Shadow home secretary tells Guardian her party should hold its nerve in febrile atmosphere surrounding Brexit vote
Labour will not win a general election if it lurches to the right to become “Ukip-lite”, Diane Abbott has said, as she called on her party to hold its nerve over the issue of immigration.
In an interview with the Guardian, the shadow home secretary said Labour’s priority should be to push for Britain to remain a part of the single market after Brexit, and that politicians must be honest with voters and tell them the only way to achieve that is to accept continued freedom of movement.
“We can’t fight and win an election in 2020 as Ukip-lite. The idea that moving right on immigration in post-industrial Britain will save us seats is I think misconceived,” she said.
She claimed that the toxic atmosphere since the EU referendum, fuelled in part by newspaper coverage, had left many Britons feeling frightened about their futures and wanting people to speak up on their behalf.
She also suggested that parts of the country dependent on the EU for business but in which people voted overwhelmingly for Brexit were “incrementally beginning to wonder whether they did the right thing”.
“I think there’s a little bit of Bregret, and because the Tories don’t have a plan, because their approach is so chaotic, I think we’ll see more Bregret as time goes on,” she said.
The Hackney North MP conceded that many voters who voted to leave the EU in June’s referendum did so because they hoped immigration would fall. But she rejected the idea, mooted by prominent Labour backbenchers including Stephen Kinnock, Emma Reynolds and Rachel Reeves, that the party must be willing to advocate limits on immigration to meet the concerns of its voters, particularly in post-industrial areas.
“It is absolutely fair to say that on doorsteps colleagues are finding people complaining about immigration, but it is simply not the case that immigration has driven down wages, or that immigration has created the insecurity or instability they perceive,” she said.
How to respond to such concerns has been a source of contention for Labour since the referendum, with voters in many of the party’s northern and Welsh seats opted to leave. Abbott said Labour needed to hold its nerve following Donald Trump’s victory in the US election.
“Colleagues are entitled to speak up for their constituents. My point is, particularly in the wake of Trump, the Labour party has to offer resistance to a general rightward trend on race and immigration because I think it could be a downward spiral. We have to speak up for people.”
She noted a sharp rise in hate attacks, even in her multicultural London constituency, including harassment of long-settled, non-white individuals who were not from European countries. “We have to acknowledge how frightened some people are about this type of debate on immigration, because they do not know where it ends,” she said.
Abbott, who is a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, suggested recent media coverage helped to exacerbate tensions. “The Daily Mail had this front page on foreign lorry drivers looking at their phones. It’s that sort of thing, it’s a drumbeat.”
Many Labour MPs have been highly critical of some of the rhetoric around the Brexit vote, but a number fear the party could lose scores of seats at the next general election if it fails to heed the electorate’s concerns about immigration.
Reeves, a former shadow work and pensions secretary, said in September: “We need to have some controls on immigration. You can’t just close down that discussion or label people as racist if they say that.”
Senior pro-leave ministers, including the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, have suggested Britain will be able to negotiate limits on free movement while retaining tariff-free trade with the EU single market. Theresa May has also indicated that economic access and tougher migration rules are not mutually exclusive.
Abbott said a series of recent meetings with senior figures in Brussels had underlined her conviction that will be impossible. “You cannot have access to the single market or be part of the single market without freedom of movement. It’s time people started acknowledging that,” she said.
“Those of us who are arguing for the least harmful Brexit have to be clear to people that there is no deal to be done on freedom of movement, and to imperil our economic interests as a country because of anti-immigrant feeling would scarcely be responsible”.
After the chancellor, Philip Hammond, revealed that Brexit is expected to depress GDP growth and lead to £59bn of extra borrowing over the next five years, she said Labour would make the economy, not immigration, the first priority if it were negotiating Brexit.
“I think that Theresa May is quite wrong to subordinate the economic interests and the living standards of the British people to the issue of immigration,” she said. “I don’t think people voted to be poorer.”
Abbott believes the deal May and her colleagues come back from Brussels with after the two-year negotiating process will fail to match the bombast of leave campaigners, and Tony Blair has suggested Brexit could be stopped if the public decide they are disappointed with the outcome of the negotiations.
Asked how Labour should respond if the deal is disappointing, she said: “The party is against just reversing the referendum, that would be profoundly undemocratic … I think we are looking at a situation that is moving all the time, and bit by bit people are going to understand they were lied to, the £350m on the NHS and being told you can keep access to the single market but dump free movement.”
Asked if she would consider a more robust immigration system if it were acceptable to other EU countries, such as Belgium’s registration scheme, she said a tougher position could in itself be risky.
“I’m surprised you raise Belgium. Belgium is notorious for having big communities in Brussels who’ve been involved in acts of terrorism. The Belgian system may not feel so wonderful if you’re someone of Muslim descent living there.”
She said a more positive take on migration was not “fluffy idealism” but a necessity for Labour.
Asked about the shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s belief, expressed in a speech last week, that Brexit presents “enormous opportunities”, Abbott said: “It’s very difficult to say anything decisive about Brexit at this point because the Tories are in such a mess”. Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, was said to have been furious about McDonnell’s remarks.
Abbott was promoted to shadow home secretary when Corbyn reshuffled his frontbench last month following scores of resignations during the summer leadership contest. She said the new team was more united, and that the Labour leader had been strengthened by seeing off Owen Smith’s challenge.
“Jeremy has become more relaxed and confident, the leadership election has helped him,” she said. Corbyn was regarded by many at Westminster as having got the better of May at Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions, when he repeatedly challenged her over funding for the NHS and social care.
Asked whether the public regard Corbyn’s team as a plausible alternative to May’s cabinet, she said: “It’s difficult to look like an effective government when there’s still a faction on the backbenches saying this is not legitimate and so on.”