A Habermasian approach to Labour’s Freedom of Movement problem

After a long period when Labour’s positioning on freedom of movement has been out of the limelight, with spokespeople able to allude to a vague notion of a Customs Union with Single Market access as the Labour Brexit option, May’s decision to seek Labour assistance has brought it back into the full glare of publicity.

It’s not been pretty.

Sienna Rodgers was out of the blocks quickly with an article starkly titled “Labour confirms it wants to end freedom of movement”, and many notables on the left followed with due expressions of outrage. Michael Chessum Another Europe expresses his anger in existential terms while Owen Jones talks of taking the matter to the streets if Labour does not get its act together. Where they go, many follow.

In one respect, all these opinion formers should hang their head in shame at their failure, whether willful or a result of laziness, to understand what Labour’s actual positioning is.

For, as Adam Payne at Business Insider has set out, and as I set out in more techinical detail some nine months ago, the most likely explanation for the way Labour spokespeople talk about freedom of movement is that they want to keep it in substance, but don’t want to say as much at this stage for fear of alienating the “legitimate concern” band of MPs as this crucial stage.

So,, in short, they keep saying “Freedom of Movement will end” upon Brexit because that is a legal consequence of no longer been party to the multilateral treaty under which it is a legal consequence, but they keep saying so in the knowledge that what will be developed to replace that multilateral treaty is a bilateral treaty which has the same substantive rules. That is how it is consistent for Labour to whip for a Common Market 2.0, inclusive of all four freedoms while also talking of the end of free movement, and how the party is still in line with conference policy on the Single Market.

But in another respect, the opinion formers’ anger is justified. For, while Labour’s line is technically honest, it is also highly cynical.

Those using the careful “Freedom of Movement will end” line know perfectly well that, while it can be taken as a statement of legal fact, it is in fact being taken by the vast majority of people hearing it as an expression of Labour’s intent to put substantive restrictions on freedoms currently enjoyed.

The most striking evidence of this comes of course, from those on the receiving end: non-UK nationals such as Alessandro, who interprets Labour’s current line as a giant “fuck off” to him, and Frederick, who is “pained at the doubling down”, but the less personally immediate consequences of (as Chris puts it) “helping perpetuate a false narrative which says that migrants, rather than the failings of British capitalism” are also clear enough.

The fact that the line may have been developed with strategic ‘creative ambiguity’ intentions as a way to do well in the 2017 General Elections, and that it may still be being used strategically to keep some MPs in line, does not mean that its use is any more honest.

In standard Habermasian terms (p. 232 ff. and see also section 3.1 here), Labour is failing one of the key tests of ‘ethical discourse’ with the wider public; while it may be telling the literal truth, it is not doing so with truthfulness, because its interlocutor (the public) is not reaching a point of common understanding (Verständigung) about what has been asserted, and Labour knows this. And in going down this line of truth-but-not-truthfulness, Corbyn’s Labour is moving away from the spirt of early Corbynism that I wrote about 100 days into his leadership.

The crucial question for a Corbyn supporter like me is (and Michael and Owen) is surely, then, how do we seek to re-orientate Labour to that spirit of truthfulness, both around the specifics of Freedom of Movement but perhaps also more broadly.

Michael and Owen’s choice thus far is to go on the attack — to call out Labour for not being proper international socialists. That is understandable enough, especially given their apparent lack of understanding of Labour’s actual strategy, but I fear it will be counterproductive. There lies only further conflict, with both sides digging in heels and decliining productive dialoge

For myself, as a Habermasian Corbynite (the best kind) the way forward lies in helping Labour move from truth to truthfulness, by positive, consciously discoure-ethic questioning and commentary* along the (ideal speech-like) line of:

Jeremy, it is good to see that you have kept open the potential for substantive freedom of movement, albeit rebranded for bilateral treaty reasons, and that this fits with agreed policy. Can you, comrade, give assurance that we have a common understanding of that position, so that any earlier misunderstanding arising for strategic reasons can be set to one side, not least in the interests of further open and honest dialogue with the public?

Of course, for a some of the public, such moves to re-establish truthfulness alongside truth will come too late; Habermas, himself a veteran of the Historikerstreit, recognizes that validity claims reply not just on language but on historical track record, and just as some will never accept Corbynism in good faith because of the track record on (not) dealing with antisemitism, so some ‘Identity Remainers’ will never forgive this aspect of the Corbyn project.

Nevertheless, it is not to late to start coming clean, and people like Michael and Owen should be helping in that, not hindering through uninformed analyses of where Labour is really at.

*This kind of commentary is what I have tried to effect in my articles on Labour’s overall approach to Brexit. One key problem I’ve found hard to resolve with the short form blog medium is that analysis becomes merged with policy proposal, in a way which hinders my own validity claim to truthfulness.

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.