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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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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