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.

Felipe Araujo
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Manchester's Muslim community under siege: "We are part of the fabric of this nation"

As the investigation into last week's bombing continues, familiar media narratives about Islam conflict with the city's support for its Muslim population.

“You guys only come when something like this happens,” said one of the worshippers at Manchester's Victoria Park Mosque, visibly annoyed at the unusual commotion. Four days after the attack that killed 22 people, this congregation, along with many others around the city, is under a microscope.

During Friday prayers, some of the world’s media came looking for answers. On the eve of Ramadan, the dark shadow of terrorism looms large over most mosques in Manchester and beyond.

“People who do this kind of thing are no Muslims,” one man tells me.

It’s a routine that has become all too familiar to mosque goers in the immediate aftermath of a major terror attack. In spite of reassurances from authorities and the government, Muslims in this city of 600,000 feel under siege. 

“The media likes to portray us as an add-on, an addition to society,” Imam Irfan Christi tells me. “I would like to remind people that in World War I and World War II Muslims fought for this nation. We are part of the fabric of this great nation that we are.”

On Wednesday, soon after it was revealed the perpetrator of last Monday’s attack, Salman Ramadan Abedi, worshipped at the Manchester Islamic Centre in the affluent area of Didsbury, the centre was under police guard, with very few people allowed in. Outside, with the media was impatiently waiting, a young man was giving interviews to whoever was interested.

“Tell me, what is the difference between a British plane dropping bombs on a school in Syria and a young man going into a concert and blowing himself up,” he asked rhetorically. “Do you support terrorists, then?” one female reporter retorted. 

When mosque officials finally came out, they read from a written statement. No questions were allowed. 

“Some media reports have reported that the bomber worked at the Manchester Islamic Centre. This is not true,” said the director of the centre’s trustees, Mohammad el-Khayat. “We express concern that a very small section of the media are manufacturing stories.”

Annoyed by the lack of information and under pressure from pushy editors, eager for a sexy headline, the desperation on the reporters’ faces was visible. They wanted something, from anyone, who had  even if a flimsy connection to the local Muslim community or the mosque. 

Two of them turned to me. With curly hair and black skin, in their heads I was the perfect fit for what a Muslim was supposed to look like.

"Excuse me, mate, are you from the mosque, can I ask you a couple of questions,” they asked. “What about?,” I said. "Well, you are a Muslim, right?" I laughed. The reporter walked away.

At the Victoria Park Mosque on Friday, Imam Christi dedicated a large portion of his sermon condemning last Monday’s tragedy. But he was also forced to once again defend his religion and its followers, saying Islam is about peace and that nowhere in the Koran it says Muslims should pursue jihad.

“The Koran has come to cure people. It has come to guide people. It has come to give harmony in society,” he said. “And yet that same Koran is being described as blood thirsty? Yet that same Koran is being abused to justify terror and violence. Who de we take our Islam from?”

In spite of opening its doors to the world’s media, mosques in Britain’s major cities know they can do very little to change a narrative they believe discriminates against Muslims. They seem to feel that the very presence of reporters in these places every time a terror attack happens reveals an agenda.

Despite this, on the streets of Manchester it has proved difficult to find anyone who had a bad thing to say about Islam and the city’s Muslim community. Messages of unity were visible all over town. One taxi driver, a white working-class British man, warned me to not believe anything I read in the media.

“Half of my friends are British Muslims,” he said even before asked. “ These people that say Islam is about terrorism have no idea what they are talking about.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

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