Where next for Labour and immigration?

It is possible to address issues that drive hostility without demonising those who come to Britain.

In 1939, my father came from County Cork to dig roads. He searched for lodgings in Kilburn and Cricklewood, but it proved to be tough. House after house had signs outside which read "no Irish".

Britain has moved on immeasurably since then. Migration has been good for our country. Britain has been built on a history of successive waves of migration. Migrants have enriched our society and they are essential to the economy.

But last year, the message from the electorate on immigration proved to be deeply uncomfortable for Labour and its supporters. We should make no mistake, the strength of feeling about immigration is real. This is why a debate about immigration is so important.

That debate must take full account of the facts, and that means recognising that immigration has enriched Britain, leading to cultural diversity, economic growth, openness and prosperity. But it also means taking full account of objections, and not asserting that every objection to immigration is inherently racist.

In a review of the reasons for changing views on immigration, Liam Byrne referred to "research which shows workers on between £20-30,000 a year have faced huge forces in our economy, squeezing pay packets and the cost of living for at least five years. That's why so many are frustrated with welfare reform and immigration."

The worst impacts have fallen on people employed in low-growth sectors, such as construction, retail, hotels and catering, which employ around one-third of all UK workers. The association of all these industries with the employment of substantial numbers of migrants has allowed the message to take root that immigration is the cause of depressed wages and the lack of job security for many thousands of British workers.

The lack of affordable housing has also heightened sensitivity to immigration. But the housing shortage doesn't stem from immigrants taking great swathes of housing -- it is due to an overall lack of suitable affordable housing across the country. That shortage is something all the parties over the last 30 years have to take responsibility for. Under Labour, nearly 2m more homes were built, including half a million more affordable homes. But it wasn't enough, and we have to be honest that we didn't build, for example, enough council houses.

If Labour is serious about winning back those whose incomes have been squeezed, who worry about the security of their jobs and struggle to know where they will live, then Labour needs also to seriously address their concerns about immigration.

Lord Glasman, the guru of "Blue Labour" made an inauspicious start when he expressed his frustration with the difficulties Labour has had in accounting for its policies by suggesting that migration should be "frozen" in order to "put the people in this country first".

Yet Stephen Ladyman, the former MP for a Kent constituency where immigration was a big issue at the election, has cautioned against such a crude approach. For Ladyman, "Immigration is a necessary part of a vibrant economy and a decent society expects its immigration policy to also have a humanitarian aspect and we shouldn't be afraid to say so public."

This message was echoed by the Child Poverty Action Group's former director, Kate Green, now MP for Stretford and Urmston, who has stressed the importance of formulating immigration policies which are honestly set out to the public, frankly discussing "the trade-offs implicit in managing migration," which balance its positive effects in supporting a growing economy with the issues which genuinely concern ordinary citizens.

The government's strategy for driving down net migration, through its cap on numbers of migrants permitted under the Points-based Scheme, is patently failing. The public will look to Labour, and we will need to be ready to set out our vision for the future management of migration and the consequences of migration.

Labour will need to set out a positive case that demonstrates how well-managed migration can serve the UK in the fight back to growth and prosperity. We will need to show how we have learnt from our 13 years in government. We will need to address the key issues that drive hostility towards immigration including housing, stagnating wages, the increase of unskilled work, and workers rights.

And we must do all this without demonising the good men and women who come to Britain to enjoy a better life. Who help build Britain. Who have helped make Britain what it is today.

Jack Dromey MP is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on migration, and shadow minister for communities and local government

Jack Dromey is shadow policing minister.

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Boris Johnson is out of control, but Theresa May is too weak to punish him

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less.

Only younger Tory MPs asked last weekend: “Why did Boris do it?” Why did he write a 4,000-word essay on his demands for Brexit, just six days before Theresa May would make a definitive speech on the government’s plans? The older ones knew why: he hadn’t been the centre of attention for a while and wanted to remind people of his existence and that he remained in the game. A charitable fringe of pro-Brexit MPs thought he did it because he is a sincere Leaver, motivated by a desire to ensure the democratically expressed will of the British people is discharged. However, theirs was not a view widely shared.

