Britain’s main opposition Labour Party will say for the first time on Tuesday it is not wedded to freedom of movement with the European Union, an attempt to win back millions of traditional supporters who backed Brexit.
In his first major speech this year, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will set out his Brexit strategy more than six months after Britain voted to leave the EU in the June referendum.
He is seeking to silence critics who say his party has failed to challenge Prime Minister Theresa May with a coherent, alternative plan.
Flagging in opinion polls, Corbyn will also try to ease concerns among some Labour voters who feel the party is not in tune with their fears over immigration and to staunch their exodus to the likes of the anti-EU UK Independence Party.
“Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle,” he will tell an audience in the English city of Peterborough, which voted strongly in favour of leaving the EU, according to excerpts of his speech.
“Labour supports fair rules and reasonably managed migration as part of the post-Brexit relationship with the EU.”
Since becoming leader over a year ago, Corbyn has struggled to put his stamp on a party which has been pro-EU for more than two decades and was blindsided on Brexit by the more organised ruling Conservative Party, which enjoys a slim majority in parliament and has largely driven the debate.
A socialist on the left of his party, Corbyn has criticised the bloc for being in thrall to big business.
But he has backed freedom of movement – one of the EU’s main pillars – which the bloc says must be respected if Britain is to maintain its preferential access to the single market of 500 million consumers.
In interviews before his speech, Corbyn said voters should recognise the “enormous contribution to our society and economy” EU migrants have made and to consider those Britons who live in the bloc and fear their rights may be hurt by Brexit.
But refusing to put a number on his preferred level of immigration from the EU, he said that would depend on what kind of preferential access Britain would get to the single market.
“The right to work here would be something that would be negotiated because that clearly cannot be put down yet until we know what the terms are of single market access,” he said.
He also told the BBC he wanted to see a cap on “high earnings” to reduce income inequality, another plank in a new approach to win not only voters but some Labour officials who are sceptical of his ability to lead them to election victory.
“We cannot set ourselves up as being a sort of grossly unequal bargain basement economy on the shores of Europe,” he said.
(This story has been refiled to remove extraneous words in first paragraph)
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper)