Emily Thornberry has said Labour will “not die in a ditch” to protect the principle of free movement across Europe, as she attempted to clarify the party’s immigration position.
It comes after briefed extracts of a speech earlier this week by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, declared the party was “not wedded” to the principle of free movement – one of the EU’s “four freedoms”.
However, when Mr Corbyn delivered the line during the speech in Peterborough, he said: “Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle, but I don’t want that to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out.”
Asked to clarify Labour’s immigration policy on ITV’s Peston on Sunday, Ms Thornberry, the shadow Foreign Secretary, replied: “We’re not going to die in a ditch for the sake of freedom of movement, European-style, as within the European Union.”
She continued: “It’s up to negotiations but you know Labour’s principle has always been that the economy is the most important thing, that the first priority of any government is the safety and security of its citizens.”
“Now, do we think that there’s too much migration coming into Britain? If you look at the crisis in the NHS at the moment, why is it that our health service is having to scurry around the world hoovering up nurses from the Philippines, because we’re not training up enough nurses, we don’t have enough doctors, one in four of our doctors are going to retire in the next few years.”
Earlier on Sunday Mr Corbyn refused to be drawn on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show whether he believed immigration to Britain should be reduced. But he insisted he would end “the grotesque levels of exploitation and the undercutting that goes on”.
On the freedom of movement, he added: “It is going to be part of the negotiations about access to Europe. If we are going to have access to a single market then there is going to be an issue surrounding that.
“Let’s look at the issue of the flow of people in the context of access to a free market. Let’s not blame migrants for the problems we have.
“What we are going to be doing is negotiating a trade arrangement with Europe to make sure we are able to access those markets.
“It will involve people from Europe working here just as much as there are two million British people living and working in the European Union. Are we going to cut ourselves off completely? I don’t think so.”
But the Conservatives seized on the interviews as evidence Labour can not be trusted to “control immigration and deliver the will of the people” in leaving the EU.
Nus Ghani, a Conservative MP, who is a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee in Westminster, added: “Once again, under repeated questioning, Jeremy Corbyn refused to say that immigration into Britain is too high. And his shadow Foreign Secretary also said that getting control of the numbers coming here from Europe isn’t a priority.
“Labour don’t want to get control of our borders and are completely out of touch with ordinary working people. They do not speak for the concerns and aspirations of people in our country.”
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