An Anti-Immigration Brexit Campaign Is Doomed To Failure

Michael Gove - EU Referendum - Vote Leave - Immigration

Ben Kelly of Conservatives for Liberty and The Sceptic Isle has an excellent new piece explaining why a Leave campaign focused on immigration is both depressingly regressive and doomed to failure.

Kelly’s warning is in response to Michael Gove’s latest contribution to the Vote Leave campaign, as reported today by ITV:

Michael Gove has warned the UK faces a migration “free for all” unless it leaves the EU, as the Leave camp moved to exploit an admission from the Government that EU free movement of labour rules make it harder to curb immigration.

The Justice Secretary insisted potential new members of the EU posed a “direct and serious threat” to public services such as the NHS, and social harmony.

He said five countries “due to join the European Union” – Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey – which he warned would mean Britain’s public services would not be left in a “strong position”.

Writing from the perspective of The Leave Alliance (an independent grassroots movement for Brexit supported by this blog) which advocates exiting the EU’s political union and using EFTA/EEA membership to maintain access to the single market, Kelly writes:

A recent ComRes poll that asked the question “what is the most important issue in your decision on the EU Referendum?” was illuminating. 47% said the economy was the most important factor, with immigration trailing on 24%. So the belief that it doesn’t matter that the Leave campaign loses the economic argument because they can win on immigration is bunkum.

First and foremost, people will vote according the economic risk. That is why we propose an EEA based solution; it de-risks Brexit, secures the economy and gives us a soft landing. That is stage one of the secession process, a safe platform to build on. This is the key to winning the referendum and thereby restoring democracy and self-governance in the United Kingdom. In any case, it will likely be the only offer on the table for Article 50 negotiations and is the likely government course of action.

Although the EFTA/EEA solution puts on hold changes to freedom of movement it crucially protects our Single Market participation and thereby neutralises the economic uncertainty surrounding Brexit. In the long term we can make the case for reforms to freedom of movement, but pending such reform there is plenty of scope for improving the management of our borders with a coordinated set of policies designed to address push/pull factors. We would also gain the option of activating the “emergency brake” provision in the EEA Agreement as a temporary safeguard measure against exceedingly high net migration numbers.

Many who unrealistically seek a clean break Brexit and want everything at once will see this position as sub-optimal, but the alternative – pulling out of the EU’s freedom of movement provisions – would lose us access to the Single Market.  Without continued access to the Single Market, we cannot win the referendum because we lose the economic argument.

Those who insist on ending freedom of movement and imposing strict new immigration controls on Day 1 are letting their own “perfect scenario” be the enemy of the good. The type of Brexit necessary to deliver what Vote Leave are promising inevitably means losing access to the single market, membership of which is contingent on adopting free movement of people. This creates a degree of economic uncertainty which is gleefully seized upon by the Remain campaign and makes it virtually impossible for Leave to win the referendum.

By contrast, exiting to an EFTA/EEA holding pattern allows Britain to extricate herself from political union with the EU while maintaining the stability in the economic sphere which is necessary to reassure the 47% of voters for whom this will be the deciding factor. Further changes to immigration policy can then follow according to the democratic will of the British people, subject to various economic and political constraints.

It should be pointed out, too, that the accession of the next group of EU candidate countries – Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey – could be more than a decade away from joining, and in Turkey’s case this may well not happen at all. This gives plenty of time for Britain to secure freedom from political union, and then flex our independent policy levers to address push and pull factors as Kelly advocates.

Kelly concludes:

Stepping back into the EEA means leaving political and judicial union safely.  From that position of security and strength a world of opportunity opens up. Over time we can take advantage of regaining control over a vast swathes of policy making and review the statute books. Gradually we can move towards a more bespoke “British model” of relations with the EU and form a coalition to push for necessary reforms.

Disastrously, this is seemingly unacceptable to a number of inflexible and uncompromising Eurosceptics who reject freedom of movement and the Single Market and are therefore actively adding to the perceived uncertainty of Brexit. Regressive Euroscepticism, which is unwilling to compromise and refuses to acknowledge that freedom of movement actually has many great positives, is a disease that will lead only to abject failure.

We need an optimistic message and a positive, liberal vision. The ability to move freely across Europe is hugely beneficial in so many ways and a great many Britons enjoy those benefits and will fear losing their rights.  EEA immigration has been good for this country in many clear and measurable ways, economically and socially, and this absolutely has to be said.

An independent Britain must be a positive, diverse and liberal country with an open economy; this is the key to our cultural and social dynamism and how we can make a great success of Brexit. Leave cannot possibly win with a regressive vision that contradicts this. An anti-immigration campaign arguing for the abolition of freedom of movement and the loss of Single Market access is guaranteed to lose, and the failure will be richly deserved.

The New Statesman’s political editor George Eaton is also devastatingly accurate with his take on Vote Leave’s pivot back to immigration:

Britain’s high immigration rate is undeniably of concern to many voters. The boast that EU withdrawal would exempt the UK from free movement (though Norway and Switzerland show it may not) is perhaps the best card the Brexiters have to play. But it may not deliver victory. The Remain campaign speaks of a “plateau” beyond which Leave cannot advance. There are millions of people whose priority is reducing immigration – just not enough for the outers to win. The issue is to them what the NHS was to Ed Miliband’s Labour – a strategic comfort blanket.

[..] The more the Brexiters play the migration card, the greater the risk that they animate their core voters while alienating others. It was for this reason that Vote Leave resolved to run an optimistic campaign, non-centred on immigration. Gove’s rhetorical escalation shows that they are struggling to abide by this vow.

In raising the salience of immigration, Leave is playing to its strengths. Until it is able to neutralise its weaknesses, that will remain a displacement activity.

Continuing to place this uncompromising immigration message front and centre in the Leave campaign is the quickest and surest way to a 45-55 defeat on June 23. The only ones not to realise this seem to be the official Leave campaign, who are more interested in covering their blushes and resetting the agenda after having their flimsy economic case taken apart last week by a gleeful Remain campaign.

Any campaign aimed at motivating core supporters at the expense of alienating swing voters (by preventing the adoption of a plan which would ease their economic concerns) is not helpful at this stage. Persisting with exactly the same unfocused, populist message which helped to secure the referendum will not also help to win it, and telling the UKIP contingent exactly what they want to hear rather than challenging them to think more strategically and longer-term could well be looked back on as the single biggest failure of the campaign.


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Top Image: Independent

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