As Labour seeks to elaborate its ‘One Nation’ approach to policy and politics, immigration raises a number of difficult questions. For many people, the UK’s public, political, and policy debate about immigration epitomises the precise opposite of ‘one nation’ – polarised, divisive, elitist, unfair, and perhaps even bigoted.
From one side of the debate, some will argue that tough immigration policy fails the ‘one nation’ test because it is founded on the principle of discriminating according to nationality. Others will suggest that ‘tough talk’ on immigration undermines ‘one nation’ by emphasising what divides rather than what unites.
From the other side of the debate, some will assert that the diversity and change created by immigration undermines the very notion of ‘one nation’. Still others will say that a liberal immigration policy benefits the strong at the expense of the weak, and fails the ‘one nation’ test by increasing inequality.
All of these views are represented within the Labour Party, and many voters felt that the party failed on immigration in government, which makes this particularly challenging terrain for Labour. The current government is demonstrating that a simplistic approach based on a particular level of migration cannot work in practice. So, what direction should Labour take?
First, immigration policy must go hand in hand with a clear strategy to celebrate, support, and create integrated and cohesive communities. Some of this is about immigration policy – recognising that if migration flows increase too rapidly (locally or nationally) communities can come under strain, making sure that the immigration system requires migrants to learn English and ‘play by the rules’, etc. But other policies (housing, support for community institutions, education, etc.) are in all likelihood much more important to the task of creating communities that are resilient, open and welcoming. Crucially, although immigration is often seen as the ultimate national policy issue, and questions of national identity are important, communities are local, and so must many of the solutions be.
It is also important to note that the challenge of integration and community cannot just be answered with policy. Politics and narrative have real impacts on the way we understand our nation, our neighbours and ourselves. On matters of identity and culture, what politicians say matters as much as what they do.
Second, Labour’s immigration policy should be founded on fairness. At the most basic level, fairness requires that migration policy be based on respect for human rights, due process and the rule of law; and that discrimination and racism are countered wherever they are found. But it also means that politicians and policymakers need to measure, acknowledge and respond to the distributional impacts of migration. Again, this might be about immigration policy (recognising that rapid immigration can have impacts on wages, at least in the short term, for example); but it is also about the broader frameworks of policy that ensure that people are treated fairly, and which seek to promote equality (Ed Miliband was right to address issues such as minimum wage enforcement when he spoke about immigration in the summer).
Fairness is different from equality, although the two are clearly related, in that it is defined not just by objective measures, but by normative frameworks (as a community or a society we define fairness through our attitudes, much more than we define equality). For immigration policy to be fair, it has to be clear that one group is not enjoying an unfair advantage, and that the system is not delivering ‘something for nothing’. That means tackling difficult questions about reciprocity and contribution (for everyone, not just migrants) in our welfare system and public services, and communicating clear decisions to the public.
An immigration policy that delivered fairness and integrated and cohesive communities could garner mainstream support. This is essential not just for parties seeking to win elections, but because the current debate often leads to bad policy, and sometimes leads to very ugly extremist politics.
So Labour’s immigration policy must be backed up by a political approach to the issue that seeks to build consensus. That obviously means rejecting tactics of divide and rule (and the dog whistle), but it also means understanding (if not always accepting) public concern and anger about immigration, as well as the anxieties of migrant and minority communities. It means being honest about the limitations of policy, and not making promises you can’t keep. Most difficult of all, it means being open and transparent about the trade offs that must be made.
Sarah Mulley is Associate Director for Migration, Integration and Communities at IPPR
This piece forms part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList