Last night I spoke at the launch meeting of the Alliance for Free Movement, hosted by Caroline Lucas at the Houses of Parliament. The alliance is a broad-based movement of organisations, politicians, unions and NGOS, whose aim is to defend, uphold and extend the EU’s free movement rules at a time when the concept of free movement tends to be depicted more often than not as another of the many evils inflicted on the nation by the ‘dictatorship of Brussels.’
The initiative came out of a joint letter to the Guardian last month, of which I was one of the co-signatories. Its stated aim is ‘to champion the right to live, work, study and retire abroad. We want to defend and extend the freedom to move. Migrants have not run down our public services, failed to build proper housing or caused a race to the bottom on wages or conditions. These are results of political choices made by governments and corporations.’
Last night’s panel made these points in various ways. Caroline Lucas spoke with her usual lucid eloquence about the importance of migration to the UK. The barrister Colin Yeo spoke about the legal nightmare that is likely to unfold post-Brexit regarding EU nationals. A Spanish nurse who has lived and worked in the UK for 17 years spoke movingly about the insecurity which he and so many other EU nationals have felt since the referendum. A speaker from Unison spelt out the dire consequences that are already unfolding for the NHS as European nurses, radiographers and other staff continue to leave the country in droves because of the poisoned post-referendum atmosphere – and all this at a time when British applications for nursing training places have dropped by 20 percent.
These panel speeches were followed by sometimes abrasive but mostly thoughtful, passionate and considered contributions from the attendees. Some had voted Leave and argued that the ‘hard Brexit’ that is now unfolding was not what they voted for. Some made the often-repeated point that ‘not all Leavers are racist.’ Others declared unequivocally that Brext was a racist vote and must be stopped.
These differences were not resolved – and could not be, in the time available – but they made very clear the political faultlines that left/progressive forces in this country will have to negotiate their way round if we are to find a way out of the dismal trajectory in which the country is currently trapped.
On the issue of free movement however, there should be no doubts or ambiguities. This is a principle that the left – in the broadest sense of the term – must fight for, even in its limited European form. To abandon it would inflict enormous damage on British society – not to mention the millions of people whose lives are likely to be disrupted if Amber Rudd’s pledge to ‘end freedom of movement as we know it’ is realised. It would be a giant step backwards and inwards and a capitulation to xenophobic reaction, fear and misinformation.
This is a campaign that can be won. It has the potential to develop into a really broad coalition of unions, organisations and campaigners. It can include employers and workers and can reach out across party lines. Defending freedom of movement means rejecting the politics of scapegoating and fear. It means recognizing the positive contribution that migrants make to the UK in many different ways. It means upholding the right of workers to seek work in other countries and to have rights when they do so. It means giving our children and grandchildren the same opportunities that we now have to work, study and retire in Europe.
If we reject even the limited version of free movement enshrined in the EU’s four freedoms then we have very little chance of extending the same principle beyond the EU, and we are likely to entrench ourselves even deeper in our ongoing Trumpish dystopia of walls, fences and militarised borders.
That’s why I went to the meeting last night. To sign up and find out more, visit www.forfreemovement.org