Brexit has been a thorn in Labour’s side, as they find themselves in danger of losing votes on two sides. But a clever middle-ground strategy would not only limit the damage: it could turn into a vote-winner. Thus far, a lot of (often conflicting) things have been said, destroying any hope of a coherent message. I will try to set out what Labour’s basic line should be on the central question regarding the nature of the post-Brexit deal: that of the balance between seeking full access to the single market and imposing restrictions on the EU freedom of movement.

The basic argument.

Labour should put economic rationality and economic well-being at the forefront. Therefore, full access to the single market and staying in the customs union are a red line for us. At the same time, Labour is committed to addressing the problems caused by excessive immigration and, in particular, to looking for concessions on the EU freedom of movement, but not at the expense of the full access to the single market. In these trying times, Labour is a party of common British decency and wishes to play peacemaker and unify the nation around a middle-ground Brexit strategy.

A good narrative argument should be succinct, but every statement within it should be underpinned by sound justification that can be invoked if needs be. Further down, we will therefore examine the following points and objections the previous paragraph raises:

  1. Who will support this? We look at the popularity of soft Brexit and the polling on the single market versus freedom of movement choice.
  2. Let’s face it, the EU are unlikely to give much ground on freedom of movement if we insist on full access. How do we appeal to Leavers who want freedom of movement restricted even at the cost of the single market full access?
  3. Why is access to the single market vital to the UK’s economic well-being.
  4. How to reassure hardline Remainers: why Labour is abandoning the idea of Britain in the EU?
  5. The issue of control and an example of how the Brexit debate could feed into Labour’s general approach.

Let us give a further break-down of the suggestions for 2., being easily the most challenging:

2(a). Managing the economic aspects of EU migration:

(i) Better enforcement in dealing with organised crime around migrant labour is necessary: reversing the Tory cuts to the government agencies responsible for this is a must.

(ii)Improving employment rights in low-paid jobs across the board.

(iii)Helping struggling small businesses that rely on immigrant labour to make ends meet.

(iv) Regulation of employment agencies and gangmasters.

(v) Restrictions on British companies and agencies advertising abroad.

(vi) Using equal opportunities legislation more aggressively to ensure British citizens do not get discriminated against when it comes to hiring.

(vii) Requirement to speak a foreign language when the nature of the job does not require it should be punishable more harshly than now.

(viii) Increasing the requirement for English language proficiency for jobs in the service sector.

(ix) Subsidies and/or tax breaks for people hiring school leavers of British school’s and/or older people, a sort of positive age discrimination.

(x) As Corbyn has stated several times, a ban on companies importing their whole workforces from abroad.

(xi) Long-term, to aim to decrease the cost of living, through construction of housing and improvement of services.

2(b). Managing the cultural impact of EU migration: greater integration; a recognition of there being a much larger problem of community break-up and a pledge to rebuild communities and community cohesion throughout the country.

I have left out some of the more obvious suggestions such as ‘investment into the infrastructure’ and ‘creation of jobs’, as these are well-known. All the above should be possible with at best very minor concessions on freedom of movement from the EU. (It is worth thinking about what further concessions could be asked for as part of the negotiation.) Before discussing the above in further detail however, we will look at polling.

Note: Theresa May’s speech (of the 17th of January) sketched the government position: to insist on restrictions to freedom of movement and look for the best trade deal it can get with that in mind. I originally wrote this before hearing her speech, but in my opinion it changes little about what Labour’s strategy should be.

1. Polling.

The resignation of Stephen Phillips told a story of a group of people who voted for Brexit for reasons of sovereignty alone. They never wanted to leave the single market and don’t have a big problem with EU immigration: they just wanted political decisions that affected their lives to be made at Westminster. Combined with Remainers who wish to respect the referendum result, these so-called ‘soft Brexiters’ are a sizeable bodyof people, yet they are not represented by the Tories, UKIP, the Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru or Greens.

Let us define a ‘soft Brexiter’ to be anybody who wants to respect the outcome of the EuroRef but feels that retaining the full access to the Single Market is more important than forcing concessions on the EU freedom of movement. We can look at the polls asking just that question — ‘given a choice between full access to the single market and ending freedom of movement which would you pick’ — to estimate their number. As examples, let us consider some of the polls taken since the referendum:

Yougov (January 2017). 39% prioritise a ‘hard Brexit’, 35% a ‘soft Brexit’.

Britain Elects via ORB (January 2017). 39% prioritise having access to free trade, 46% ‘greater control over immigration’.

What the UK thinks: EU (November 2016): 51% prefer ending Freedom of Movement over keeping free trade, 49% the other way round.

Polling Matters/Opinium (December 2016): 41% prefer an extensively defined ‘soft Brexit’, 36% a similarly defined ‘hard Brexit’.

