Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a series of emails from Will Straw and others involved in the Stronger In campaign talking about many things and occasionally asking my opinion on what they should do next. (It’s interesting, if unsurprising, that none of those emails was an abject apology for so completely bollocking up the Remain campaign, coupled with a promise to never go anywhere near political campaigning again)
The culmination of all this has come today with the announcement that Britain Stronger In Europe has now completed its metamorphosis into Open Britain which follows in the footsteps of More United by declaring it will be strongly in favour of good things, while condemning (but not too harshly) bad things. The email comes from ‘Joe and James’ which only makes me wonder if Freddie and Fiona were too busy to write it.
Their list of things that they want Britain to be open to is the sort of pabulum that no one can object to, which means they’re not actually setting out a political stance, just asserting that nice things are nice. It’s not hard to imagine Leave campaigners putting out the exact same list of things and claiming that’s why we need to be out of the EU ‘so we can be open to the world’.
As ever, the devil lies in the detail. The initial statement on their website (because with all the campaigning genius we came to expect from Stronger In, the actual website isn’t ready to go on the day they announce their launch) begins with talk about needing to make the case for an open Britain and how important it is to make that argument in the Brexit negotiations that David Davis will be beginning any year now. So far, so bland, but generally good. Until we get to this:
However, we must learn lessons. June 23 was a moment of change. The strength of feeling is clear. Free movement of people cannot continue as it has done. It has to be reformed. This was not an expression of prejudice but rather a desire for managed migration and concern that rapid immigration can put pressure on public services and local communities. Britain must be open to talent, but with more ability to act if excessive competition in labour markets hurts our economy.
For too long we have ducked an open debate over immigration. That was true in the referendum campaign but it is also true of all the major political parties in the past decade or more. As a result, untruths have been allowed to prosper and a balanced debate never materialised, leading many to feel that legitimate concerns were being dismissed. This must change. Calls for reform must sit with a positive argument about the benefits that immigration brings.
Yes, it turns out that ‘Open’ Britain doesn’t actually mean open in the way that you or I might understand it – fighting to retain the free movement of people within the EU that we now stand on the brink of losing – but a rather a more flexible definition of ‘open’ that needs some undefined ‘reform’, after we’ve had the ‘open debate about immigration’ that we clearly haven’t been having and I’ve been hallucinating for the past couple of decades. There’s even a mention of ‘legitimate concerns’ in there, just in case you weren’t sure that they’re planning to spend more of their time pandering and dogwhistling to racists instead of listening to people who might want a truly open Britain.
So no, I won’t be signing up to support Open Britain because we don’t need an organisation that concedes half the ground its meant to be fighting for before the battle’s even begun. We’ve now got the bizarre situation where an organisation that was campaigning to stay in the EU just a couple of months ago is now taking a position against freedom of movement that wouldn’t even allow us to be part of the EEA. That the people who were supposedly running the campaign can change their position so easily and quickly in order to tack to the prevailing political winds is a good illustration of just why the Remain campaign failed to engage voters with a positive vision.
To me, Open Britain feels like another exploratory moment towards the aim of facilitating a centrist split from the Labour Party, rather than the pro-EU campaigning body we need. When Owen Smith and others have floated the idea of supporting restrictions to freedom of movement, it’s not hard to see that the idea of a ‘we’re not Tories but we’ll listen to your legitimate concerns’ party would be attractive to some. If they want to do it, that’s fine, but don’t pretend you’re being open to the world when you just want to pull up (sorry, ‘reform the operation of the lifting mechanism’) of the drawbridge.