It is almost four years ago to the day that Ed Miliband launched his campaign to be leader of the Labour Party. I was proud to support him back then because I believed – and still do – that he was the one person with the vision, strength and energy to do the impossible, and lead our party back into government within a single term. I sincerely believe that time will prove my belief right.
What gives me confidence is that Ed is someone who is prepared to acknowledge where Labour got things wrong and to change our approach. He understands that after 13 years in government, on some issues, we were just wrong – and there is no better example of that than on immigration.
My parents came here from Pakistan in the 1960s so I’m well placed to talk on the subject. They worked hard – my dad as a bus driver, my mum as a seamstress – paying their taxes, saving up to buy a home and seeing their children thrive, going to university and into successful and varied careers. Britain became their home, giving them a safe and prosperous community in which to live. Such an upbringing helped make it possible for me to to become the Member of Parliament for my boyhood home of Tooting.
Our story shows that in Britain, anything is possible. I believe that my family’s story shows that when managed properly, immigration can benefit everyone in our society. It benefits those coming here to try to build a better future for their families – and to give them the opportunities that my parents, my siblings and I have experienced in this country. It also benefits the rest of the country. My dad worked and contributed to our economy for more than 25 years. One of my brothers set up a thriving business that has created jobs and wealth. My other siblings have spent a lifetime supporting the public sector. In my case, I entered politics.
This is the way immigration should work at its best. However, I know that immigration is a big concern for many voters and I recognise that we – the Labour Party – are partly to blame for this. In the past, when people told us about their worries, we too often dismissed them – and, worse, some said that legitimate concerns were based on prejudice. We all remember Gillian Duffy. When people told us they were worried about the pace of change in their community, or about their wages being squeezed, we were too quick to say they were stuck in the past – that they needed to change their views, when in reality it was us that were stuck in our ways.
Under Ed Miliband’s leadership, things are different. We recognise that the public was right. It is no exaggeration to say that Ed has led Labour on a journey of change on immigration. It would have been all too easy to just carry on as we were – refusing to talk about immigration and hoping the issue went away. The path of least resistance. But Ed was right not to let that happen. By acknowledging where we went wrong and setting out a different approach, he has given us a route back into the national conversation on immigration.
We will never pander to those who say we can or should turn our backs on the world and pull up the drawbridge. That is not the Labour way and goes against the basic values of fairness and internationalism that are at the heart of our beliefs. Unlike other parties, we will not make promises that we can’t deliver, simply to curry favour. Instead, we are setting out practical solutions that will make a difference. That starts with the change we need to see within the EU.
As Ed and Douglas Alexander have said, we would negotiate longer controls for new countries, So that workers have to wait longer until they can come to work. We need to act on people’s sense of fairness. We will make it a priority to change the rules on child benefit and child tax credit, so that money doesn’t go to support kids who don’t live in this country. We also need to stop a race to the bottom between British citizens and workers coming here from abroad. Businesses in Britain like being able to hire people from across the EU. We support that right but it must not become a green light for undercutting wages.
So we will strengthen the law to crack down on employers not paying the minimum wage. We will stop recruitment agencies who hire exclusively from abroad, advertising jobs in foreign languages only. We will close loopholes that allow agency workers to be used as a way to undercut wages and conditions of permanent staff. And we want employers to train up and invest in the next generation. Under a Labour government, any company bringing in skilled workers from outside the EU, will have a legal duty to provide apprenticeships to the next generation.
It is important that people who do come move to our country integrate into our society, as my parents, siblings and I did in the 1960s. The English language should be a passport to a better job and a happier life. That’s why we would prioritise the learning of English, and have a new rule that anyone working face to face with the public in our NHS or local councils would have to be able to speak the language. It would benefit everyone – those immigrants who would find it easier to play a full role in our society and economy and also the rest of society.
Some people want to go further and say we should get out of the EU. There is real discontent in our country right now and immigration has become the symbol of that dissatisfaction. Ed has made it his mission as Labour leader to provide real answers to this discontent. Our openness, diversity and commitment to playing an active role in the world around us can help us build a more prosperous country. But this only works – and only benefits everyone – if we do it in a way that advances, and doesn’t hold back, people’s ability to build a better life for themselves and their families.