The ORB for Independent (July 2016): (quote) ’48 per cent of voters favoured keeping single market access, compared to 37 per cent who said capping immigration from Europe was more important.’

What UK thinks: EU (July 2016): 60%+ prefer maintaining access to the single market over ending Freedom of Movement.

IPSOS Mori (October 2016): 45% to prioritise access to the single market over freedom of movement, 39% vice versa

What UK thinks: EU (June 2016): 44% prioritise access to the singe market, 40% ending freedom of movement.

A summary of 5 more polls from June-August, varying from 28–52 to 66–31 for prioritising full access to the single market. The linked article attempts to explain the variation.

This is a slightly different analysis by yougov in November, that suggests that a pro-hard-Brexit Labour would lose the GE more heavily than a pro-soft-Brexit one.

These polls are so variable that any scientific conclusion regarding the actual public opinion and regarding the most fruitful line, in terms of potential votes, for Labour to take is hard. However it seems reasonable to infer that there is a very significant number of people in the ‘prioritising the single market’ camp. Admittedly, many of them may be ‘hard Remainers, who are looking for a second referendum and/or a delay in invoking Article 50, and would vote Lib Dem as the only party promising to deliver those. Still, this is a more fertile territory than the 50% who prefer ending freedom of movement, as the Tories and UKIP both occupy that space — and the yougov analysis supports this view. The Lib Dem performance in Sleaford and in a number of council by-election across the country suggests that they are a threat that needs to be taken very seriously.

It is also a strategy that forms the middle-ground among Labour voters. Labour voters cover the full spectrum of opinions in the EuroRef, from people up in arms about immigration to people helping out in the Jungle. 60%+ of them voted to Remain (according to Lord Ashcroft’s poll) but 70% of currently Labour constituencies voted to Leave, even though some of them have below average EU migration. Soft Brexit, putting the single market first, would be a hard sell to those constituencies, however on recent evidence losing the still substantial Remain vote (of the order of 35–40%) would arguably prove more damaging.

Labour should state that it will fight for curbs to free movement. By opting for full access to the single market however such promises ring hollow, as the EU clearly stated that the free movement of labour is to stay if Britain is to fully access the single market. How can Labour still appeal to Brexiters? This necessitates two important distinctions.

(i) Clearly differentiating between EU and non-EU migration, stressing Labour’s record in controlling the latter.

(ii) Differentiate between people having concerns about immigration for economic and cultural reasons.

2(a). Managing the economic impact. Labour’s and Remain’s economic argument for the EU migrants being economically beneficial has not cut through, because whatever benefit there may be is not seen to be distributed evenly throughout. Trying therefore to defend the present system has not worked, and will not work.

What is needed are tangible suggestions: if Labour wants to stick with freedom of movement what will it change to lessen its impact on certain parts of the British workforce and British infrastructure. Many of the following suggestions either are or have been Labour policy already, and need to be highlighted, retold in the Brexit context. I will leave out the suggestions that are obvious, such as ‘greater investment into services’, ‘better training opportunities’ or ‘creating more jobs’, as they have been discussed to death already.

(i) Better enforcement in dealing with organised crime around migrant labour. As a Guardian investigation showed, crime and exploitation are a real problem in some immigrant communities. These crime rings not only exploit migrant workers (illegal ones as well as EU, so a hard Brexit won’t help with resolving the problem) by taking a cut of their wages, they facilitate them coming over and keep them constantly in debt, effectively controlling their lives. One consequence of this is the workers not being able to negotiate decent wages, further undercutting the whole market. Far from addressing this, the Tories cut the organisations that could be expected to deal with these criminals: the police, the councils, the HMRC and the UKBA. Labour needs to promise to end this exploitation once and for all, as a part of their strategy to move jobs out of the black market economy (see also 2a(iv)).

(ii)Improving worker rights in low-paid jobs. The reason British people do not apply for low-paid jobs is that they cannot do them and make ends meet: the wages are too low and the work too sporadic. Re-instating the Agricultural Wages Board (like there is in Scotland) and beefing up the Wage Inspectorate to eliminate malpractice would be a start, legislation to improve wages and workers’ rights could follow, as well as a new offensive against zero hours contracts. Yes, better working conditions may encourage more immigrants to apply, however British people will also be applying in much greater numbers. Equal opportunities legislation (see 2a(vi)) can then be used to ensure the employer does not discriminate against them. Overall, I would expect the % of British workers at those businesses to rise as a result.

