation. The one good thing is, as these haphazard media appearances multiply, people aren't even listening to those siren voices any more.

People in Corbyn's camp need to do some serious thinking soon: do they want to gain a point or two in Opinium's latest poll, or do they want to set the party on a forward path that can feasibly persuade people of social democratic solutions in the longer term?

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