How Miliband can take the heat out of the immigration debate

The Labour leader must be truly ambitious on pay and working conditions.

Immigration played a key part in Labour’s defeat in 2010, becoming the frame through which many people comprehended and linked together a vortex of economic and social anxieties. Before the election, Ipsos MORI found that just six per cent of those concerned by immigration thought Labour were the best party on the issue. But Labour under Ed Miliband is never going to win a head-to-head contest that focuses narrowly on immigration numbers. Trying to out-flank the Tories to the right would simply lack authenticity and plausibility, and further alienate people from politics.

The Labour leader must also side-step a trap the Tories would like to set, where he gets positioned as a soft, metropolitan liberal. Miliband may be more softly spoken than the tough, no-nonsense home secretaries of the mid New Labour years, but his views on immigration should not be mistaken for permissiveness. His generation have no appetite for a 1980s-style cult of victimhood.

Instead, Miliband is reaching towards a policy for immigration that may include a dose of social liberalism, but also views migration through two other lenses – both of which are key to his worldview more widely: his prioritisation of economic inequality, and an emphasis on strong communities as vehicles for morality, culture and connection. Miliband can talk about people’s immigration concerns but also quickly widen-out the conversation, to take it into terrain where he can push home an advantage, using his egalitarian and communitarian convictions.

The challenge for the left, is to create the conditions in which immigration concerns can subside so that they no longer taint other political debates. In thirteen years of government, Labour learnt that concerns about immigration will not dissipate if you simply ignore the problem. Miliband has already been upfront about immigration in two important ways. First, he has loudly and publicly accepted Labour’s failure to anticipate the huge influx of central and eastern European migrants. Second, he has strongly criticised the coalition for failing on in its own terms, both in relation to policing the UK border and achieving its cap on net migration.

He can now argue (in a way that New Labour globalisers never could) that if migration is not working for the bottom and middle then it is beside the point whether it is good for GDP. The best way of saying that Labour is sticking up for low-income communities is by being truly ambitious on pay and working conditions. Miliband should return to the radicalism of his leadership campaign and embrace a national living wage and also push for sector-wide pay rates in migrant-heavy industries. In short, every job in Britain must be “good enough” for British people to want.

Alongside decent pay and conditions Labour needs a tough message that there will be a zero-tolerance on under-cutting by unscrupulous employers and be ready to pick fights with employers and agencies who recruit migrants first, over and above British unemployed. The party could consider placing new requirements on big business to take more responsibility for their supply chains or raise the prospect of discrimination claims where firms have all-foreign workforces. This would all tie-in well with a ‘tough-love’ message for people who are long-term unemployed; that Labour will guarantee the availability of jobs, but that everyone has a responsibility to accept them.

But Miliband also needs to go beyond the economic and talk about culture and values. He can avoid any talk of imposed assimilation – but he must still emphasise responsibilities and shared values, with respect to personal behaviour and to how people establish themselves in broader communities. When previously in office, Labour pursued this agenda with English language requirements and the beefed up citizenship process but these national rules alone are too abstract and transactional.

Labour needs to think through how to bring to life its instincts about migrants’ rights and responsibilities locally, in the context of place and communities. Miliband should explore the scope for ‘contracts’ – real and implied – between newcomers and the communities they are settling in. This would start with a much more hands-on role for local authorities, who should feel empowered to develop detailed plans in areas of high migration. Ideas might range from encouraging with poor English to take part in family education programmes through to mandatory requirements for newcomers to make (achievable) community contributions before being eligible for social housing.

Of all political issues, migration triggers the greatest insecurities and the most political distrust. Vagueness and good intentions will not do. But if Miliband is able to turn his ethos of responsibility into specifics, he can succeed in taking the heat out of the debate.

The Shape of Things to Come: Labour’s New Thinking is published by the Fabian Society on Wednesday 27 June

Miliband must avoid being depicted as a soft, metropolitan liberal. Photograph: Getty Images.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Photo: Getty
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.