Labour is developing the right instincts on immigration

Miliband’s mea culpa is first step to genuinely progressive position.

The simple fact of the Labour leader tackling the issue of immigration head on in a speech to IPPR yesterday is an important step. The widespread perception that the whole topic is somehow taboo is corrosive, and feeds into a narrative (enthusiastically promoted by the likes of Migration Watch) that immigration is some kind of elite conspiracy imposed on the British people. In that context, it is essential that Ed Miliband and his colleagues in the Shadow Cabinet are stating their case, listening to public concerns and trying to establish a constructive debate – one without either prejudice or ‘no go areas’. This speech, following his recent intervention on national identity and Englishness, is a welcome move in that direction.

Labour is now striking the right tone in discussing its record on immigration – recognising that mistakes were made, that change happened too fast in some communities, and that there was a serious failure of politics in not securing public consent for policy. This is essential if the party is going to get a hearing on the issue in future.  But more importantly, this speech made the right connections with Labour’s economic record.  By situating immigration squarely in  this wider debate, Ed Miliband was recognising a much bigger problem when he accepted that Labour had been ‘dazzled by globalisation’, and had paid too little attention to the impacts of the UK’s economic model (of which immigration has been part) on the most vulnerable workers and communities.

For a while, it seemed that the ‘Blue Labour’ project had foundered on the rocks of immigration policy, but this speech showed both that the influence of Blue Labour thinking remains strong (that Ed Miliband made his first major speech on immigration so soon after appointing Jon Cruddas to lead the Labour policy review is no coincidence), and that the Blue Labour position on immigration is much more nuanced than has often been suggested. In fact, the kind of agenda that Ed Miliband set out, which focused on the need to protect vulnerable workers and communities, is one in which UK-born people and migrants should have common cause.  Better enforcement of the minimum wage should reassure UK workers that their wages won’t be undercut, but it would also protect vulnerable migrant workers - the London Citizens campaign for the Living Wage is a good example of this kind of solidarity working in practice.

But most importantly, this speech represents a new attempt by Labour to define a genuinely progressive position on immigration. From a policy point of view, let alone a political point of view, this is a difficult trick to pull off – migration is an issue where the key question from a progressive perspective is not ‘are there benefits?’, but ‘who benefits?’ Necessarily, that means engaging with some real trade offs between different objectives (would we accept a lower rate of economic growth in order to make communities more cohesive?) and between groups (what costs are we prepared to impose on business in order to protect the most vulnerable workers?). It also means looking well beyond the narrow confines of ‘immigration policy’ to consider how migration fits with our economy, public services, communities and our sense of identity – there is no single ‘big idea’ that will cut the Gordian knot of immigration policy (as the Coalition are finding with respect to their much-vaunted net migration target), but rather a set of inter-related changes across a wide range of policy areas that will make migration work better for the UK.

This speech did not by any means set out a comprehensive progressive immigration policy. Nor was it the U-turn on immigration policy that much of the media is suggesting, although the ‘mea culpa' for parts of Labour’s record was important, and it was part of a significant change of direction on economic policy. Not all of the policies set out in the speech will be effective in practice, and those of us who recognise the benefits that migration has brought, and will bring, to the UK may regret that it is politically necessary to pre-judge questions like migration after further EU accession. In short, there is still plenty of work for think tanks like IPPR to do in developing a set of migration policies for the UK that would deliver on progressive values.

But the speech does suggest that the Labour Party is developing the right instincts on immigration, and has realised that it needs a better narrative as well as better policies. If Ed Miliband can resist the temptation to always simply be ‘tougher’ than the Conservatives (a temptation that is no doubt made easier to resist by the continued failure of the government to make progress towards its net migration target), and can situate immigration in the context of the wide economic and social concerns of the British people, he might just be able to change the debate. That is something that everyone with an interest in this issue, including migrant communities and their advocates, should support.

Sarah Mulley is Associate Director at IPPR

 

Labour leader Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR.

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Overlooking the effect of Brexit on Northern Ireland is dangerous for the whole UK

We voted to remain in the European Union. The tensions caused by the referendum outcome, and ignoring its effect on us, will cause utter carnage in Northern Ireland.

