New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Spotlight on Policy
  2. Elections
9 September 2015updated 11 Sep 2015 4:34pm

How should Labour’s next leader talk about immigration?

Blairites and Corbynistas agree over immigration. The problem for both is that very few outside of Labour do. 

By Sunder Katwala

Labour’s long hot summer of conflict reaches the end of the beginning, at least, this weekend. The Corbynistas convinced they will retake the party’s soul after the left’s wilderness years, while the faction formerly known as the Blairites are bemused by their apparent reverse trajectory towards powerlessness in the party.
Over so many issues – the economy, whether Tony Blair is a war criminal, and where Labour might seek the votes it would need to win – it is often hard to see how these two groups could disagree more.  What few have noticed how the left and right of the party do have an unusual love-in on one issue – immigration.
The two groups have somewhat different motives for finding common cause on the issue. For the Labour right, the core question is ‘open versus closed’, so being pro-migration is part of a pro-globalisation agenda, with much emphasis placed on the net fiscal contribution of migrants, in the hope that myth-busting the idea that migrants take out more than they put in to the fiscal pot could win the immigration argument.  The Labour left’s primary motives are more social and cultural, linking a commitment to anti-discrimination causes at home with an internationalist and cosmopolitan worldview. 
Those are fine principles – but neither the right nor left of the Labour party has found a persuasive way to preach beyond the converted, and reach more anxious voters who are not already onside. 
The Labour right often suggests the left takes a ‘no compromise with the electorate’ approach, but may be equally unwilling to start from where the public are on this issue in seeking to make its case. The Labour left in particular ought to accept the challenge of combining its principled commitments to anti-discrimination with an ability to engage those working-class Labour supporters who feel ‘left behind’ and often both economically or culturally threatened by the scale and pace of immigration
The Corbyn leadership campaign has not given much priority to immigration, preferring to focus on its challenge to austerity. When immigration has come up in hustings debates, candidate Corbyn’s overall message has been that Labour should defend the positive cultural and economic contributions which migrants make to Britain.  The general message has been that immigration is not something to worry about and risks being a distraction from real issues, such as housing or cuts.
For example, asked about high levels of immigration, Corbyn told a Radio 5 hustings debate that “There is net immigration at the moment; in some years there’s net migration outwards.” That is rather like saying that “in some years, Leeds United compete to be the football champions of England”. That too would be an accurate description of the 1970s, was fleetingly again the case in the early 1990s, with very little chance of being true again at any time in the foreseeable future. The last year that the UK saw net migration outwards was almost a quarter of a century ago in 1993. Net outward migration was indeed the norm across the 1960s and 1970s but there have only been three examples of net outward migration (1988, 1992 and 1993) in the three decades since Jeremy Corbyn first became an MP in 1983. 
So the suggestion that immigration ebbs and flows – sometimes in and sometimes out – simply doesn’t reflect the real world. After recent changes, particularly the expansion of the European Union after 2004, there is no foreseeable prospect in the next decade of the UK experiencing some years of net emigration as well as net immigration, unless there is some enormous shift in economic conditions or migration policy.
But the political problem here is not really about getting those immigration facts wrong. It is that such an insouciant approach exacerbates the feeling among voters with concerns about immigration that they are being ignored. In a word, this approach says “denial”. It seems to confirm that politicians of the Left don’t want to acknowledge the increased scale or pace of immigration – and are just hoping to ignore the issue, changing the subject as quickly as possible to talk about something else. 
The Labour Left’s intuition often seems to be to acknowledge that people are worried about immigration, but to note that there has always been immigration over the generations, since Windrush and the Huguenots, though people worried about it then too. It is not clear where this ‘nothing much new to see’ thinking leads, beyond crossing our fingers, letting time take its course, and trusting we will make it work out again, as we have done before. 
A less passive approach to high immigration today could be more effective – and might get a hearing from a broader audience. 
The Labour left should certainly still reaffirm its commitment, through that longer history of immigration, to rejecting discrimination and prejudice.  The left should take confidence from the pressure to uphold Britain’s tradition of protecting refugees, which has seen the government shift in response to pro-immigration campaigning this week. It should also argue for practical and constructive responses to the pressures brought by high immigration, that engage migrants fully and fairly in British society; acknowledging that while this is not always easy it is more important than ever, precisely because immigration today is so high.  A thoughtful recent piece from Owen Jones, the public commentator closest to the Corbyn campaign, set out a number of ways in which the left could engage with public anxieties about immigration and identity without resiling from its own values
Crucially, this need not entail denying that immigration today might be different to the immigration of the past and may present new challenges. For a start, immigration levels are undeniably higher than they have ever been, making it important to manage the practical impacts effectively. Migration today is also more widely dispersed across the country than previously, so it is not only big cities that experience the latest waves of newcomers, as they have before, but some smaller towns which are experiencing significant levels of immigration for the first time. The mix of temporary and permanent migration from the EU, the Commonwealth and further afield is also more diverse than ever, meaning policymakers have to deal with the distinct challenges of economic migration within the EU and refugee flows from outside it at the same time. 
Accepting that rapid change presents important challenges could help the Labour Left stop worrying about immigration as a distraction from other issues, and instead see it as a crucial test of how values of solidarity and community can inform a response that is fair to both migrants and the communities they are joining. Crucially, it could also help Labour restart a conversation with former supporters who have felt left behind not just by the party but by the pace of change in modern Britain.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Content from our partners
An innovative approach to regional equity
ADHD in the criminal justice system: a case for change – with Takeda
The power of place in tackling climate change