Labour’s shadow Brexit Secretary has sought to clarify the party’s position on freedom of movement, as the campaign ramps up to defend marginal seats in Leave-supporting heartlands.
Speaking at a rally in London, Sir Keir Starmer told supporters that the party was well aware that stricter controls were a key issue for voters in Brexit-backing constituencies.
However, despite acknowledging that free movement will have to come to an end when Britain leaves the EU, he stated that immigration will not be the “main priority” in negotiations.
This leaves open the possibility that the party will pursue alternative immigration arrangements with the continent, which could raise suspicions among eurosceptic voters.
The speech by Sir Keir came as the pro-EU campaign group Open Britain published a list of potentially vulnerable seats that are currently held by MPs who oppose a Hard Brexit.
The document includes Angela Smith’s Penistone and Stocksbridge seat, and Wakefield where incumbent MP Mary Creagh voted against the Bill to trigger article 50.
More than half of these “key seats” voted to Leave in June, and saw high levels of Ukip support in the 2015 election. The organisation is urging anti-Brexit activists in these areas to put party affiliations aside and fight to keep the sitting MPs in place.
The Labour event in London was an attempt by the party to clarify its stance on a range of Brexit issues, including trade, immigration and involvement in pan-European agencies such Europol.
It followed complaints by some senior Labour members that many voters remain confused about official party policy, particularly on the issue of freedom of movement.
One of the party’s opening pledges today was to secure continued access to the Single Market and the Customs Union, in order to avoid damaging tariffs on agricultural exports and financial services.
Sir Keir also committed the party to offering an “immediate” guarantee on the status of EU citizens currently living in the UK, which he claimed would happen on “day one” of a Labour government.
On free movement, the Shadow Brexit Secretary stated leaving the EU means the policy “has to go”, and “immigration rules will have to change”.
Responding to questions from audience members, he added: “We have to be honest enough to accept that the referendum result was largely a result of concerns about freedom of movement, and we have to listen to that.”
However, he also stressed that the party “[does] do not believe that immigration should be the over-arching priority”, as he criticised Theresa May’s focus on stricter controls at the expense of potential economic gains.
“We must have immigration that works for our communities and for our economy. And that means that there has to movement of people to come and work in this country,” he said.