Listen to the pragmatic majority on immigration

immigrationBy Anthony Painter / @anthonypainter

“The centre cannot hold,” wrote William Butler Yeats:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Anyone observing or participating in discussions surrounding immigration will feel that Yeats had it about right. However, there is a quiet majority in the debate. And they are pragmatic.

Despite this fact the media and political classes seem determine to outbid each other on where to head next in a rhetorical Dutch auction. It is often asserted that there is a disjuncture between the realities of immigration and people’s fears. Actually, the real disparity is between the panicked response of a detached media-political nexus and the pragmatism of the majority.

While the Fear and Hope Report found that 60% of people do think that past immigration was ‘bad for the country’ that does not translate into a closed door mentality. A temporary freeze was supported by 16%. A further 18% were in favour of a permanent end to immigration. That leaves 61% of people who favour a managed immigration policy and 5% who favour the open-door approach. It’s not time for the mainstream to tether itself to UKIP or the BNP quite yet. And nor will it ever be if we are smart about it.

Maybe the public is a little wiser than their leaders? Essentially, immigration is very difficult to control absolutely without causing immense economic damage. Yet, our political leaders feel that they have to act in ever tougher ways. The latest policy response is the immigration cap. It won’t work. Even on the government’s own estimates net migration is likely to be 65,000 above the ‘tens of thousands’ that the government is aiming at by 2015.

So the government will basically stoke up mistrust and suspicion again. If there’s one thing worse than not sensibly managing immigration, it’s lying to people about it. Unless it gets very lucky that is the reality of the government’s position. The temptation for Labour will be to hammer the government on its policy failure. It is a temptation that even with the best will in the world it won’t be able to resist. The question is what it then does with the policy.

It has two options: the first is to go one further and the other is to be honest and practical in its response. The only way of going further is to pretty much discontinue non-EU migration and potentially leave the EU also. Politically as we’ve discovered this week, that just isn’t a viable option for a Labour Party. Moreover, it’s madness. Like it or not we are part of a European economy and our economic future depends on it. We could go for socialism in one country. We could rename London Pyongyang West also. And remember, just because we’re out doesn’t mean we won’t have to apply EU regulations. We’ll just no longer have any say over them.

The other path is the honesty and pragmatism approach. Labour would say that we should revert to the point-based immigration system which issues visas to non-EU migrants in accordance with skills needs. Not only that, we should welcome highly qualified people who add economic value and contribute to our society with open arms. The UK should encourage them stay and make music, do research, set up businesses, and trade from our shores.

Then Labour should acknowledge the potential downsides from immigration. Research suggests that there are in general small downward pressures on average wages at the low end of the income scale. Sometimes these pressures can be quite concentrated. The minimum wage was one way of confronting this. In addition, localised living wages should be gradually introduced with care to assess the impact on employment as they are. Further action should be taken to prevent the worst employers outcompeting the best through inferior conditions of work and casualisation. Temporary work must be a particular focus. And Ed Balls made some sensible suggestions last summer about reforms to the Free Movement Directive to prevent benefits and tax credits received in the UK being repatriated to other European countries.

Politically, Labour would then need to find a language to articulate that the economy is not a static thing. There isn’t a set amount of jobs to go round. When someone is employed they become a consumer as well and so economic growth is multiplied. Unemployment comes from insufficient demand, technological change, international competition, lack of skills, or lack of mobility in the main. The two regions with the highest net inward migration – London and South East with a third of the total – had the lowest increase in unemployment during the course of the recession. Net immigration to an area is often a sign of economic buoyancy rather than the reverse. Nonetheless, there are real strains which do need to be acknowledged.

There are also social pressures. When a local population changes rapidly – ie in less than a ten-year timeframe given census timescales – there is pressure on resources. We need smarter population change estimates that instantly trigger more investment in local services where large changes have occurred. Moreover, in acute situations we need community level responses. These will be different in each area but will require resourcing from central government budgets. And while I don’t think that this is something that should ever be legislated upon, it does seem sensible for local employers to think about the long term health of the local community in which they operate just as government has a responsibility to seriously invest in the nation’s skill-base.

Finally, there is the urgent issue of housing. It is frankly irresponsible for us as a nation not to have increased our stock of housing. This is not just to do with immigration at all and housing need should never be reduced to a conversation simply about immigration. If it is then the necessary houses are even less likely to be built.

Between 1981 and 2008 the number of single person households increased by 73% from 4.3million to 7.5million. Presumably we should force people to marry, cohabit, or stop getting old in the way we should close our borders? No? Well, then let’s get on with some serious sustainable house-building.

So that’s a five point plan: honesty about the benefits and costs of immigration and of stopping immigration; sensible managed migration; legal changes at domestic and European level to ensure fairness and a level playing field; responsive national and local government; and a major house-building programme.

One final point needs to be made. There is often an argument made that diversity and common citizenship are inversely related. The strange thing is that we have more in common than those things that separate us. Perhaps we should start talking about those things we have in common – family, aspiration, anxiety, hope, love of this country, desire for freedom, and need to belong – rather than forever over-emphasising the differences.

The Labour movement was one means by which that was achieved. Churches were another. Large workplaces were also fundamental. None of these things can realistically fulfil that role in the twenty-first century. We need to seriously consider what our immediate, binding institutions are for the twenty-first century. No-one claimed this was easy.

Open door immigration is non-starter not only for political reasons but for economic and social reasons too. Closed door immigration is a realistic option. It is also in all probability politically toxic, economically insane, and socially divisive. Luckily, the pragmatic majority have a great deal more sense. Let’s treat them with respect and be honest about immigration. They deserve better than the dishonest politics and policy that they are offered. The centre can hold. But only if it is more determined and passionate than the extremes.

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