Migrants check a truck heading to England in the port of Calais, 24 September. Photo: Getty
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Leader: Labour and the truth about immigration

Politicians should listen to the public mood but not be constrained by it. It should not be irreconcilable to address immigration’s problems while making a positive case for it.

In 2007, Gordon Brown, shortly after becoming prime minister, used his leader’s speech at the Labour party conference in Bournemouth to pledge the creation of “British jobs for British workers”. The absurd remark was emblematic of Labour’s confused approach to immigration, which continues into the present.

The tensions in the party remain unresolved: one reason why Ed Miliband was so negligent in failing to mention immigration, as well as the deficit, in his conference speech in Manchester. After Labour came close to losing to the UK Independence Party in the Heywood and Middleton by-election, Jack Straw, Simon Danczuk and John Mann, three respected party figures, were among those to articulate concerns about Labour’s approach to immigration. The subtext was that the party was too soft on the issue and did not understand the anxieties fuelling the Ukip insurgency.

It would be foolish to deny that immigration from within the European Union and outside it brings pressures on housing, schools, maternity units and other public services. It presents challenges to social cohesion and fuels people’s insecurities. It would be foolish, too, to deny that there are abuses of the immigration system. One problem concerns the government’s use of companies such as Serco, the security firm contracted to manage and house asylum seekers in parts of the country with low housing costs, creating conflict in struggling communities.

Politicians should listen to the public mood but not be constrained by it. It should not be irreconcilable to address immigration’s problems while making a positive case for it. Immigration has, on the whole, been a force for good. Studies have repeatedly shown that immigrants bring in more than they take out, as well as contributing to the vibrancy, diversity and cultural richness of Britain, the demographic composition of which reflects our astonishing imperial history.

The problem with the UK not imposing the so-called transition controls on new EU members in 2004 was not with those who migrated from Poland and elsewhere but with the absence of planning for it. Labour had estimated that 13,000 would arrive in Britain from Poland; in the event, more than a million arrived. On this, Labour was culpable of spectacular bureaucratic incompetence for which, among other failures, it was punished in the 2010 general election.

Mr Miliband understands this. Under his leadership, Labour has evolved a more nuanced immigration policy. It has pledged to scrap the Conservatives’ net migration target that has so angered business and the universities. It has pledged tougher regulation of the labour market, to raise and enforce the minimum wage and so prevent foreign workers from illegally undercutting British workers. Recruitment agencies would be banned from advertising only for foreign workers. Accompanying this would be a reassertion of the contributory principle in welfare and a requirement for migrants to learn English.

Yet if Mr Miliband has such an admirable vision, it is one that has too seldom been articulated. The substance of policies matters little while Labour is failing to challenge myths about immigration. An Ipsos MORI poll last year found that the public believes that immigrants account for 31 per cent of the population; the actual figure is 13 per cent.

The notion that Britain can “clamp down” on immigration is a fallacy. Labour should level with the voters. Open borders are a consequence of our membership not just of the EU but of the modern economy. Retaining complete control of Britain’s borders is impossible without leaving the EU, as Ukip and many Conservative MPs would wish. Pretending otherwise is more than just disingenuous. It is exactly the kind of claim that has contributed to the collapse of trust in the Westminster elite.

Ultimately there are sound political reasons for Labour to make the humane, pro-immigration case, as Tony Blair used to do. The party will never be believed – nor should it be – if it attempts to mimic Farageist populism. Posturing such as this serves only to shift the debate on immigration to the right, further legitimising Ukip, the voice of dismal, small-minded English reaction. 

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

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The “lunatic” incident showed us the real Owen Smith: and it ain't pretty

Forget the slur - what really matters is what it says about his empty promises, says David Wearing. 

Owen Smith has embarrassed himself again. Having previously called for Labour to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”, advocated negotiations with ISIS, and described himself as “normal” with “a wife and three children” while competing with a gay woman to stand for the Labour leadership, you might expect him to have learnt the value of expressing himself more carefully. But no. Not a bit of it.

