Earlier this year my constituency was targeted by the English Defence League and other far right groups, who came to Hyde spreading their messages of hate.
They were widely condemned by community leaders and residents, who stood firm against them. But despite the abhorrence people felt, a not insignificant number of constituents also made the point to me that, as they saw it, groups like the EDL and BNP were at least willing to raise issues – like immigration – that mainstream parties were afraid to.
It reminded me of a conversation I had in the same town centre during the 2010 General Election, with a resident who told me how the arrival of skilled eastern European workers had reduced the hourly rate he earned on building sites as a bricklayer. He wanted his concerns about immigration to be listened to – and felt we weren’t willing to do so.
Yesterday Ed Miliband made a speech which showed he is prepared to take these issues head on.
We cannot be reluctant to discuss immigration for fear of being associated with or fuelling the arguments of the far right. We should recognise from the last decade that the opposite is the case – keeping quiet on an issue that matters to people only fuels disillusion with mainstream politics, and it is that which the far right will really exploit.
The approach Ed Miliband signalled yesterday is a new approach – acknowledging the very real benefits of immigration, but also recognising the costs it has caused some working people.
Talking about immigration and expressing concern about the impact of immigration does not make anyone a bigot – though too often too many people still assume it does.
We need to be able to consider issues related to immigration in the knowledge that our conversations will have nothing to do with the messages of hate peddled by the far right.
I am proud that for generations Britain has proved itself to be a welcoming country – for those fleeing persecution, those joining family members or those looking for the social or economic opportunities on offer here. Immigration has been central to the history of this country, and there are few of us who would not agree that Britain is a more successful and culturally richer place as a result.
But we also have to be clear that if we do not address the real, practical and economic concerns of working people – like my brick-laying constituent – we are letting them down.
That’s why Ed Miliband was right in his speech yesterday to have linked a consideration of immigration with changes to the economy.
With reports that some foreign workers are accepting wages that are below the usual rate – and in some cases below the National Minimum Wage – it is not surprising that UK workers in sectors like construction believe they are missing out.
But as well as impacting on the opportunities on offer to a local workforce, this ‘race to the bottom’ approach to business doesn’t protect foreign workers either.
Ed signalled a Labour Government would aim to protect workers by stricter enforcement of the minimum wage and a doubling of the fines for those found breaking it.
And – in recognition that it was a mistake not to impose transitional controls on accession from eastern European countries – when a new country joined the European Union we would limit the number of people who can come and work in the UK for seven years.
To identify problems with local skills shortages as soon as possible, we would also force medium and large employers to notify Jobcentre Plus once 25% or more of their workforce is comprised of foreign workers.
These practical measures indicate a new approach to the way Labour will approach the issues associated with immigration.
When it comes to immigration the UK has much to be proud of – but there are still issues that we need to address, and we must be confident enough to do so.
Jonathan Reynolds is the Member of Parliament for Stalybridge and Hyde and Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Ed Miliband MP.