In response to Paul Mason: On free movement and the need for a wider, contextual approach to reassessing ideology.

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Thursday night on Question Time Guardian columnist Paul Mason presented the argument that the Labour Party and Labour movement, and by extension socialist ideology, would not be compromised through sacrificing a commitment to free movement following the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Mason elaborated on the need to engage with substantial section of the population who feel that their livelihoods, economic prosperity, culture and sense of identity have been marginalised by the European Project and the unrestricted flow of people from the continent.

Whilst I completely support the notion that we should be engaging these people and trying to better understand the hardships that face white working class communities (see my piece about Trump’s election for elaboration on this position), I disagree that a prerequisite to this is sacrificing a commitment to free movement; this approach seems to proscribing medicine before fully understanding the condition needing to be treated. Engagement with these communities does not require application of the same solution proposed by other political movements; the Labour movement should seek to understand all the forces at play and propose their own solution. Should, after all causes of suffering of white, working class communities having been assessed, all possible solutions require detaching from a commitment to free movement, then so be it. However, I feel this groundwork to build understanding has not yet been undertaken, and actors within the Labour movement are rushing to conclusions.

Furthermore, I do not believe that appropriate analysis of the wider political context has been undertaken, and thus insufficient consideration of potential side effects to wider political discourses. In this piece I wish to briefly consider some of these potential discursive side effects and present the argument that abandoning a commitment to free movement within the current political context will, contrary to Mason’s position, compromise the Labour movement. I will not be presenting arguments in favour of free movement itself, more focusing on a discourse and context analytical approach that considers how revoking a commitment to free movement within the current, wider political context will influence how other political discourses are framed; potentially strengthening discourses actively detrimental to the Labour movement and everything it stands for.

I can identity three main effects abandoning a commitment to free movement in the current political context would have on political discourse: reinforcing of a ‘white past/multicultural present’ dichotomy that not only excludes migrants from British collective history, but specifically blames them for current economic instability; by extension reinforcing a discourse of ‘loss of cultural familiarity’ that causes a reconstruction of collective identity, excluding already marginalised groups; and finally reinforcing a sovereignty and power-centric conception of English nationalism, portraying immigrants as a threat to English national identity and potentially jeopardising regional relations within Britain. Each of these shall be discussed in turn.

Firstly on how abandoning a commitment to free movement by the Labour Party and Labour movement would help build an exclusionary imagined collective history; a ‘white past’. Applying Jo Littler and Roshi Naidoo’s (2003) model of ‘white past/multicultural present’ we can begin to see why in the current context this would be the case. The ‘white past/multicultural present’ model denotes a simultaneous celebration of British multiculturalism (as is often the case within the Labour Party and Labour movement) yet lament at the loss of prosperity and stability of a perceived monocultural past. Mason has previously acknowledged the multi-ethnic and multicultural nature of the British working class, yet framing abandoning free movement as prerequisite to engage with economically marginalised working class communities draws a direct link between their socioeconomic marginalisation and multi-ethnicity/multiculturalism.

The narrative linking the marginalisation of working class communities with increased immigration (which has been expressed across both mainstream and peripheral anti-free movement campaigns) serves to build an imagined, exclusively white-British collective history; multiculturalism and immigration become ‘new’, ‘external’ concepts that have eroded the economic stability and the prosperity of the working class. Thus we end with lamentation of a multicultural present, and a desire to return to an imagined monocultural past; one devoid of immigration and multiculturalism. This discourse is reinforced by the Labour Party revoking commitment to free movement in the present context, and serves to only further exclude already marginalised groups by implicitly blaming them for contemporary economic instability. Celebration of existing multiculturalism, as often is espoused by the Labour Party, cannot counteract this. As Jack Black (2016) elaborates, once an exclusionary imagined collective history has been constructed, celebrations of current achievements of multiculturalism only serve to legitimise the ‘white past’, both in its foundations in economic stability and portrayals of multiculturalism as ‘new’.

