Written with Emma Reynolds MP, published in The Guardian
The EU referendum was a vote for change on immigration. Free movement of people was rejected and now, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer stated in his recent Bloomberg speech, “the status quo is not an option”.
Some in the Labour party claim the proponents of managed migration are “Ukip-lite”. We reject this argument, which leaves a vacuum for the right to fill. Moreover, Labour has tended to attribute concerns about immigration to overstretched public services and unscrupulous employers, and tried to counter those anxieties with facts about the overall benefits of immigration.
But people are worried about more than pressures on jobs, wages and housing: they are anxious about culture, identity and the rate of change of communities. Many of the areas that voted Leave on 23 June have little or no EU immigration, so it is clear that concerns are not limited to the areas that have experienced large and rapid inward migration flows. They are nationwide, strongly held and generally immune to arguments based on abstract economic data.
Labour must urgently press the government to put a progressive, fair and managed two-tier migration system at the heart of the Brexit negotiations. Within tier 1, highly skilled EU workers, such as doctors, teachers and engineers, could move to the UK on the basis of confirmed employment. The jobs they would fill must exceed agreed education, skills and income thresholds. For example, education to 18, plus a minimum of three years’ higher education or post-education work experience, combined with a minimum salary of £25,000 per year. EU students with a place at a British university would also be included in this tier.
Tier 2 would comprise low-skilled and semi-skilled EU workers, whose access to the UK labour market would be restricted by sector-based quotas, negotiated between government, industry and trade unions. This tier would cover sectors such as agriculture, food processing, retail, construction and hospitality. Quotas must be phased in over time and carefully designed to strike the right balance between maximising job and training opportunities for local workers and ensuring that sudden workforce shortages are averted. This could deliver the ultimate prize of a higher-wage, higher-skilled economy.
The tension between access to the single market and restricting free movement of labour is central to the debate about the Brexit negotiations. We believe that the current deadlock could be broken if the government were to propose a preferential labour migration scheme, such as the one outlined above. Similar ideas have been put forward by the leading thinktank British Future.
Years of experience working in Brussels taught us that EU negotiations are successful only when a win-win proposal is on the table. But Theresa May’s approach has so far shown neither creativity nor ambition. She seems unable to recognise that an ambitious UK-EU trade deal will be secured only if we offer EU workers preferential access to the British labour market. This can be combined with restrictions on low- and semi-skilled workers and therefore meet the British public’s desire for greater control. It is imperative that May changes direction in 2017. Failure to do so would lead our country into a “hard Brexit”, inflicting huge damage on the economy, jobs and living standards across the country.
The debate about how best to deal with immigration in the wake of the referendum has also driven the Labour party to an existential fork in the road: we can either resist any call for reform and drift away from relevance, or we can rediscover the courage of our convictions, and demonstrate that we are ready to reunite the country with a progressive, fair and managed migration system that works for all.
Our party must make this choice urgently. For too long we have allowed the forces of reaction and nationalism to shape opinion. The conflicting signals that we are sending out on immigration are deeply corrosive to our standing in the country. We must now put forward credible policies to rebuild the trust and support of the British people. Our future as a force for good in British politics depends on it.