Analysis: Can ending freedom of movement save May’s Brexit?

Ben Wray

Theresa May argues the success of her deal is the exit from free movement, even as public concern over immigration decreases sharply

THE major boast made by Prime Minister Theresa May as she attempts to drive through her Brexit deal is that she has achieved a key demand from Leave campaigners in 2016 – leaving the EU’s free movement regime.

Most of the UK’s immigrants come from outside of the EU, and are therefore subject to stricter migration rules. But Theresa May’s policy of subjecting all migrants to a new regime and claiming (though this promise has been made in British politics for many years) that she will reduce immigration the tens of thousands represents a new departure.

Can anti-immigration politics really be the big achievement of Brexit for the Conservatives, and what do workers have to concern themselves with in May’s new plans?

Brexit and immigration

Anti-immigration rhetoric is endemic to UK ‘high politics’. Both New Labour and Conservative administrations have in recent years continually hiked up anti-immigration rhetoric, even as the UK remained anchored in the EU and free movement.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric also permeated both Leave and Remain campaigns in the 2016 EU referendum, with both campaign’s leaders promising reduced immigration on the outcome of the vote.

This anti-immigration rhetoric was supposed to serve the purpose of distracting workers from the fundamental problems of the UK economy and the culpability of corporations (especially the financial sector) and the political establishment. It was not supposed to result in the UK actually leaving the EU and free movement.

It is therefore interesting that the EU was prepared to relinquish the UK from free movement without the UK’s ejection from the EU’s wider set of liberal principles known as ‘the four freedoms’, which were said to be “indisoluble”. This points both tp the closeness with which May’s deal would align the EU, but also the EU leadership’s priority of keeping the UK, which represents 16 per cent of the EU economy, as a close trade partner.

Since the Brexit vote in June 2016, the number of British voters who think immigration is the most pressing issue in British society has fallen form 48 per cent to just 17 per cent in October 2018 – a massive, historic drop.

This points to the role of anti-immigration politics as a cipher for wider social and economic issues in British society. With the Leave vote, the migration issue was seen to have been resolved in some way. But this is a mixture of belief that immigration will now automatically reduce, and also a more diffuse sense that the political establishment have now listened to, or been forced to listen to, an alienated and frustrated public.

Immigration and the UK

Though an adequate supply of labour looms large for business owners, current immigration, both from outside the EU and with EU free movement, are used by employers to suppress wages and conditions in some sectors – particularly poorly regulated and deunionised sectors like construction and hospitality.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, and yet a little explored phenomenon, is that one of the biggest impacts of the use of immigrant labour to depress wages is on groups of immigrants themselves. This is of course true both for migrant workers themselves (who often face reduced pay and conditions compared to domestic labour) but also for settled migrants from the EU whose position is then eroded by employers, partly by bringing in new immigrant labour.

Above all it needs to be stated that the deployment of cheaper immigrant labour is only one (limited) method from a repertoire used by capital to depress wages, and by no means the most important. A race to the bottom in wages and conditions is only possible with a low level of workplace unionisation, as is currently the case.

This is also true when it comes to the issues of Labour shortages in certain industries, including the NHS, care and the agricultural sector.

Today (27 November) the IPPR think tank has projected that the care sector faces a 400,000 worker shortage by 2028 with the end of free movement. But it also predicts that it would face a 350,000 worker shortage if we were to keep free movement, due to low pay and poor conditions – indicating that poor quality jobs are more responsible for labour shortages than immigration rules.

In the agricultural sector, pay and conditions are often appealing, and farmers’ organisations complain of a lack of access to even cheaper labour from outside of the EU, as in recent years Eastern European workers have abandoned British farms for rising pay in their countries of origin.

May’s plans

Leaving the single market does not end the use of immigrant labour to press down on pay and conditions. Far from it.

Indeed, May’s proposed plans, which nod in the direction of an Australia style points system (earlier campaigned for by the likes of Nigel Farage and rejected by the prime minister) in their general ethos, would simply create a new regime of wage suppression and precarious work.

Under these as yet unfinalised plans, workers would be given access to the country on the basis of their skills and the economy’s general requirements. Crucially, these would most often be temporary permits for work including for immigrants from the EU who would once have had far more rights for residency under free movement.

The central conceit of May’s speech to the CBI was the claim that a new model of skills based immigration would somehow create new and more high quality work for workers currently residing in the UK.

She knows this isn’t true. Creating a more precarious condition for skilled labour from the EU will make such workers competitively advantageous (they will be more likely to accept reduced pay and conditions, and be disincentivsed to demand more) from the point of view of business. This will lead to domestic labour being carved out.

This is precisely the situation many ‘points based’ systems are designed to promote.

Finally, the freedom of movement system currently means many precarious, low-paid jobs, such as fruit picking, are currently heavily reliant on immigrant labour in the UK. If the points-based system does shut these people out, it may increase the pressure on UK workers to take menial jobs, or – as has been suggested – press employers into automation, thus taking the jobs out of the UK economy entirely. Either way, there’s no boon coming for UK workers from the end of freedom of movement.

No anti-immigrant solutions, only social ones

The solutions to Britain’s low pay, low skill economy are not to be found in the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the media or from the politicians, whether Leave or Remain, Tory or Labour, who talk about ‘British jobs for British workers’ or of EU workers “jumping the queue”.

They are to be found, firstly, in the unionisation of work, particularly in the grossly under-unionised private sector, where precarious employment, low pay and dreadful conditions are proliferating. Only unionised workplaces that are forced to pay labour at the same rate whether immigrant or domestic can halt the numerous downward pressures on wages.

The second solution is an end to the low pay low skill model of the British economy, particularly in the service sector. This can be achieved through policies which enforce higher pay as well as training for workers and infrastructure.

Creating high quality work requires planning and a massive increase in state intervention in the economy to meet social need. Decades of hoping for the market to organically produce these conditions has led to the opposite.

Finally, any border and immigration policies which reduce the working rights and pay of immigrants as against domestic labour will ultimately undermine both.

A system of immigration which offers the maximum freedom for all workers, whilst attacking the economic foundations which breed the race to the bottom, is the alternative.

But despite the real dangers of a new immigration settlement, it must be remembered that it offers no real solutions to the ‘immigration issue’ so frenetically stoked by much of the media and professional politicians in recent years and decades. Australia’s points-based system has not stopped a climate of hostility towards immigrants and refugees.

The new immigration system will not solve widespread public anger over working conditions or pay. It will not address the fundamental problems of the British economy, which the Tories of both Leave and Remain stripes seem determined to ignore.

And May’s hopes that her Brexit deal, which has largely united opinion in opposition by being neither really in nor out the EU, can be driven through by the mass appeal of exiting free movement, seems less likely than ever. 

Graph: Washington Post