Post-Brexit: why Diane Abbott MP supports freedom of movement in Europe


The labour movement cannot accept living standards being lowered by Brexit and the attack on freedom of movement, and must stand to defend both.

This is Diane Abbott’s contribution to a new book, Free Movement and Beyond: Agenda Setting for Brexit Britain, published by Public Reading Rooms.

Last year’s Tory party conference represented a sharp rightwards turn. The rhetorical focus for all their attacks was foreigners, in work, in schools, in our health service. The political strategy was formed by the realisation that we cannot be in the Single Market and opt out of freedom of movement. So they have opted for anti-immigration and impoverishment, getting out of the Single Market in order to pursue a reactionary agenda on immigration.

When Jeremy Hunt announced his anti-foreigner plan for the UK to become ‘self-sufficient’ in doctors, he also included a reactionary new measure to be imposed on UK-trained doctors. But this was only one of the barrage of assaults on overseas workers announced at the conference.

The Tories were forced to retreat on their plan that companies are to be named and shamed for employing overseas workers. Yet students and scientists will still be turned away. The whole conference was an exercise in scapegoating. The crisis is caused by Tory policy and their allies and supporters, exploitative employers, rapacious landlords, rip-off private owners of formerly nationalised industries. It is not caused by immigrants.

Now under the Hunt plan, doctors trained in this country will have to work in the NHS for four years. Otherwise, they will have to repay the cost of their training, which the British Medical Association estimates at over a quarter of a million pounds minimum.

This demonstrates a general law that the labour movement has understood for a long time: an injury to one is an injury to all. Attacks on overseas workers always rebound and include regressive measures against domestic workers too. So, in a futile effort to restrict overseas workers the Tories are also ordering restrictions on workers trained here too, curbing their freedom of movement.

For the NHS, the drive towards a foreigner-free doctor workforce would be a disaster. There are 100,000 overseas doc-tors in the UK. There is already a significant shortage of doctors. Of course we should be training more doctors and other health professionals in this country, just as we should be training all sorts of skilled and highly-skilled workers across a range of sec-tors. But the idea that that we could or should seek to eliminate overseas doctors from the NHS and become ‘self-sufficient’ is a reactionary fantasy.

Even if all of Hunt’s additional new 1,500 UK-trained doctors don’t drop out, and even if he successfully compels them all to work for four years, this would not close the doctor shortage. It will grow and the number of overseas doctors will rise under current plans. Otherwise the NHS will go into absolute crisis.

It is a scandal that Theresa May and Liam Fox want to use EU workers here as a ‘bargaining chip’ in negotiations with EU countries. They should be offered guarantees of work and residency. But these existing workers here will also need replacing, and we cannot force UK-trained doctors to work here indefinitely. We need freedom of movement for doctors and other health professionals simply for the continued existence of the NHS.

The demagogic campaign against foreigners that was first championed by UKIP and is now mainstream Tory policy obscures a key point. It is important to remember that freedom of movement is a workers’ right.

In all societies where there are significantly greater freedoms for business and for capital than for workers, then in practice workers’ rights are severely curtailed. Business is at a huge advantage. This reaches an extreme in the most authoritarian countries.

So for example, the ‘pass laws’ in apartheid South Africa made black workers non-residents without rights in their own country, while they suffered the most brutal exploitation in the mines and elsewhere. Even in this country, the Poor Laws formerly restricted the movement of workers from one parish to another. They could not seek poor relief outside their own parish if they were unemployed and went looking for work. The Poor Laws were only effectively abolished by the Labour Government in 1948.

In all these cases, business was able to freely establish wherever it chose. The effect is that workers’ bargaining rights were severely curtailed, in some cases eliminated. They had to accept whatever jobs, and at whatever wages and terms that the employers in their locality chose. This is one of the key, overlooked issues in the current widespread assault on freedom of movement.

Economists for Brexit, the only grouping which produced economic arguments in favour of Leave, argued that UK manufacturing would be eliminated by the adoption of free trade and that inequality would widen dramatically as financial services would grow dramatically. This may be an exaggeration. More sober analysis from the UK Treasury is that in a European Economic Area agreement, government finances for services like the NHS will be £20 billion lower after 15 years, while falling back on World Trade Organisation rules reduces government finances by £45 billion. Public services would be decimated.

This Tory government is scapegoating foreigners to distract from its own complete failures of policy. Living standards are falling because of them, not migrants. The labour movement cannot accept living standards being lowered by Brexit and the attack on freedom of movement, and must stand to defend both. The Tory government doesn’t have an economic policy. Every time Theresa May gets up to speak the pound falls, and ordinary people literally pay higher prices as a result.

The Tories are desperate to shift the blame for this. They have declared open season on foreigners. That is why standing up to racism is so important. The broad forces of the labour movement, committed campaigners and the most oppressed sections of society can come together to combat all forms of xenophobia, anti-semitism and racism.

We can win. The Tory anti-foreigner policy would devastate our public services. It is already lowering living standards. It will lead to job losses. The majority will be worse off, and we have an alternative. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell is committed to investment-led growth. This is the answer to the crisis, not a Tory campaign inspired by Enoch Powell.

Diane abbott is MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and was appointed Shadow Home Secretary in October 2016.

Free Movement and Beyond – Agenda Setting for Brexit Britain

This new book featuring Diane Abbott MP, Yanis Varoufakis, Caroline Lucas MP, Professor Mary Kaldor and more, is available now from Public Reading Rooms. It draws together the current thinking of many of Britain’s most prominent ‘critical Remainers’ – those who argued to remain within the European Union while seeking its democratic and progressive transformation.

Price £9.95 (Post free)


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