By Ben Cobley
Immigration is a touchy subject in Britain, and especially on the liberal-left. Ed Miliband admitted in his recent conference speech that it had been an important issue in the general election – and we only have to remember Gillian Duffy to see how Labour had lost touch with ordinary folk. Nevertheless many people on the liberal-left remain in denial about it, struggling to reconcile strong internationalist and anti-racist instincts with the increased levels of migration that have come with globalisation and global population growth.
The liberal-left and Britain as a whole has much to be proud of for its record of accepting and integrating refugees and immigrants, albeit with a few bumps along the road. But it is now time for the language to change to one in which, as Ed’s brother David said during Labour’s leadership hustings, immigration as an issue is decoupled from race. It is time to recognise that Britain has moved on to a place where concerns about immigration cross all racial and religious divides.
What I am proposing here is a new lens through which to appraise the issue of immigration in Britain today, one that goes back to the basics of who and what we are, as a democratic society above anything else. The language of democracy is useful in many ways, not least because it is about connecting citizens to those that govern them. It can also help assuage those concerned about stricter immigration policies, because democracy as a concept is inherently anti-racist – everyone has an equal vote and equal rights, whatever race, creed or religion they are.
But the language of democracy is not just a soft, furry, friendly creature in which to wrap ourselves. It is also a hard instrument which emphasises the mutual bond between government and the citizen – but to the exclusion of outsiders. If democracy is to mean anything it means governments working for the sake of their citizens first and foremost.
Over the years such essential attributes of the democratic system of government have been tempered and downplayed in Britain, with fears of a sort of majority mob rule perhaps the most compelling of excuses. But the result has been a dilution of democratic engagement, exacerbated by increasing complexity in the world and the influence of powerful vested interests. Now, less than a hundred years after women and many working class men first got the vote, many people can barely bother wondering down to their polling station once every few years. People feel they have lost control and their vote does not really matter, and to a large extent they are right.
An adherence to democratic values means bringing back some sense of control to the people, and with immigration now coming up consistently as one of the biggest concerns in Britain, it is wholly right that our government should look to impose stricter controls. To say otherwise is to deny the will of the people and to undermine the whole idea of democratic government. Also, such a standpoint is not inconsistent with the internationalist values of the liberal left, as long as we apply these values equally to other countries as to our own. Just as we expect the government we elect to represent us as an electorate, so should foreign citizens expect the same from the people that govern them. Whether elected or not, governments should be seen as having a basic duty of care in return for the obedience they expect of their citizens.
But how to impose stricter controls back here in Britain? I believe it is not helpful to talk about being “tough” on immigration. Such an approach can demonise immigrants and asylum seekers in a way that is not acceptable in a civilised society. What I propose comes back to the democratic argument that governments are responsible to their citizens, with this point applying as much to foreign governments as ours. For example an asylum seeker arriving on our shores is a citizen of another country, and we should be clear that the responsibility for them still lies with that country’s government more than Britain’s, even if we do not return them because of fear of persecution.
As a solution of how to recognise that responsibility, I propose integrating immigration policy closely with foreign policy so that foreign governments are charged for the amount of asylum seekers coming here from their countries. If a government refused to pay the costs for processing asylum seekers, we should impose a charge on visitors’ visas from that country and publish the information publicly to show the justification for any charges in a transparent fashion.
This basic approach may seem harsh, and in a way it is. However it would be clear and recast the responsibility for human rights abuses to the countries where they take place, highlighting the connection between governing and governed in those countries and providing financial and reputational incentives for people and governments to force change.
Britain is in a good position to do this as a destination of choice for rich foreigners as well as poorer immigrants. My instinct is that the wishes of the rich and influential to travel freely (especially to such a world hub as London) without the humiliation of being charged extra on arrival would force governments and their citizens to confront an issue they are maybe not so bothered about presently. At present some countries refuse to accept rejected asylum seekers by denying any knowledge of them, which is completely unacceptable and needs to be challenged.
But there is a larger issue beyond that of asylum seekers, which is that of economic migration. The debate here is more complicated and the vested interests are more pronounced, as Vince Cable exposed recently when telling of the complaints his department has had about the new government’s interim cap on skilled migration.
On this issue I would side with the government’s general direction if not specific policy, for it is their prerogative to impose a restriction according to what they think are the people’s wishes. The debate once more goes back to one of democracy. Businesses may protest at a lack of skills in the UK, but they have a whole European single market in which to recruit employees, and if they cannot find someone suitable they can surely train somebody to do a job.
Business’s motivation, understandably, is to reduce costs to a minimum and maximise profits, and if they can get something for nothing they will. Recruiting cheaper labour from India for example may be cost-effective for business but it is not necessarily beneficial to Britain or even to India. In Britain immigrant workers may pay taxes and spend money, but they also put extra pressure on housing and public services, and also sometimes bring the particular problems of their country of their origin with them.
For the liberal-left and the Labour Party in particular, there is a wider issue here in formulating a response to the Conservatives’ Big Society concept, which is after all focused on local community. For the sake of social cohesion in Britain, India and around the rest of the world, it is surely better that most people stay in their local communities rather than moving around all the time. When people move to another country, they quite understandably tend to seek out and stick with people from their home countries. That makes for the sort of communities embodied in the phrase “multiculturalism”, but not the sort of community of geographic area which is the sort that we need to foster. We have already had large amounts of immigration, and our focus should be on integrating those people that have already come rather than disembodying local communities even more than they have already been. Large-scale modern day immigration is largely a by-product of globalised capitalism, and one to which democratic values offer a powerful antidote, but without the racist connotations that have largely defined the debate between Right and Left so far.