Theresa May promised it would be the ‘Brexit election’, in which she would sweep to a landslide victory and gain the enhanced parliamentary majority necessary to pursue hard Brexit. Instead, the Tories ended up losing seats to Labour MPs who overwhelmingly want to take a pragmatic approach to Brexit that prioritises jobs and trade. It’s clear now that hard Brexit is dead.
But what does this mean for human rights? The most immediate impact is that Labour’s bargaining position in Parliament is greatly enhanced, so their previous demands such as a unilateral guarantee of EU nationals’ residency rights and protection for EU-derived employment and equality rights will now have far greater force.
With their tiny DUP-enabled majority, the government will also probably find it difficult to rip up EU-derived employment and equality rights once Brexit is over and we no longer have the protection of the EU courts. In fact, it’s unlikely the Tories will be able to get anything vaguely controversial through Parliament with the current arithmetic.
The bigger question is about the single market and free movement. Before the election, it seemed all but certain that Britain would crash out of the single market in order to put an end to free movement. But with hard Brexit clearly rejected by the public, is there now a possibility of something different?
Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, has admitted it will be difficult to stay in the single market if free movement is to end, but he’s not ruling it out. Might there be some formulation that would allow the UK to impose limited immigration restrictions and stay in the single market? It’s hard to say. There are various proposals for ‘free movement minus’, essentially a form of free movement that is slightly more restrictive than the current system. These include the idea of a ‘brake’ on EU immigration if it’s seen to be harming the economy, and restricting free movement to those people who already have a job offer (after all, isn’t that still free movement of labour?) or a family here. Whether or not these are compatible with single market membership will depend on how flexible the EU is prepared to be.
Or maybe the election result gives Labour a mandate to stick with free movement in its current form? I suspect the shadow cabinet will be reluctant to take this approach, having clearly stated during the campaign that free movement will end after Brexit.
Certainly an outcome which retains many of the benefits of the single market and allows some form of free movement could be a major positive for protecting human rights. The more restrictive our immigration system becomes, and the more danger there is of economic catastrophe, the more likely we are to see human rights violations. But other outcomes aren’t necessarily incompatible with human rights either.
The good news is we’re no longer powerless. The hung Parliament gives Labour an opportunity to shape Brexit in a way that would never have been possible with the previous parliamentary arithmetic. The question now is whether we can capitalise on it.
Andrew Noakes is Director of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights