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15 December 2014

People aren’t stupid: they recognise there are different kinds of immigration

Concern about immigration means different things in different parts of Britain. In Thurrock, it is rooted in the rapid and unrelenting change that globalisation has brought to the area.

By Polly Billington Polly Billington

Tilbury in Thurrock has a glorious history. It was once a place of defence, where Henry VIII built a fort to protect the realm, and Elizabeth I rallied the troops against the Spanish armada. More recently it has been a gateway to the world: a port built by mainly Irish immigrants where global trade thrives. It is where the Windrush docked and where cruise liners now drop off tourists bound for London.

Concern about immigration means different things in different parts of Britain. In my community it is rooted in the rapid and unrelenting change that globalisation has brought to the area. Not all of this change has been bad, but much of it has left too many people behind.

Thurrock’s dockers and retail workers have felt the brunt of casualization over the last few decades. They have seen secure jobs being replaced by agency work, decent pay and conditions disappear as relentless “restructuring” and “flexibility” eat into their ambitions for themselves and their families. This pace of change makes people who have fought hard for security anxious and fearful for the future. Suddenly modest expectations for a holiday, a car and a better life for your kids, have become harder to achieve.

At the local elections, many people in Thurrock chose to vote Ukip. Some were Labour voters who felt we had let them down on immigration. Those who look at the place they grew up and feel it has changed beyond recognition, who see local services under pressure, are asking understandable questions. Like, is it right that people who have lived somewhere all their lives are treated exactly the same as people who have just arrived?

People aren’t stupid. They recognise there are different kinds of immigration. They know there are people across the country whose livelihoods depend on UK businesses that need skilled people to come here to work. Our history is filled with examples of how people moving to this country have enriched and shaped the success of our islands. But that doesn’t mean immigration never causes problems, and we need to be ready to have a sensible conversation about how to make it work for the UK and address the real concerns people have.

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Labour is and always has been the party of decency for working people, and that means we need to be clear about the practical, achievable things we will do that will create opportunity and security. Holding the companies that exploit foreign workers and drive down wages to account, as Ed Miliband pledged to today, is one concrete way we can tackle the causes of people’s insecurity. It’s the kind of policy that can only come from talking with people in areas like Thurrock, and understanding their concerns.

Ukip is peddling simplistic answers that we should counter: not by spending our time factually correcting people, but by having a conversation based on hope. Ukip’s politics of despair is based on a zero-sum games of jobs, public services and homes – where the country doesn’t just freeze but turns the clock back. Or, depending who they are talking to, would introduce a flat tax rate for all, charge you for your GP, and abolish many of our hard-fought-for employment rights like paid holidays and maternity leave. More and better jobs, homes and quality public services is the right mantra that will build on our cost-of-living message and counter this despair. But we also need to show we “get it” when it comes to the disjuncture between the risks the world poses and way our current system protects people – or not.

My community has changed rapidly over the last 15 to 20 years or so, and the anxiety that can grow from that is being exploited by Ukip. Labour is and always has been the party of decency for working people, and right now that means connecting with people’s ambitions and concerns through practical, achievable things that will create opportunity and security.

This is an extract from the Labour PPC for Thurrock Polly Billington’s article in “Our Labour, Our Communities”, published by LabourList.