16 May 2017

What does the manifesto say?

On Brexit and immigration, the key development from the draft manifesto leaked last week is the final version’s headline pledge:

Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union.

The manifesto rejects “bogus immigration targets,” presumably referring to the tens of thousands pledge on which the Conservatives have doubled down, alongside promises to consult “businesses, trade unions, devolved governments and others to identify specific labour and skill shortages.” The stated aim is to create:

new migration management systems…based on our economic needs, balancing controls and existing entitlements. This may include employer sponsorship, work permits, visa regulations or a tailored mix of all these which work.

What can we draw from these pledges?

As my colleague Dominic Hinde observed following last week’s leaked manifesto draft, Labour is in difficulty over Brexit. This is in part due to structural features of its electoral coalition, in which working-class heartlands and metropolitan progressives now find themselves at odds over the perceived benefits or drawbacks of freedom of movement. What today’s pronouncement on free movement means for Labour’s chances of holding its support together remains to be seen, but its internal conflict is reflected in the manifesto’s contradictory signals concerning what would be Labour’s policy priorities in the negotiations with the EU which will start straight after the General Election result.

On the fence over free movement and market access? – Labour’s pledge to end free movement is clearly in tension with promises elsewhere in the manifesto to introduce “fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union.” Taken together, these pledges bring us no closer to understanding what practical compromises and trade-offs a Labour government would be prepared to make between market access and free movement in order to secure a deal. The EU has made clear on multiple occasions its red line on cherry-picking, insisting the need to accept free movement in order to retain the full benefits of the single market. In contrast, it is unclear where Labour’s red line would lie between retaining the benefits of single market or ending free movement. Against such a backdrop, Commission negotiators could be encouraged by Labour’s rejection of a no-deal scenario to stick to their guns without the fear of a Labour-led UK negotiating team ever walking away.

Would supply or demand dictate immigration policy under a Labour government? – Labour’s proposal for visas, work permits or a “tailored mix” tells us little about what Labour’s post-Brexit immigration system would really look like, beyond the assertion that they would only employ things “that work”. Open Europe has previously outlined the basic distinction between supply or points-based immigration systems (in which government defines criteria that determine whether an immigrant can enter the county) and demand-led systems (in which an employer’s need for specific skills as expressed through a job offer provides the means of entry for an immigrant). Labour’s manifesto proposals could easily encompass both types. In practice, many countries do in fact operate a hybrid system, as the UK currently does in managing non-EU nationals through the shortage occupation list and visas based on offers of employment. But, beyond promises to consult on skills needs, Labour’s pledges on “reasonable management of migration” do not give any detail on which skills and sectors they would prioritise, or even whether the totemic issue of reducing immigration numbers is a priority at all. Indeed, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pointedly refused to commit to bringing the numbers down, telling ITV yesterday, “I’m not going to put any figures on it.”

Ending free movement is now mainstream in UK politics, at least rhetorically – Theresa May and the Conservatives have long held that ending free movement will be an essential part of delivering the result of the referendum. With Labour now also apparently backing this position, it seems certain that whatever government is returned on June 9th it will be led by an anti-free movement party. Despite the ambiguities inherent in Labour’s manifesto, those on the continent and in the UK who hoped that the position on free movement might soften under a new government look likely to be disappointed.