Labour has unveiled a hard line on migration from the European Union, which could mean that migrants would be allowed to come to Britain only if they already had a firm job offer.
In a surprise move, Labour suggested that it could seek new curbs on the free movement of people within the EU if it wins next year’s general election.
Chuka Ummuna, the shadow Business Secretary, said he had talked to some of his European counterparts about the issue this week. He told the BBC’s Question Time programme: “The founders of the EU had in mind free movement of workers, not free movement of jobseekers. The difference is that what people intended when they built the EU in the first instance is that people who either had a job or had the skills to get a job would move around the EU.”
His remarks will be seen as a sign that Labour is nervous about being outflanked on migration by both the Conservatives and the UK Independence Party, which claims it is winning support among working class voters who have traditionally backed Labour as well as disaffected Tories.
Mr Umunna’s comments echo remarks by David Cameron, who told a press conference at the close of an EU summit in Brussels in December: “The EU’s founding fathers simply did not envisage that with the accession of new countries would trigger mass population movements across Europe… We must return it to what the EU first envisaged. It was meant to be about free movement to go and take up a job that you have already applied for. It was not about free movement for benefit tourism. It was not about free movement for people who don’t have the means to support themselves.”
Mr Umunna claimed that other European politicians were open to reform but a Labour Government could face opposition from several other EU members and changes would almost certainly require the agreement of all nations in the 28-strong bloc.
Viviane Reding, vice-president of the European Commission, accused British politicians of peddling "myths" about an "invasion of foreigners" who were stealing jobs and draining welfare and health resources, for their own domestic political purposes. Her criticism followed a heated debate after Romanians and Bulgarians won free access to the British labour market on 1 January.
Yesterday a backbench Bill to enshrine into law Mr Cameron’s pledge to hold an in/out referendum on EU membership by 2017 was given a second reading by the House of Lords after a seven-hour debate. But Labour and Liberal Democrat peers may try to derail it by tabling a raft of amendments so that it runs out of parliamentary time.
Lord Dobbs, the novelist and Tory peer, said it would be a brave man and an "even braver unelected peer" who denied people a chance to decide their own future.
But critics argued that the Bill, introduced in the Commons by Tory MP James Wharton, needed further detailed work on the 2017 date, the wording of the question and the economic impact.
Lord Mandelson, the former Cabinet minister and European Commissioner, claimed the Foreign Secretary William Hague and David Cameron had been "taken hostage by the militant tendency" within the Tories. But he came under fire for saying in a BBC Radio 4 interview that the outcome of a referendum would be a “lottery.”
Lord Garel-Jones, a Conservative and former Europe Minister in John Major’s Government, questioned the motives behind the Bill, saying it was unnecessary. He suggested it could be an attempt to win British National Party (BNP) voters. He insisted his party should not "pander to Ukip" but instead "confront them with a barrage of facts".
For the Lib Dems, Lord Oakeshott said the Bill was the "coward's way out" of political problems and an "abdication of responsibility".
But Lord Strathclyde, the former Tory Leader of the Lords, told peers "we do have the power to block the bill but I believe we do not have the authority to do so. Nobody outside this House would understand why the Lords were deliberately denying the people their say on this issue.”