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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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