Is Britain’s Labour Party shifting to the right on immigration?

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is a reluctant voice of restrictionism for EU citizens. But he and his party are reading Britain's anti-immigration political winds.

Darren Staples/Reuters
Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn delivers his keynote speech at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, England, September 28, 2016.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, will lend his tacit support in a speech on Tuesday to establishing new immigration restrictions for European Union citizens, amid pressure from members who have called for the party to adapt its position on immigration to reflect the Brexit vote’s outcome.

"Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle, but nor can we afford to lose full access to the European markets on which so many British businesses and jobs depend,” read excerpts of the forthcoming speech published by his office, which go on to endorse "fair rules and reasonably managed migration as part of the post-Brexit relationship with the EU.” 

Mr. Corbyn will stop short of proposing specific new restrictions, and in a pre-speech interview with the BBC, he denied any change to his previous view that immigration levels from the EU were too high. 

But the concession appears to shadow the changing ideological contours of Britain’s post-Brexit politics, as the Labour Party tries to get back in step with its traditional core in England’s industrial heartland without alienating younger, immigration-friendly supporters in urban areas.  

The Labour party leader will make his speech in the city of Peterborough, where more than 60 percent voted to leave the European Union, noted the Independent. 

In the wake of the Brexit vote, The Christian Science Monitors Sara Miller Llana noted how the campaign to leave the bloc had “drawn a cross-section of Brits and exposed deep divides” in the country:

Many are former Labour voters driven by a sense of frustration over globalization that is mixed with left-wing nostalgia. But this is not just a movement of those left behind. The Brexit movement is also a cauldron of right-wing nostalgia, buoyed by self-assurance, patriotism, and perhaps above all a cultural reflex against others meddling in British business. “British people have always had this plebeian, working-class kickback to people telling them what to do,” says Glen O'Hara, a professor of contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University. “They like to be left alone.”

Corbyn had previously dismissed as arguments about the negative impact of immigration on employment as exaggerated and criticized calls for the implementation of a work visa. But prominent Parliament members from his party have publicly differed, including Labour’s shadow secretary for Brexit, Keir Starmer, who urged a “fundamental rethink of immigration rules from start to finish” this month, reported the Telegraph

Most European leaders regard freedom of movement into Britain for their citizens as a requirement for British access to the single EU market. What appears to be at stake, in Labour’s rethinking, is whether EU citizens would still be permitted to come to Britain to seek work, instead of coming with a job offer already in hand.

"We are not saying that anyone could not come here because there would be the right of travel and so on,” Corbyn told the BBC.

"The right to work here would be something that would have to be negotiated."

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