I’ve been from Northern Ireland all my life. Having spent many years living in Dublin, and now London, I’m quite used to that very fact making people uncomfortable. I get it. From a glance at the news, it would seem we fight each other about flags and anthems and are inexcusably proud of throwing glass at people in bowler hats, or daubing on our own homes the worst paintings ever committed to brickwork. Our tiny little protectorate has generated such disproportionate levels of confusing violence, most people are terrified of saying the wrong thing about any of it. We’re the celiac vegans of nationalities; the worry is that almost anything you offer will offend.

Most people avoid such worries by – whisper it – simply never acknowledging that we exist. This reflexive forgetfulness is, of course, a happy state of affairs compared to what went before. I refer, of course, to the period named, with that Ulster-tinged strain of sardonic understatement, the Troubles, when some 3,600 people were killed and ten times that injured. By some estimates, as many as 115,000 people lost a close relative to violence in this time, and many more a good friend, a colleague or an old school pal. Taken as a portion of 1.5m people, this means a startlingly high percentage of Northern Irish citizens have been directly affected by the conflict, certainly a higher percentage than that of, say, the English electorate who have ever voted for Ukip.

Northern Ireland also contains Britain’s only fully open border with the EU. I know because I grew up on it, specifically between Derry and Donegal, where my dad's back fence demarked an invisible boundary, a small hop from the UK to the Republic, and back. From a migration point of view, this poses a problem, so when Brexit was being deliberated, it did seem odd that Northern Ireland was barely mentioned at all, that the one border that exists in the entire country was given such scant reference during the campaign’s interminable duration. A dreaded EU migrant, travelling freely through Ireland toward my father’s house will not be subject to border checks once he has passed it quietly behind him. No machine guns, no "papers please", none of the fortified rigour mandated by the Leave campaign. Implementing such fortifications would, of course, be a practical nightmare, since so many live in Ireland but work in the UK, and vice versa. But the psychological effect of such a move would be infinitely worse.


Much of the Good Friday Agreement was predicated on free movement between north and south, and cross-border bodies that reinforced a soft-union of the two states; just enough to ameliorate nationalists, but nothing so resembling a united Ireland as to antagonise unionists. Making Irish-identifying Northern Irish citizens undergo any form of border checkpoint between the two countries would not just be a bureaucratic hassle, it would massively inhibit the self-determination nearly half of Northern Ireland's population takes from both countries’ status within a wider European state.

The peace that exists rests largely on this status quo, the acceptance of people who reject violent means and see little injustice in being allowed to live their lives within a British state that dignifies their close connection to their southern neighbours. It is hard to overstate how different this situation would be were armed checkpoints to re-emerge. I remember checkpoints as a child. I remember machine guns and dogs and my dad making sure we weren't nervous while he was being interrogated by armed men inspecting his driving license and checking under our car for explosives. This was every day. Rather than some novel development, this will be a direct, unbidden return to something we worked very, very hard to get away from, something we were promised was over, and something for which thousands of very stubborn, dangerous people struck what many considered a highly improbable truce.

It is this effort to which thousands of Northern Irish people now owe their lives, to which tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands more can count among the living and healthy their siblings, their friends, their colleagues. This may not be at the forefront of minds in Carlisle or Cornwall or aboard the statesmanlike grandeur of a battlebus, but it is the lived reality of Northern Irish people. To stoke up these tensions risks sleepwalking out of a peace that was hard-fought and long considered unthinkable. To do so as a side effect of what appears to be, on its face, little more than a tussle for the leadership of a single political party with little-to-no presence in Northern Ireland seems distasteful in the extreme.

Having stating these facts to friends here in London, I’ve been touched by their sorrow for our plight but, for all their sympathy, it might still not have registered that our problems have a tradition of travelling to people in London and Dublin, in Birmingham and in Monaghan. If greater care is not given to the thoughts, aspirations and fears of Northern Irish people, and those still-present agents of chaos who would seek to use such discontent to their own violent ends, we risk losing a lot more than free use of bagpipes or pleasingly bendy bananas.

Westminster must listen to those who would bear the burden of Fortress Britain’s turrets near their homes or else, to borrow a phrase, Brexit will be a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family's security.

Séamas O'Reilly is a writer and musician. He tweets @shockproofbeats. His website is shocko.info.