Labour set to ditch conference policy of extending free movement and giving foreign nationals right to vote

Exclusive: Grassroots backlash expected as representatives of EU citizens in the UK warn that U-turn would be ‘pandering to the negative portrayal of immigrants’

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Friday 15 November 2019 23:03
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Labour is set for a major row over its immigration policy amid reports that Jeremy Corbyn will back away from a commitment to extend free movement to non-EU countries and give foreign nationals the right to vote in all UK elections.

Both policies are expected to be significantly watered down or ditched entirely when senior figures meet on Saturday to thrash out Labour’s election manifesto, The Independent understands.

Such a move would lead to a backlash from grassroots activists, who successfully campaigned for Labour to adopt the policies at the party’s annual conference in September.

The move was backed by senior Labour figures and trade unions at the time and was heralded by campaigners and representatives of foreign nationals.

But fears that the pledges will be unpopular in Labour heartlands, where the party is facing a battle to avoid losing seats to the Tories, may see them ditched.

Senior Labour figures accept that the party’s Brexit policy of seeking access to the EU’s single market will inevitably mean a continuation of free movement but may no longer support going further.

Ahead of the key meeting, Labour activists warned Mr Corbyn that failure to give immigrants the right to vote would fuel “xenophobia, scaremongering and hate crime”.

Representatives of foreign nationals in the UK said backing away from the conference policy would amount to “pandering to the negative portrayal of immigrants” and would be “incredibly upsetting and disappointing”.

The Liberal Democrats also called on Mr Corbyn to make a “cast-iron commitment” to maintaining free movement, claiming that failure to do so would be “a betrayal of future generations”.

Labour declined to comment and it is unclear whether there is any suggestion that it would not maintain free movement rules.

Any future Brexit referendum would be significantly affected if the party rows back on the policy of extending voting rights, given that millions of foreign nationals, who would be expected to overwhelmingly back Remain, would no longer be allowed to vote under a Labour government.

The motion passed at Labour’s conference agreed that a government led by Mr Corbyn would “maintain and extend free movement rights” and “​extend equal rights to vote to all UK residents”.

Earlier in the week, however, Len McCluskey, the influential leader of the Unite union and a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, said the policy approved at the conference was not “a sensible approach”. Labour insiders said his demands that the agreement is ditched are likely to prevail, despite opposition from senior party figures including Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary.

One source involved in discussions on the manifesto said that pledging to extend free movement beyond the existing rules would be “insanity” and “electoral suicide” and would not be included in the document.

And in another sign that the policies passed at Labour’s conference are likely to be abandoned, Ms Abbott told The Independent: “There are a lot of resolutions passed at party conferences. Not every resolution passed at party conference is going to find its way in its entirety into the manifesto.”

Labour’s ruling executive committee, members of the shadow cabinet and union leaders will meet in London on Saturday to sign off the draft manifesto – a requirement under Clause V of the party’s rules.

Rumours that they will ditch the policy to extend voting rights to immigrants drew anger from representatives of foreign nationals living in the UK.

Maike Bohn, spokesperson for the3million, which represents EU nationals in the UK, said it would be “surprising and really baffling if they backed away from their own policy”.

She said: “If Labour don’t stand by their conference motion, they’re standing by a divisive view of Britain where EU nationals are a burden and somehow not worthy of including in democratic process. I’d be incredibly disappointed. It would feed into this idea of them and us, where you pull up the drawbridge and leave the three million EU citizens shut outside.”

She continued: “We already have to face the anti-immigration rhetoric and I think this is why Labour doesn’t want to stand by this, which I find incredibly upsetting and disappointing.

“They are pandering to the negative portrayal of immigrants, of which we are now classed as one group. It would give in to the narrative that we don’t have the best interests of Britain at heart, that we’re not really part of society, that we don’t deserve that inclusion in democratic processes.

“We are at risk of having no voice and we absolutely must avoid that. It’s an area where Britain can make up for the turmoil it’s inflicted on EU citizens. For the first time we feel like we don’t belong. This would be a massive step towards saying we do, and we do have a voice – that we’ve earned that right.”

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Of Jeremy Corbyn, she added: “If he stands up for social justice and for creating an equal society where people can live and be and work to their utmost potential, it’s absolutely imperative that he stands by this [conference motion]. It’s 3.6 million people’s futures at stake. If Labour is about social justice then it is absolutely vital that he gives millions of EU citizens who have made Britain their home the chance to be included in that.”

Ditching the motion would also raise questions over Mr Corbyn’s promise to let party members decide policy, and prompt accusations that the leadership was riding roughshod over the grassroots.

Ana Oppenheim, from the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, which helped draft the motion, said: “At today’s manifesto-drafting meeting, Labour has a huge opportunity to send a message about the kind of society it wants to build.

“Migrants living in Britain have borne the brunt of a campaign of xenophobia, scapegoating and hate crime – and that is made easier by the fact that they can’t vote and hold politicians to account. If you live here, you should be able to vote – and extending the franchise can be part of a much bigger story about transforming Britain.”

The Liberal Democrats said their pledge to stop Brexit would ensure the continuation of free movement within the EU.

Christine Jardine, the party’s home affairs spokesperson, said: “The Liberal Democrats have a clear plan to stop Brexit, save free movement and fix our broken immigration system.

“Millions of us have taken advantage of free movement to live, love and work abroad. But young people are being robbed of this right by a disastrous Tory and Labour-backed Brexit that most of them didn’t even vote for.

She added: “Boris Johnson must immediately guarantee the rights of thousands of children from the EU whose lives are being thrown into unbearable uncertainty.

“Jeremy Corbyn must make a cast-iron commitment in Labour’s manifesto to preserve free movement. Failure to do so would be a betrayal of future generations and of the millions of voters across the country who want their right to free movement defended.”

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