LONDON — John McDonnell on Wednesday risked opening up a new rift within the Labour party on immigration, after dismissing calls for the party to take a tougher line on the issue.
Asked about a speech by Keir Starmer on Tuesday, in which the shadow Brexit secretary suggested that the “status quo” on freedom of movement must end, McDonnell said the party must avoid having a “fictitious debate” about reducing immigration.
“It’s more about a regulated labour market than playing a numbers game,” he told Business Insider.
“Theresa May and David Cameron… when they talk about numbers coming down to the tens of thousands it lacks credibility.
“So what are the real issues? It is about wages, it is about protecting public services and jobs. So let’s deal with those rather than fictitious debates about numbers overall.”
In a speech yesterday Starmer insisted that “the status quo is not an option” on migration.
“When I was shadow immigration minister I spent months visiting every region of the UK to listen to views on immigration,” Starmer said.
“I know how important the issue is to many voters. I know that any party that seeks to govern needs to listen to their concerns and come up with adequate and appropriate responses. No comprehensive approach to Brexit or response to the referendum result can ignore the issue of freedom of movement.”
He said that Labour needed a “bold and ambitious” policy on the issue, adding that “the rules [on immigration] must change.”
When you drill down into peoples concerns in the referendum… it’s about freedom of movement affecting my wages
However, when asked by BI about Starmer’s speech, McDonnell said the party should concentrate on ending austerity and further regulating the Labour market, rather than pursuing restrictions on immigration.
“The issue for us on freedom of movement is all about having a regulated labour market and that is what some of the issues that are coming up now,” he said.
“When you drill down into peoples concerns in the referendum… it’s about freedom of movement affecting my wages. It’s about whether I’ve got a job or not and pressure on public services. So [you need to have] a regulated Labour market which tackles the problems around wages and part of that is about restoring collective bargaining as well.”
He insisted that it was austerity, rather than immigration, which had caused public concern.
“The issues around pressure on public services is about proper investment but actually the real pressure on public services comes from austerity it’s not come from migrant numbers,” he said.
McDonnell spoke to Business Insider inside the Southwark Pensioners Centre in South London. The shadow chancellor used his visit to announce that a Labour government would protect the ‘triple lock’ on pensions as well as other pensioner benefits such as free bus passes.
The issues around pressure on public services is about proper investment but actually the real pressure on public services comes from austerity, it’s not come from migrant numbers
“You can’t have a situation where you’re telling older people that their income will be insecure in five years so you’ve got to give them guarantees,” he told Business Insider.
However, when speaking to pensioners about the policy afterwards, McDonnell was instead beset with comments about immigration.
“We had tool shop along here,” one man told McDonnell.
“The owner was Polish and a spitfire pilot and he said he wanted to bring his two nieces over here and he couldn’t.
“Now we’re inundated. Where we are going to put all these people? Everywhere you look, you go out there, there used to be a motorbike shop. Marble Arch motorbikes. Now it’s a block of flats going up. Everywhere you look. It’s all boxes of flats.”
Another man, who came to the UK from Ireland, agreed that the population had now got too large
“We’ve got too many people in this country,” he told McDonnell.
McDonnell quickly responded by drawing attention to their shared Irish heritage.
“My family are from Drogheda, north of Dublin,” he told the man.
“We came over [to the UK] and built the place.”
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