Opposition to freedom of movement with the European Union is being driven by racism, a prominent Labour MP has said.
Clive Lewis, a former member of the shadow cabinet and one of Jeremy Corbyn’s closest allies when he first became leader, said it was an issue the Left found difficult to deal with.
Appearing on Sky News’s Sunday with Niall Paterson, he clashed publicly with fellow Labour backbencher Caroline Flint who said people did not want migration to the UK to be decided in Brussels.
Mr Lewis, one of 30 Labour MPs who signed an open letter calling for the party to support continued membership of the EU single market, told her: “I actually believe in freedom of movement. You are talking about managing migration.
“You are not going to like to hear this: it always comes back down to something the Left in this country has very much difficulty with, which is that it is ultimately about racism. It comes down to racism.”
His claim was rejected by Ms Flint who said both Mr Corbyn and shadow home secretary Diane Abbott recognised that there had to be changes to the way movement from the EU was handled.
“People don’t want to have our migration settled by the 27 other member states. They want us to be able to have the right to decide that,” she said.
Wirral South MP Alison McGovern insisted there was not a north-south split in Labour over attitudes to immigration.
She said: “We are told that the Tory party is divided ideologically, the left and the right, on Europe and the Labour Party is divided geographically - that somehow our southern voters ... are very pro-immigration and they think it’s fine, whereas up in the grim, northern wastelands we can’t stand foreigners. Well, that is a lie.”
She told a Labour Movement for Europe conference fringe event: “I won’t be told that northern voters fear immigrants or hate immigration and somehow the Labour Party has no choice.”
She said it was not freedom of movement that had led to pressure on wages for the low-paid.
“It is an easy excuse to blame migrants and to blame freedom of movement when actually it’s the Tories and exploitative employers that are to blame,” she added.