Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Business
  2. Economics
13 June 2016

Stop talking about the “tough questions“ on immigration. The question is easy

Either you accept the costs of Brexit and absolute border control or you find a way to win support for immigration. It's not hard. 

By Stephen Bush

Immigration is the stuck record of British politics, and Labour politics in particular. The issue has become to Labour what a trip to Stamford Bridge has to Arsenal: different tactics, different players, but the result – defeat – never changes.

When, shortly after Tony Blair’s third election victory, the Fabian Society began polling the voters who had left the party between the 2001 and 2005 elections, many expected that Iraq or tuition fees would loom large among the reasons given for giving up on Labour. Instead, immigration was the biggie.

That was the motor behind Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” riff shortly after he became Labour leader, behind Ed Miliband’s promise to “bear down” on immigration and those “controls on immigration” mugs. In its post-Blair, pre-Corbyn incarnation, Labour managed to locate the political equivalent of the “uncanny valley” – the point in which robots become lifelike enough to unnerve people but not enough to reassure them – appearing to be at once intensely relaxed about immigration to voters who wanted tougher border control and racist to those voters who thought that immigration was a good thing.

For most of its history, Labour has been able to rely on securing majorities of the vote from people who are in poverty and people who are concerned about poverty, usually enough to get around a third of the vote and around 250 seats in the House of Commons. The difficulty is that those two cores – both of which are essential to a Labour triumph – cannot agree over the immigration question.

As I’ve written before, the question of how the party reconciles its two cores may well be one beyond any politician, with potentially catastrophic consequences for Labour’s ability to govern again. Now Labour’s immigration problem has taken on epochal significance, thanks to its potential to send Britain crashing out of the European Union if enough of the party’s voters decide that greater control of Britain’s borders is worth the economic harm.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Regardless of the outcome, Labour has a devil of a time reconciling its two core votes – a subject on which MPs, commentators and think-tankers talk about “hard questions”, “addressing concerns”, “tough answers” but actually Labour’s problem comes down to one very easy question: are you for being part of the European Union, or not?

Content from our partners
How automation can help telecoms companies unlock their growth potential
The pandemic has had a scarring effect on loneliness, but we can do better
Feel confident gifting tech to your children this Christmas

Outside of the European Union, Britain already has an “Australian style points system”. The country’s borders have been tightened to the point that students, engineers, academics and doctors are being turned away – the only types of immigration that command any widespread popular support. So Labour has two options as far as “tackling voters’ concerns” are concerned. It can decide that recession, a closed border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, rising food prices, crippled financial services industry, permanently slowed growth are a price worth paying for the right to have slightly fewer Poles in the service industry.  (These may not be the repercussions of a Brexit from the European Union to the EEA or a Swiss-style set of multiple treaties, but would be the inevitable consequence of a Leave vote that saw genuine border control as its absolute end, the approach championed by Ukip and Vote Leave.)

Or it can decide that, whether inside the European Union or in the Swiss-Norwegian model, not having full control of your own borders is a price you pay for entry to the single market. That leaves the not inconsiderable question of how to win power under first-past-the-post on that basis.

Now, that’s not an easy question – but it does have the benefit of being a real one, rather than another decade of talking about talking about talking about immigration.