The second main effect on current political discourses I can infer from the Labour Party abandoning commitment to freedom of movement is how it reinforces a narrative of  discourse of a loss of perceived cultural familiarity, which further excludes non-White Brits. This is closely linked with the previous point, but extrapolates it to a wider cultural phenomena. In specifically blaming recent migration from the EU as a source of current economic marginalisation of the working class, the EU and immigration become in themselves alien objects that have been imported into British life, rather than structures and phenomena that are intertwined with both our day to day lived experience and our states composition. Whilst any actor disproportionately focusing on free movement in itself essentialises the EU to an unhelpful level, reducing it below its complex interactions with our state apparatus, I feel there is a deeper discursive effect at play.

Michael Wachutka (2016) notes that import of foreign objects causes the construction of a specific historical awareness of collective identity (one in which these objects didn’t exist), in which a national group anchor themselves. Whilst Wachutka’s analysis referred to Japan during the Meiji period, I feel this analysis equally applies today in Britain (I find there are striking similarities between Japan and Britain; they even have their own concept of the divine right of kinds, amatsu-hi-tsugi, or ‘heavenly sun succession’). In the EU and migration being cast as alien objects impeding on the lives of British people, a narrative reinforcing the aforementioned collective (white-British) identity, devoid of the EU and immigration, is constructed; serving to further marginalise already ‘othered’ groups.

Finally, I can infer that the Labour Party’s abandoning of free movement principles will reinforce power-centric discourses of British, and in this case more specifically English, national identity. This is because there is a second narrative at play in framing concerns over free movement, alongside the economic marginalisation of the working class; sovereignty, the idea of ‘taking back control’. Concerns over immigration have, throughout the entire Brexit campaign and from almost all significant actors within, been intertwined with concerns over eroded national sovereignty by excessive EU super-statism. This is important because, as Krishan Kumar (2003) notes, English national identity has traditionally been defined (at least partially) within the context of a larger entity, to which it holds a hegemonic position. English identity is thus partially defined on being a hegemon within Britain, and this hegemonic position has been placed under threat by the EU and free movement in two ways: 1) that England does not hold a hegemonic position within the EU and 2) that a larger entity is able to influence migration laws within England.

That the Labour Party, a party traditionally associated with strong statism and an internationalist outlook, is embracing a position that is so often conflated with concerns over national sovereignty serves to disproportionately portray the impacts of free movement on sovereignty; and thus inadvertently portray immigrants themselves as a threat to national sovereignty and, by extension, English national identity itself. In abandoning a commitment to free movement, by extension a commitment to adequately challenge these narratives, the Labour Party have inadvertently reinforced English nationalism, and with it further marginalised already ‘othered’ groups. Furthermore, resurgence of an English identity contingent on regional hegemony will only further antagonise relationships with Scotland, Wales and Norther Ireland.

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In conclusion: If the Labour Party and Labour movement are truly socialist in nature they should maintain a commitment to at least an internationalist outlook (if not internationalist action); one that is compromised by abandoning a commitment to free movement in a political climate dominated by narratives of sovereignty, as demonstrated by my third substantive. Furthermore, if the Labour Party and Labour movement are truly socialist in nature, they should seek to foster a sense of class solidarity, rather than reinforce any divisive narratives that portray immigrants as a threat to the livelihoods and identity of the British working class, such as the narratives expressed in my first and second substantive points.

If the Labour Party wishes to seek disconnecting with the concept of free movement, it should construct its own discursive framework to do so (I personally do not feel this is possible, but that is beside the point); at present I feel that it is only operating within existing discursive frameworks, thus contradicting and compromising its own principles. So I conclude that contrary to Paul Mason’s comments, the Labour Party, Labour movement and by extension their socialist ideology would very much be compromised by abandoning a commitment to free movement in the current political context.


  • Black J. (2016) ‘Celebrating Britain’s multiculturalism, lamenting Britain’s past’, Nations and Nationalism, volume 22 (4): pp. 786-802
  • Kumar K. (2003) The Making of English National Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Littler J. & Naidoo R. (2003) ‘White Past, Multicultural Present: Heritage and National Stories’ in Brocklehurst H. & Phillips R. (eds) History, Nationhood and the Question of Britain, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Wachutka M. (2016) ‘Technological Inovation and Nationalist Discourse in Late Nineteenth-Century Japan: The Incandescent Lamp and Perceived Challenges to Ethnic-National Identity’, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, volume 16 (1): pp. 63-82.

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