Others thought they could trace the motivation for Johnson’s intervention back to the events of June 2016. “The reputation of Vote Leave at the moment is a pile of shit,” one told me, referring to the campaign whose figurehead Johnson had been. The metaphor became even more pungent: “Going back to the £350m is like a dog returning to his vomit.” The figure, plastered on Vote Leave’s battle bus, was the amount Johnson and his friends claimed would be available post-Brexit to spend weekly on the NHS. It was quickly rubbished, with Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign dismissing it outright. It was a gross, not a net, figure; it included the EU rebate, which ceases to exist when our contributions stop. David Norgrove, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has repudiated the assertion; and there are many other institutions, such as our tertiary education sector, that will lose EU money and expect the government to make it up. That Johnson should mention this fantasy figure in his article has bemused even some of that dwindling band of MPs who still see him as a possible future leader.

Although the piece was in Johnson’s familiar idiom, others detected in it the influence of Vote Leave’s former director, Dominic Cummings. Further evidence came in a bout of aggressive tweeting from Cummings after the pack turned on Johnson. An MP who worked with Vote Leave told me, “Cummings has returned. He is a narcissist. If he can’t get his own way, then he prefers to destroy: that was how he operated all through the campaign.”

Cummings, a former aide to Michael Gove, is like Johnson a publicity addict: both thirst to see their names in the media. He disappeared from view after Gove’s failed leadership bid, when Gove had to promise supporters that Cummings would not work in Downing Street if he won, so toxic was Cummings’s reputation after Vote Leave. Gove was quoted as supporting Johnson’s “vision”, a further sign of Cummings’s involvement. Within 24 hours, Gove’s friends denied that he supported any such thing but then, as Cummings went into action, Gove confirmed his backing for Johnson.

Johnson’s intervention did not grate with everybody. Some Brexiteer Tories, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, felt that after a party debate dominated by ministers favouring a Brexit that looks like continued membership of the EU by other means – notably Philip Hammond – it was time the Foreign Secretary spoke out for something representing a cleaner break. Some also felt that, given his office, he had a right to have a public say on the matter, after months in which May had done her best to ignore him.

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less, and suggestions he might resign are unlikely to concern her unduly. His remarks were not against party policy, but MPs trusted by Downing Street were at pains to stress that his views would have no effect on the content of the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, for there had “never been any chance of Theresa going off-piste”.

Johnson’s intervention was, however, unhelpful to him and to May. Colleagues saw it as the consequence of his having spent the summer steaming with frustration because he had lost ownership of the Brexit issue. He has also, according to friends, developed a thinner skin of late, and feels wounded by frequent attacks on him in the media pointing out his disengagement, his laziness, his ambition and his generally poor impression of a foreign secretary. For so long the goût du choix of many younger colleagues, he now finds they take him no more seriously than most of his older ones do. He once took for granted that in a leadership contest MPs would choose him as one of the two candidates for a plebiscite of the membership; now few think that likely.

Too many colleagues have taken the Telegraph article as further proof of his inability to be a team player, and of his unfitness for higher office – which was why Gove dropped him last year. Referring to Johnson’s time as mayor of London, a colleague says: “He was a good chairman, when he had seven or eight deputy mayors. But he can’t do what a minister is supposed to do, which is to grasp a policy and deliver it.” Another highlights his skewed sense of priorities and the lack of a deft political touch. “Isn’t it astonishing that just as he should be sorting out all consular and diplomatic help for our people in the West Indies after the hurricane, he finds time to write a 4,000-word newspaper article? As usual, it’s not about what’s good for the country. It’s what he thinks is good for him.”

Yet, as Ken Clarke swiftly pointed out, Boris Johnson has shown that however much he annoys May, she is too damaged and vulnerable to sack him. When Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, started mocking him as a “back-seat driver”, May was seen to be presiding over a cabinet whose most senior members were squabbling. Johnson’s self-indulgence also meant that the expectation surrounding May’s Florence speech, already considerable as she struggled to rebuild her credibility and that of her Brexit policy, became even harder to satisfy. 

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left