The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has said there should be no limits to the number of EU workers who can come to Britain as he made his final pitch to Labour voters to back remain at Thursday’s referendum.
Senior Labour figures, including Corbyn’s deputy, Tom Watson, and former minister Yvette Cooper have suggested in recent days that Labour should pledge to seek reforms to the fundamental EU principle of freedom of movement.
But Corbyn told the Guardian: “Some of my colleagues have been thinking about that subject; we will have that discussion; but my view is that if we have a single market with free movement of capital, there has to be free movement of labour.”
He added: “Otherwise you end up with a Nafta-type system, like the US, Canada and Mexico, where there is not free movement of labour but there is free movement of capital, and that ends up exploiting workers in Mexico, and damaging working conditions in America.”
Instead, the Labour leader insisted, the right approach was to tackle exploitation by unscrupulous employers, and boost public spending in areas where there is large-scale immigration, rather than throwing up barriers to free movement.
“I think it’s much better if instead we have an end to the undercutting, where you bring in a whole workforce from Lithuania or Estonia and pay them the minimum wage, when the going rate for the job would be say £12 an hour.”
The four gave an upbeat performance at the rally in London, stressing the positive values espoused by the EU before an enthusiastic crowd of supporters. Jones spoke of “a great country, an outward-looking country that works with our friends and allies to bring about freedom, tolerance and justice”.
He said voters were being wrongly told by “the establishment” that migrants are to blame for pressure on jobs and public services, when the fault lies with politicians in Westminster.
Many Labour MPs have been stung by the levels of anger about immigration unleashed by the referendum campaign, which they have heard on the doorstep, prompting some to think the party needs a radical shift in its position.
But the Labour leader said instead he believed the right approach was to have a “rational discussion” with voters.
“They raise issues of poverty, they raise issues of housing, they raise issues of health; and yes they raise issues of immigration, all these issues are raised; but if you have a rational discussion with people, as I try to do, and don’t do it with rancour, you don’t do with personal abuse, then you get a hearing.”
He said he was concerned about the divisive tone of the referendum campaign, which he compared to the rise of the National Front and the British National party in the past.
“The Farage poster of the Syrian refugees was just the pits,” he said. “We’ve been here before, we’ve had all this before: we’ve had the rise of the National Front in the 1970s; we’ve had the rise of the BNP; we’ve had all of that. I represent a constituency that in the 1980s had a significant National Front presence.”
Some senior Labour MPs believe the debate, which has pushed immigration to the top of the agenda, has served to highlight the extent to which the party in Westminster – liberal, metropolitan and socially liberal – is out of touch with its grassroots outside the capital.
They fear a backlash from disillusioned voters, as the party suffered in Scotland. After siding with the government in the 2014 independence referendum, Labour was all but wiped out in Scotland in last year’s general election, holding just a single parliamentary seat.
Dugdale, the party’s leader in Scotland, warned that there may be parallels between the two situations – and urged Labour to learn the lessons of the campaign.
“We’ll make the case for remain: arguments about jobs, about the economy, about workers’ rights, that’s all really important, but we also have to understand why some people’s anger at politics and the political class is manifesting into a vote to leave,” she told the Guardian.
Corbyn’s shadow cabinet will meet on Friday morning, after the result of the referendum is announced, to determine how the party will respond. Dugdale said: “The mistake is to assume that the job is done on the day of the referendum. Actually, the Labour party can speak to that anger, and use that to force some change across the country.”
While the Labour leader said he had become more confident of a remain vote in recent days, the party is also scrambling to ensure that it could be ready for a snap general election, in the event that David Cameron’s position is undermined by a vote for a Brexit.
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