At a rally on Tuesday evening, Smith described Jeremy Corbyn as a “lunatic” with no “coherent narrative about what’s wrong with Britain”. It’s an interesting choice of words from someone who needs to win over tens of thousands of Corbyn’s supporters if he is to avoid a crushing defeat in this summer’s Labour leadership election. Indeed, we may look back on this as the final nail in the coffin of Smith’s campaign.

Let’s be honest. Most of us at some stage have used casual language like this (“lunatic”, “insane”), to describe those whose rationality we don’t share or understand. I’ll admit to having done so myself. But it is wrong. It perpetuates a stigma around mental illness and damages peoples’ chances of getting the care and support they need from society. We should all cut it out, especially those of us who aspire to high public office.

Beyond this, however, Smith has driven a coach and horses through the central premise of his own campaign. Throughout the summer he has presented himself as substantively agreeing with Corbyn on almost all domestic and economic issues, and only seeking to pursue that agenda more effectively and professionally. He has set out a range of policies - including a £200bn “British New Deal”, workplace rights and more redistributive taxation - that constitute an overt appeal to the social democratic, progressive values of the hundreds of thousands who joined the party to support Corbyn and secure a clean break with the neoliberalism of New Labour.

But it is simply not credible to simultaneously say “I agree with Jeremy” and that Jeremy is a “lunatic”. No one uses the word "lunatic" to describe someone whose politics they basically share. No one says “your diagnosis of the country’s ills is incoherent, and that’s the substantive agenda I want to take forward”. Smith’s remarks indicate that, deep down, he shares the incredulity expressed by so many of his colleagues that anyone would want to abandon the Thatcher-Blair-Cameron “centre ground” of deregulation, privatisation, corporate-empowerment and widening inequality. After all, Corbyn’s narrative only appears incoherent to those who regard the post-1979 status quo as self-evidently the best of all possible worlds - give or take a few policy tweaks - rather than the very essence of “what’s wrong with Britain”.

This incident will confirm the suspicion of many Labour members that, if he did win the leadership, Smith would dilute or ditch most of the policies he has used to try and win their votes. Those fears are well founded. Take as one illustrative example the issue of immigration, where Smith has shown one face to the party while suggesting that he would show quite another to the country, as party leader.

At leadership hustings, Smith presents an enlightened, pro-immigration, anti-xenophobic stance, but in a Newsnight interview last month we saw something rather different.  When asked if there were “too many immigrants” in the UK, he replied that “it depends where you are”, giving official comfort to the post-Brexit “pack your bags” brigade. He asserted that EU migration “definitely caused downward pressure on wages” despite academic studies having repeatedly shown that this is false, and that EU migration is of clear overall benefit to the economy.

Then, calling for an “honest” discussion on immigration, Smith noted that his wife is a school teacher and that schools in their local area are under pressure from “significant numbers into South Wales of people fleeing the Middle East”. In fact, a grand total of 78 people have been resettled in the whole of Wales under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. In the local authority encompassing Smith’s constituency of Pontypridd, the total number is zero.

This suggests, not someone who shares members’ values, but one who probably regards the leader’s pro-immigration stance as “lunatic”, and would prefer a return to the days when Labour erected the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention camp, rejected the vast majority of asylum applications from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and when Tom Watson put out an election leaflet reading “Labour is on your side, the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum seekers”.

Smith’s problem is that his mask keeps slipping. And every time it does, the choice before Labour members comes into sharper focus. On the one hand, they have a man who lacks many of the managerial and communication skills for party leadership, but who shares their values and who they can trust to fight for their agenda until a credible successor can be found. Against him stands a man they may not be able to trust, who may not share their values, and whose claims of professional competence grow more threadbare by the day. It’s a poor choice to be faced with, but Smith is at least making it easier for them.