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23 December 2016

If the left doesn’t seek to control immigration it will be ignored

Populists must be denied the audience they relish.

By John Denham

All populists claim to speak for the people who are being ignored. Labour’s battle lines on immigration were re-drawn again this week, but with too little thought about minimising the populist appeal.

Hilary Benn and Andy Burnham both insist on curbing free movement. As Yvette Cooper takes her Select Committee out on tour, she won’t be expecting to hear many calls for open borders.  But sensible and realistic though this may be, it won’t be enough to convince voters Labour has listened. Their worries are not just about numbers, but very fundamental questions of values and what is meant by fairness.

Most people who worry about immigration don’t see themselves as racist, even if that’s how Labour’s leadership sees them. But many do see the issues as the rights of one group over another.  The worry is that newcomers unfairly pre-empt existing rights and the established order, particularly when it is believed that migrants enjoy greater rights than the settled.

Donald Trump gained strong support from white voters who felt they faced serious discrimination. The English Citizenship Survey was scrapped in 2010, but even then over a fifth of white residents believed public services would treat other races better. Indeed, asian voters were less likely than white to feel they would face discrimination. Unless the left can turn this around, promising controls on migration – however necessary – won’t reduce the appeal of the populist right.

White people rarely if ever face discrimination because of their skin colour.  But listen more carefully and we can hear the drip drip of issues that make poorer white communities feel they are at the bottom. New school students may require language support apparently at the expense of resources for other children. Homeless families get priority so it is possible to get social housing before a local who has waited longer than the newcomer has been in the country. The self-employed tradesman injured at work won’t get benefits when a migrant may. Yes they may not have paid full stamps and have too much in the bank, but it still doesn’t feel right. Polish shops serve a community that is prospering while another longer has the numbers of money to keep shops and pubs alive. And, as Rachel Burgin wrote recently: “The current diversity narrative lacks reciprocity. Diverse means African, Indian, Japanese, Middle Eastern. But it doesn’t mean Cumbrian.”

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From a myriad small personal experiences (spread through the megaphone of lurid story-telling) that the belief grows that “we get nothing” while “they get everything done for them”. These are conversations about a clash of values. Systems designed to treat everyone the same create a sense of unfairness for the disadvantaged. The populist right spots these chinks in the armour of social solidarity; they insert the knife of “no one is listening”  and twist it until they can tear communities apart.

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If the left doesn’t engage with ways of controlling immigration it will be ignored. But unless it also engages the underlying arguments about fairness the door will still be open to the populists. It’s the only way to make it clear that politicians are having the same debate about everyone else. That will be hard for any part of the left that believes its values are morally superior to those of the wider public. The anger of popular prejudice can induce fears of what the public might say if asked. But these fears are profoundly misplaced.

Much anger stems from being shut out of the discussion, not from the belief that the answers are simple. No one thinks illegal migrants should be left in the street to die of a heart attack. People readily accept that children can’t be held responsible for their parents, and that its not easy to balance the competing claims of the homeless with the long waiting list. Most people don’t think EU migrants should be thrown out, even if they didn’t welcome them here in the first place. As an MP I held many discussions which started with anger and ended with a balanced, nuanced discussion that would have graced any university philosophy seminar.

A constructive national and local debate would address four related themes. In one part it should be rebuilding a contributory approach to welfare, so that paying in over time does bring enhanced rights. In a second, if the UK does re-gain some control over immigration policy it would deliver a transparent and staged process through which new migrants earned full access to the welfare system in turn for contribution. The third part would thrash out the common minimum standards that civilised, humane, proud country wants to guarantee to every single person here. And finally, it could change the way public policy is delivered. Top of this list means regular publication of national and local population projections, showing how growing need would be met and managed. If high speed rail and airports can be planned 30 years ahead, schools and housing can be too.

If we were brave enough to take on this debate, few people would feel they weren’t being listened to. No principled ground would be conceded by the constructive left but the populists would be denied their audience.