Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has called on Labour party leaders, ahead of their ‘Clause V’ manifesto meeting at the weekend, to defy calls to commit to an extension of free movement. If those leaders are wise, they will pay heed to him.
Its enthusiasm for free movement – indeed its laissez-faire approach to immigration policy generally – has been one of the principal causes of the disconnect that has emerged between the party and its traditional base over the past two decades. In fact, no policy decision has served more to highlight the increasing divergence between, on the one hand, the party’s middle-class, urban, liberal, cosmopolitan leadership and activist layer and, on the other, its one-time core working-class vote across post-industrial Britain.
That the party’s most recent conference, at a time when it should have been moving heaven and earth to win back working-class voters, should have chosen to not only defend free movement, but to agitate for its extension, shows the extent to which elements within the party now treat traditional Labour voters with complete indifference. It was a classic example of a political party appealing to its own members rather than the electorate.
So McCluskey is right to insist that Labour listen to voters in what were once its heartlands. This year’s local and European elections provided a wake-up call to Labour about the alienation felt by these communities. The party lost support in places – such as Bolsover, Sunderland and Doncaster – where it should, after nearly a decade of Tory-led or Tory government, be romping home.
Recent data published by the Centre for Towns also showed the startling extent to which Labour has haemorrhaged support across former industrial towns. Knocking on doors in these places and telling electors that they voted the wrong way in 2016 and must do it all over again is bad enough. Trying to convince them that EU free movement is of such benefit it really ought to be rolled out further is suicidal.
These are the type of places that have experienced the rough edge of globalisation – of which free movement is a central feature – through such things as deindustrialisation and pressure on housing, wages and local services. Labour needs to understand that reciting the message about the need for a fairer economy, though welcome, isn’t nearly enough.
These voters want something more. They have had enough of their communities being collateral damage in the game of global capitalism and are desperate for a politics that respects their sense of place and belonging. At their upcoming manifesto meeting, Labour leaders have the chance to show these voters that they get it. They must seize it.