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16 December 2014

Labour’s real immigration problem lies neither in its policy proposals nor in its record

Ed Miliband is constantly talking about immigration; he just isn't making a strong enough case.

By Anthony Painter

Last week, Ed Miliband gave an excellent speech on the deficit, the national economic interest, and the social fabric of the nation. It succeeded because it began the process of simultaneously addressing a Labour party weakness and it also carved out some space for Labour to make an economic and fiscal case on its own terms. If the terms of engagement are not in your favour, you have to try to redefine them.

Where last week’s speech succeeded, today’s immigration speech wasn’t nearly so effective. Labour has just as small a chance of winning the anti-immigration mantle as winning the fiscal hawk mantle. Miliband knows this so he doesn’t try. That is sensible. However, what he failed to do today was prosecute a convincing alternative argument for Labour’s pragmatic position on immigration. The problem is not the policy; it’s the case that goes unmade.

Actually, the case for Labour’s position is very similar to the case made last week on a distinctive approach to the deficit and the economy – one that safeguards the nation’s social fabric. Far from the national interest being undermined by immigration, it is reliant on a certain level of immigration. To ensure that the national debt remains sustainable, our pensions system and NHS viable, and our economy expands, immigration is a necessity rather than a ‘problem’ as is presented blithely by the press, Ukip and certain wings of both parties.

The challenges arise from managing change. This means helping communities cope when there is rapid change, ensuring that our borders are managed efficiently, and providing protection for low wage workers whenever possible. People want a welfare system with an element of contribution so limiting access to it for a period aligns that with the underlying principles that will retain the system’s legitimacy. It does not mean immigration targets, cutting student visas, leaving the EU, or any other destructive policies that are suggested as a response to a great deal of anxiety about net migration.

Elements of this are sprinkled throughout Labour’s current suite of immigration policies and indeed throughout today’s speech but the over-arching case is made only tentatively. The evidence is that the vast majority of people are pragmatic and nuanced about immigration (see a recent British Future report for more background). Rather than changing the conversation or playing defensively in this terrain, Labour should instead seek to tie together elements of a bigger argument about our national future and interest.

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But at present it still seems a tad defensive and even frit. So it has a pledge card bullet on immigration which contains some tough language with a largely symbolic policy on confronting bad employers. What it lacks is a big argument behind it. We depend as a nation on a certain level of immigration. Our national fabric will be damaged without it.

This all sounds very ambitious but there is an alternative national future that could act as a warning. That is the Japanese trajectory: stagnation, mounting national debt, increasingly unaffordable support for pensioners, but relatively closed borders. It is difficult to see a good outcome for Japan. Its high savings rate provides a shield for now but it feels like a nation drifting towards some financial calamity that we can’t yet properly imagine.

Much of the liberal critique of Labour’s approach to immigration rests on the deployment of available academic evidence. This is fine as far as it goes: the evidence is of little negative and maybe even a positive effect on the employment and on wages of the non-migrant population. That won’t in itself clinch the argument and is in fact rather defensive anyway.

So what’s really required is a strong articulation of Labour’s case in positive terms. Immigration is necessary and desirable but it needs to be a managed migration system with any downsides acknowledged and mitigated. This argument will be more coherent. Labour is talking about immigration – constantly – but never quite in a way that forms a strong case. That is Labour’s immigration problem; not its policies or the past.