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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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.