Remain needs to change tack on immigration – or risk Brexit


The polls suggest two things are happening in the campaign. First, that leave is opening up a over remain. Second, that what’s shifting voters – including many traditional Labour supporters – towards Brexit is the issue of immigration.

So far advocates of remain have responded in one of two ways. Either they try to persuade voters they are wrong to fear immigration – that in fact newcomers add more to our society than they take out, that they keep our public services going, that they enrich the country and its culture. Or remainers say that they understand the misgivings about migration, that perhaps they even share them themselves, but that high levels of migration are, sadly, the unavoidable price of EU membership, a cost offset by all the benefits that come from being inside rather than out. (And, indeed, if we were out but wanted access to the single market, we’d still have the same levels of migration because we’d have to sign up to the free movement of people.)

I’m very comfortable with the first argument. It’s one I’ve made often. It fits the kind of liberal, open Britain I believe in. But the trouble is, it’s not working – not with the millions of people, especially those supporters, who need to be persuaded if Britain is not to vote out in nine days’ time.

Nor, it seems, is the second argument working. It is too disempowering, too passive to tell people that when it comes to migration, they just have to lump it – especially when set aside the seductive slogan of the leave campaign, promising Britons that they can “take control”.

If Britain is to stay in, something is going to have to shift in this final stretch of the campaign. Some remainers hope simply to change the subject – hoping that the economy will reassert itself as the key determinant of people’s vote. More prudent would be to accept that immigration matters to huge numbers of Britons and to say something different about it – specifically to tackle the widespread view that the only way you can do anything about migration is to vote for .

Which is why Ed Balls’s latest intervention in the EU debate is striking. In today’s Daily Mirror, the former shadow chancellor that, “We need to press Europe to restore proper borders, and put new controls on economic migration.” He says that the concessions David Cameron won in his renegotiation with Brussels – limiting in-work benefits for new migrants – were welcome but cannot be “the end of the story”.

The message is that if people are unhappy with migration as it stands, there are things that can be done about it other than voting to leave. Labour already talks, rightly, of more cash for those communities most affected by migration, a dedicated fund to ease the pressures new arrivals can bring on housing and school places. But the party could go further, as Balls implies, by suggesting Britain push for changes in the way the principle of free movement of people is implemented.

It’s Labour especially that can and should say this. It should, because it’s Labour voters who need persuading. And it can because it’s hard for Cameron to talk in such terms, not when he just a few months ago trumpeted his renegotiation as a final settlement of the issue. The prime minister has already said that what we have now is the end of the story, rather than leaving open the possibility of further change: indeed, it’s thanks to him that the outers have been able to present Brexit as the only possible option for those troubled by immigration.

There’s one other group of people who could make all the difference on this issue. The rest of the EU nations – Germany and France especially – could send a signal that yes, free movement remains a cardinal principle, but that they will look again at how that principle can work in practice in the era of globalisation and mass flows of people. They could say that they have heard the British people and understand their concern – and that, as it happens, plenty of other European voters share Britons’ anxiety (which they do).

There is a precedent. In the last days of the Scottish independence campaign, the leaders of the main UK unionist parties issued a collective “vow”, signalling their agreement that Scotland needed greater control over its own affairs. A few days later Scotland voted to stay in rather than out of the union.

The rest of the EU can see what’s happening in Britain now. They can see that remain is losing this campaign. They also know what a Brexit will mean for the , how it will pull away one of its sheet anchors. The hour is very late – perhaps far too late – but those British leaders and their allies who want Britain to stay in the EU need to address the number one concern of those who next week will vote to take us out. And they need to do it right now.