(iii)Helping struggling small businesses that rely on immigrant labour. Many businesses employing low-paid workers cannot or would not stand for improving worker conditions, either because they cannot afford to or because it would then become more profitable for them to shut down or relocate. In the latter case, they would do that in the case of an end to freedom of movement anyway, in the former they should be helped. This help can come in two ways: the traditional subsidies/tax breaks or pressure on bigger businesses they supply to pay a fair rate or give long-term supply contracts rather than placing sporadic orders. For instance, supermarkets are exploiting suppliers meaning the latter having to hire workers at rock bottom wages to stay afloat. As a bonus, this would improve Labour’s reputation as a friend of the self-employed and of SME’s.

(iv) Regulation of agencies and gangmasters. Weakening the organisations facilitating employment seems to be an obvious way to go about reducing companies’ hiring long-distance. In addition, agencies do exploit workers, as Labour’s general election campaign was never tired of pointing out. Yet, strangely, the criticism of agencies fell by the wayside since. Since it stands to reason that EU citizens from far-flung parts of Europe are more likely to travel to the UK if an agency promises them a job at the end than not (indeed, often these facilitators loan them the money for their fare), this sounds a reasonable way of reducing migrant worker numbers. For concrete measures, cracking harder on rule-breaking, reducing the number of weeks an agency worker has to be employed before being granted the same status as an employee, banning Swedish Derogations and other loopholes and placing a limit on the cut an agent can take from the wages seem like good ways to proceed. A lot of this requires better enforcement, and once again the Tory cuts to the relevant departments need to be reversed.

(v) Restrictions on British companies and agencies advertising abroad. Ed Milliband had already railed against British companies (in that case the Tory donor-owned Next) advertising jobs in Poland only. Further restrictions on advertising outside Britain, or in languages other than English are something that Labour could and should propose. The only exceptions should be in case the company shows it cannot find people of a similar skill set in the UK. In the age of the internet this is difficult to police, however the onus should be on the companies to check the foreign worker did not find out about them through an illegal advertisement: this can be therefore policed in a way not too dissimilar to that of policing the sales of alcohol to underage customers.

(vi) Use equal opportunities legislation more aggressively to ensure British citizens do not get discriminated against when it comes to hiring. Stereotypes of ‘British workers are more lazy than Poles’ are racist and should be called out as such.

(vii) Make more punishable the requirement for workers to speak a language other than English in jobs where knowledge of said language is not necessary to do the job.

(viii) Possibly increase the requirement for English language proficiency for jobs in the service sector. Most of the above points relate to low-paid work, but a different problem exists on slightly higher pay levels (e.g. in the service sector) as experienced EU workers out-compete less experienced British ones and stop them getting on the career ladder. More stringent English requirements could address this.

(ix) Subsidies and/or tax breaks for people hiring school leavers and/or older people, a sort of positive age discrimination.

(x) As Corbyn has stated several times, a ban on companies importing their whole workforces from abroad.

(xi) Long-term, decreasing the cost of living. The cost of living in the UK is probably the most important aspect of all in placing the British worker at a disadvantage. Because housing, transport, childcare and so on are so expensive, the British worker needs a higher wage to make ends meet. Labour’s proposals for constructing houses and devolving governance to local authorities would address these issues in a longer timescale.

All these should be possible with at best very minor concessions on freedom of movement from the EU. It is worth thinking about what further concessions could be asked for as part of the negotiation.

2(b). The cultural impact. First of all, one needs here to differentiate between EU and non-EU migration (and take another swipe at the Tories for not controlling the latter well enough whilst we are at it). Non-EU migration (i) will be controlled by Labour and (ii) is not relevant to this discussion. True, non-EU migrants may eventually come here under freedom of movement having settled in EU states and obtained citizenship. However, their numbers have never been significant, and they would have been vetted by an EU country before receiving their citizenship. Problems with, for instance, Islam, as highlighted by the Casey report, are therefore not relevant to this discussion, although Labour definitely need to take this report on board and digest its findings regarding integration, which is an issue — to a lesser extent — for EU migrants as well as Muslims.

Yet drawing that distinction does not solve the problem. In places like Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, with high Eastern European presences, the tension is very real. And therefore the answer to one of the biggest arguments for freedom of movement, that ‘if Poles cannot come here to do certain jobs, the jobs will move to Poland’ could be ‘well, good riddance, as that at least gives me my community back’.

Our response would be to point out that many of the regional communities were suffering long before immigrants showed up, through de-industrialisation and concentration of jobs around the big metropolitan hubs. Indeed, many communities are suffering despite negligible immigrant numbers. The way to address this is, obviously, through greater economic prosperity and fighting organised crime (see 2a(i)) and other anti-social behaviour, but also through improving community cohesion — apart from integration they could be through helping people against isolation, stress, loneliness, mental health issues, other social initiatives. If a community structure is struggling, falling apart, Labour should suggest active steps to build it back: a healthy community would not have so many problems with people of a different culture.

A lot of Labour’s case here has already been made by others, not least the Prime Minister in her speech before the Referendum. Central to the economic case are passporting rights for the City and free trade, crucial for the likes of Nissan. There is also the issue of inspiring investor confidence: as May stated herself in May this would be easier within the EU, and by implication easier within a Britain that retains the key parts of the economic relationship with the EU.

I shall not dwell on the economic case for full access to the single market too long, others have made it sufficiently clear that it exists. No doubt it needs to be voiced better, with less business-speak, explaining some of the issues in simple ways and anticipating objections. For instance, such issues might include the difference between say being in EFTA and being a non-EU party in other trade agreements, such as CETA. Or perhaps the nature of passporting rights and their importance. Or possibly that the Tories’ only answer to addressing the economic instability is to lower taxes, which means more austerity and could actually worsen the trade deal with the EU they might get.

The line given in response is usually one of opportunities for a Britain free of EU control. Yes, undoubtedly there are opportunities for the UK that has no full access to the single market and is out of the customs union– such as the ability to negotiate trade deals. But taking advantage of them in a reasonable time frame is something that the Tories need to show they have a capability to do before Labour would consider dropping its opposition: for instance the idea of being able to negotiate trade deals with dozens of countries in less than a decade sounds implausible. If the Tories make such claims, they would need to show they have the resources and the manpower to do the negotiations that they are promising to do. Economic instability and even hardship whilst these negotiations are not resolved is a distinct possibility: already the government has had to lower the corporation tax, meaning more austerity to come.

As recent results (Sleaford and a few council by-elections) showed only too well, the Lib Dems are making big inroads into the Labour vote. There is a lot of talk about ‘traditional working class areas falling to UKIP’, however not enough discussion of the threat from the other side. There are two broad issues: firstly a lot of Labour voters want to stay in the EU and/or to refuse to invoke Article 50 unless a certain number of red lines are met in the negotiating strategy being proposed. Secondly, we are recognising that the EU migration impacts some sections of society negatively, and any mention of problems that are caused by EU immigrants as reasons for restricting freedom of movement are seen as by some as Labour ‘caving in to UKIP’ and thus opposed instinctively. This problem is particularly bad in Scotland, with the SNP looking to make political capital from even the slightest Labour shift towards any sort of a Brexit position.

Pledging full access to the single market by any means necessary is therefore paramount to stop those people deserting Labour. They can then be appealed to via the standard avenues of respecting democracy and wishing to unite a bitterly divided country, to stand up for the middle-ground way against extremists on either side, to be decent in a British way and listen to the concerns of enough people. Whilst the Lib Dems are unlikely to be anywhere near power, Labour still represents the best hope for a Remainer wishing to protect himself and his family from the economic fallout of hard Brexit.

On the ‘caving in to UKIP’ front, Labour should by no means stop saying that public services and the infrastructure are over-stretched solely and singularly because of years of under-investment. Nor should it stop pointing out that immigrants are convenient scapegoats. Nor should it stop claiming that improving working conditions for the lowest-paid jobs that only immigrants can afford to do and make ends meet will enable more British people to do these jobs. However, some discussion of the impact of EU immigration on the job market might be in order when talking to Remainers, in particular the issue of experienced EU nationals applying for better paid jobs and leaving British youngsters without a chance to get their foot in the door.

Leavers and hard Brexiters have been very clever in associating ‘Control’ with leaving the EU. This gives a feeling that the ordinary person can somehow ‘control’ the Westminster government better than he can ‘control’ the EU one. Hence, Labour needs clear examples of how we, the ordinary people, in reality control nothing under the Tories. One good example of this is the selling-off of our infrastructure to foreign companies — often state-owned companies of other European countries. Instances such as the selling off of parts of the national grid to Macquarie or of state companies of other countries buying into our railways need to be highlighted as examples of us not having control, and not being likely to have control in Tory-run Brexit Britain. Real patriotism lies not in blaming problems on immigrants but in (for instance) opposing ownership of key British infrastructure by foreigners.

The Tories are very keen on the fight for ‘Control’ to stay in certain channels. Already, failure to do this has cost them the membership of the EU, and they would not want to let that set a trend. Labour need to re-interpret ‘Control’ in the way that suits the aims of the movement, and push for those aims using the ‘getting back control’ terminology.

6. An afterword.

Finally, throughout we have focused on the positive message, and kept attacks on the others to a minimum. Let’s be honest, on the issue of Brexit, attacks on the UKIP, Tory and Lib Dem positions almost write themselves (although ones on the SNP are harder, due to the fact of the latter actually being competent and having constructed an effective narrative centred around Scotland). The hard part is the positive message and the concrete proposals, which we have attempted to outline the germs of.