Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. It often felt like there was hardly anything else to talk about during Labour Conference. Despite the decision not to debate motions on single market membership and free movement on the conference floor, Brexit was the hot topic at almost every fringe you could find in the Conference magazine, and most people who visited LCHR’s stand wanted to talk about its human rights implications.
One thing that struck me was there was no universal support for a second referendum. Even among young the activists we spoke to, many wanted to simply get Brexit over and done with rather than try to resist it. There was, however, widespread concern that – in the wrong hands – Brexit could lead to an erosion of our employment and equality rights, as well as an economic downturn.
Another theme that quickly emerged at the various fringe events we attended was a willingness to have an honest conversation about immigration – something people have long complained Labour is reticent to do. In addition to broad support for retaining some form of free movement after Brexit, time and time again Labour activists were willing to ask searching questions about the economic and social conditions that have driven concerns about immigration. Even if the answers weren’t always that illuminating, the fact that we’re asking these questions can only be a healthy development.
It got me thinking about one of the main themes of my recent essay in the Fabian pamphlet, Fair and Free, which is that free movement and immigration mean very different things to different people. To some, they mean the opportunity to live and work in different countries, form friendships that cross borders and cultures, and holiday or retire in the sun. For others, they mean downward pressure on wages, high streets radically transformed, and competition for housing, schools, healthcare, and jobs.
The Labour family includes many thousands of people in either camp, which is partly why the policy of ‘constructive ambiguity’ on Brexit is seen as a political necessity by some. But surely our task is to try to encourage empathy between them so that people who see immigration as a negative don’t always assume its supporters are over-privileged, and those who see it as a positive don’t always assume its sceptics are xenophobic.
As a human rights organisation, we have a fairly narrow mandate to consider the human rights value of particular proposals or points of view. But, as a Labour-supporting organisation, we also have a mandate to try to heal divisions in our own party, which is why this project is focused on finding approaches to Brexit that will unify rather than divide.
Andrew Noakes is the Director of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights