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.