There is much on which I would disagree with Jeremy Corbyn. He has, though, struck one of the more sensible notes amongst politicians in his refusal to set any sort of numerical limit on immigration, but to pay attention instead to how we respond to any problems caused. He’s ploughing a lone furrow, however. Even most of his own party seem to disagree with him, with our own First Minister declaring last week that Corbyn is out of touch with Labour voters, and that however things might look from London, they look different here. The First Minister is right on that last point, although not perhaps in the way he intended. The key difference between London and Wales on this issue is that London has a great deal of immigration, and Wales has very little, but I doubt that that is what he meant.
Carwyn Jones didn’t tell us what he thinks that the limit on immigration should be, or how it should be set. He also didn’t give us the benefit of his views on why immigration is such a bad idea – assuming that he really believes that it is (and he surely wouldn’t want controls if he doesn’t, would he?). All he told us was, in essence, that Labour voters are against immigration and might vote for UKIP if Labour doesn’t copy the basics of UKIP’s policy. I wouldn’t personally describe that as a particularly sound basis for policy-making, but I suppose it’s part of what they mean when they say that policy should be ‘evidence-based’. There’s plenty of evidence that voters don’t like immigration, after all.
Yesterday, disappointingly, Plaid added its two-penn’orth to the anti-immigration argument. It was more nuanced, and prefaced with a sensible statement that some immigration is good, but it ultimately came down to saying that we should be ‘picky’ about who can migrate, and that we should try and retain an ‘element of’ free movement. I’m not at all sure that one can have ‘an element’ of any type of freedom; it sounds like it comes from the same school of thought as the idea that a woman can be ‘slightly’ pregnant. Some things are binary – they either exist or they don’t.
In this case, freedom of movement which is constrained by governments being picky or setting criteria isn’t freedom of movement at all; it’s a privilege granted only to some. Privilege and freedom aren’t at all the same thing.
So, we have a situation where UKIP, the Tories, Labour and Plaid are now all agreed that freedom of movement is a bad thing and should be constrained; the difference between them is about numbers and criteria - about how many should be accorded the privilege and how they should be selected. That’s a question of detail, not principle. The details are not insignificant, and I’m not arguing that they’re not important; but we do need to understand the distinction between a difference of degree and a difference of principle.
The First Minister was at least honest enough to admit, in effect, that his case isn’t based on economics or any other particular impact which immigration might be having on Wales; it is based entirely on party electoral considerations. I suspect the same is true of Plaid, although it wasn’t made that explicit.
It might be, of course (and it is only a might – this is far from certain), that adopting a watered down version of UKIP’s central argument will help to stop that party gaining further traction. But that isn’t the same thing as countering their arguments. In fact, it’s quite the reverse. Adopting the anti freedom of movement position of UKIP not only fails to counter their argument, it actually legitimises it, reinforces it, and brings it into the mainstream of politics.Defeating the arguments of parties like UKIP isn’t simply about keeping them out of power by implementing milder forms of their policies, it’s about getting out and explaining why those policies are damaging and dangerous. It’s about concepts and ideologies, not just electoral outcomes. They may well lose the elections, but there’s a danger that they’re winning the battle of ideas, and that their ‘opponents’ are helping them to do so.