Keir Starmer has ruled out bringing back free movement of people between Britain and the EU, saying it would be a “red line” for Labour if it gets into power – despite supporting the policy just three years ago.
The Labour leader said free movement “won’t come back” if he becomes prime minister as Brexit has already happened and “ripping up” the deal would lead to years more wrangling with Brussels.
However, his decision to rule out a return to open borders with other European states if Labour gets into government will disappoint some in his own party who believe EU immigration should be welcomed as a cultural and economic benefit.
Starmer also ruled out a “Swiss-style” deal with the EU, which would allow access to the single market but require more generous immigration rules, after reports the government was considering such an arrangement prompted frantic denials from No 10.
He told the Mail on Sunday: “A Swiss deal simply wouldn’t work for Britain. We’ll have a stronger trading relationship and we’ll reduce red tape for British business – but freedom of movement is a red line for me. It was part of the deal of being in the EU but since we left I’ve been clear it won’t come back under my government.”
He added: “Ripping up the Brexit deal would lead to years more wrangling and arguing, when we should be facing the future.”
However, in January 2020 when he was standing to become Labour leader, Starmer indicated he would bring back free movement if he made it to No 10, saying: “I want families to be able to live together, whether that’s in Europe or here … We have to make the case for freedom of movement.”
His spokesperson said last week: “He said he would support freedom of movement whilst the negotiations were going on. Clearly we have now left the EU, so that matter is resolved.”
Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling up secretary, claimed Labour had not changed its position because it had always argued that freedom of movement could work only if it was aligned to investment in skills and opportunities for young people in Britain.
She told Sky News on Sunday: “I don’t see any route to do it. That’s the honest truth. I served as shadow foreign secretary for two years and there was no appetite across the European Union for reopening negotiations with the UK.
“I don’t think there’s much of an appetite in this country, either. We’ve divided amongst ourselves for nearly a decade now on a whole succession of issues and this country’s got to move forwards.”
Nandy called for a “sensible” immigration approach that would invest in young people in Britain “first and foremost” to fill labour shortages, while recognising that immigration had a “significant contribution” to make if there were short-term gaps in the market.
“We need a serious plan to fill our labour shortages and invest in young people here in Britain, not these back-of-a-fag-packet policies that unravel as soon as they’re announced,” she added.