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