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

David Cameron addresses pupils at an assembly during a visit to Corby Technical School on September 2, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Can Cameron maintain his refugee stance as he comes under attack from all sides?

Tory MPs, the Sun, Labour and a growing section of the public are calling on the PM to end his refusal to take "more and more". 

The disparity between the traumatic images of drowned Syrian children and David Cameron's compassionless response ("I don't think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees") has triggered a political backlash. A petition calling for greater action (the UK has to date accepted around 5,000) has passed the 100,000 threshold required for the government to consider a debate after tens of thousands signed this morning. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has tweeted: "This is not an immigration issue, it's a humanitarian one, and the human response must be to help. If we don't, what does that make us?" Tory MPs such as Nicola Blackwood, David Burrowes, Jeremy Lefroy and Johnny Mercer have similarly appealed to Cameron to reverse his stance.

Today's Sun declares that the UK has "a proud record of taking in desperate people and we should not flinch from it now if it is beyond doubt that they have fled for their lives." Meanwhile, the Washington Post has published a derisive piece headlined "Britain takes in so few refugees from Syria they would fit on a subway train". Labour has called on Cameron to convene a meeting of Cobra to discuss the crisis and to request an emergency EU summit. Yvette Cooper, who led the way with a speech on Monday outlining how the UK could accept 10,000 refugees, is organising a meeting of councils, charities and faith groups to discuss Britain's response. Public opinion, which can turn remarkably quickly in response to harrowing images, is likely to have grown more sympathetic to the Syrians' plight. Indeed, a survey in March found that those who supported accepting refugees fleeing persecution outnumbered opponents by 47-24 per cent. 

The political question is whether this cumulative pressure will force Cameron to change his stance. He may not agree to match Cooper's demand of 10,000 (though Germany is poised to accept 800,000) but an increasing number at Westminster believe that he cannot remain impassive. Surely Cameron, who will not stand for election again, will not want this stain on his premiership? The UK's obstinacy is further antagonising Angela Merkel on whom his hopes of a successful EU renegotiation rest. If nothing else, Cameron should remember one of the laws of politics: the earlier a climbdown, the less painful it is. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.