Strategically the instinct Corbyn has followed is right: Labour’s new heartland is millions of progressive, liberal minded, globalist people, especially among the young and in the salariat. Forging an alliance between them and the old, manual working class is the challenge — because these are different political “tribes” with sometimes divergent values. But it’s doable, because radicalism on the economy can unite them.
However in the next 10 days we have to change the minds of a much wider group of people, not necessarily Labour voters, who are sick of seeing their own communities blighted and neglected by successive Labour and Tory governments (and councils) alike.
Wrongly they see migration as the main reason. And subtextually they are seeing Brexit as a way of “getting one over” not just on the elite but the liberal middle classes in general. This group does not only include white workers: it includes some black and Asian voters too.
Labour should say:
a) You are right to be angry about low pay, shit jobs, terrible services and the political neglect of your communities. EU migration is not to primarily to blame for that.
b) However migration does suppress wages for the low-paid end of the workforce, especially in parts of the private sector where unions barely exist and migrant-only businesses have been allowed to flourish. But we have a plan to remedy that.
c) The plan will reduce low-wage EU migration into private sector jobs. That is its explicit aim. It will still allow the NHS to go and recruit nurses from Spain and Portugal; but it will make it harder to set up an anti-union migrant-only fruit-picking business in Kent, or staff a small factory entirely with low-paid workers from the EU.
d) Specifically we will:
a. Hike the minimum wage to £10 an hour within a year and £12 by 2019. Raising the minimum wage quickly would create a one-off change in the dynamics of the low-paid private sector, deterring business models based on the exploitation of temporary migrants.
b. Hire thousands of workplace inspectors to enforce the new minimum wage; set up a whistleblowing service to expose employers who are undercutting it; empower trade unions to enforce the new minimum by giving them representation rights in every workplace
c. Set up a compulsory a training levy for all companies so that every employer hiring a non-UK worker has to pay a small amount towards the training programmes to equip UK citizens for jobs where skills are in short supply
d. Change the Equalities Act to make it illegal for employers to hire only specific nationalities for specific job functions, workplaces or grades; the aim would be to end “migrant only” recruitment practices.
e. Legalise the “closed shop”: ie where workers and managers agree, it can be compulsory for workers to join a union, across a whole firm or industry. That would give trade unions oversight of hiring strategies, so they could oversee fairness and eradicate practices that exploit migrants.
f. Finally, if after three years there is no significant fall in EU migration to low-paid private sector jobs, Labour should be prepared to temporarily suspend free movement.
g. For a five year period Labour could incorporate all EU migration within the existing points-based system. This could be done by the same mechanism as Cameron’s March 2016 reforms: a 28-country agreement deposited at the UN. The temporary opt-out would, as now, allow the NHS and high-paying tech and finance businesses to go out and recruit workers from inside the EU. But it would discourage the recruitment of workers from the EU into low wage businesses, just as the current rules discourage this for non-EU workers.
e) On top of this, Labour needs to pledge an urgent fiscal stimulus on coming to power. The focus of that stimulus would be to revive Britain’s blighted towns; boost public sector pay; and massive, targeted help for places where inward migration has put a strain on health, education and local government.
While making these arguments, Labour activists should go out of their way to attack anti-migrant racism. I’m hearing a rising tone of worry among migrant workers over the levels of hostility this campaign is creating. By swerving around migration arguments we are not just failing to win the Remain argument, we are dodging the opportunity to be robust in defence of migration’s benefits.
Labour should praise the contribution migrants make; assure those already here they will have full rights to stay and work, and indeed to apply for British citizenship.
This proposal is about boosting consent for migration, and ending the atmosphere of resentment and racism that the Brexit referendum has stoked.
Remain and Renegotiate! How to stop the Brexit bandwagon