Let’s get Labour’s immigration debate back on track. Is it really true that a liberal approach to immigration is a core founding value of our party? That anyone with a different view is a ‘milk and water Farage‘? Much that has recently been written owes nothing to Labour history, policy or values, and could cost us more than one election. So let’s get a few facts straight:
1. Labour actually does believe in controlling who comes here and why, and we did so in government. Previous Labour governments acted – despite protests from liberals – to minimise the number of former Empire citizens who could come here. Even though the Blair government was accused of an ‘open door policy, that’s not what we did. We reduced the number of unjustified asylum seekers by making the system tighter. We began the requirements on spouses to learn English that the current government has implemented. We didn’t plan for a million Poles to come here – that was a mistake, and if we had known we would have stopped it. Above all, we blocked low skilled migration from outside the EU, and introduced much tougher tests for other potential migrants. We did this to restrict access to our labour market and reduce costs to public spending. There is nothing in Labour history, values or traditions that require us to be in favour, in principle, of unlimited immigration.
2. Many of the EU citizens who are entitled to come here are people we would reject if they came from anywhere else. That is the logic of our own points based migration system. Free movement has advantages and disadvantages. Labour’s view is that the advantages, including for our own people, outweigh the disadvantages. UKIP says the opposite. That’s an honourable difference for us to argue. It does not mean we have to pretend we’d actually like them all to come here, or that this is a point of absolute principle we have to defend. Nor does it mean we can’t campaign for radical changes to the current free movement system.
3. If voters ask good questions, ignoring them is not a wise political strategy. With migrants needing homes, it is reasonable to ask what this means for housing supply. A sharp increase in local population does put more pressure on public services. It’s reasonable to ask whether resources would go further without these pressures. A flexible mobile workforce encourages employers to switch to agency work offering worse working conditions. Isn’t it reasonable to ask if this is in voters’ interest? Let’s acknowledge these issues and say how we will deal with them. Labour is the party that believes that the state should plan for the future. Let’s rise to the challenge.
4. For the foreseeable future, it would be better if fewer EU migrants came here. That way we can create a more balanced labour market and reduce future pressures on services and housing. So we should work actively to reduce the number of EU migrants coming to the UK, and move closer to the relationship we have with the rest of the world. Of course, that is exactly what current policies – clamping down on dodgy agencies, enforcing minimum wage, requiring apprenticeships, tackling unregulated housing – are designed to do. But we are so politically correct we cannot admit that’s the aim, even though that’s exactly what most of our voters want to hear.
5.There are lots of non-racist reasons to worry about migration. Some UKIP voters are racist. Accept that. Worry about all the other ones. Particularly the ones with Labour values. People who always believed that, if there was housing shortage, we should all pay in so that the government or council could provide affordable homes. People who believe that health services are best provided if we all pay in so its there when we need it. But these same people are not so sure about paying when they are paying to give newcomers services they have not yet substantially paid for, which our voters would not receive if they went abroad . That’s about fairness and Labour’s nearly forgotten contributory principle, not racism.
It is only human to feel concern about the pace of change in communities. Many middle class ‘progressives’ once lionised working class mining communities for their solidarity, strength and identity. Many other working class communities – and an increasing number of aspirational and middle class communities -also feel their economies and communities have changed much faster, and in much more bewildering ways, than they can easily be asked to cope with. People have voted Labour because the labour movement tried to make their lives and communities better in the face of more powerful forces that they could not control alone. We couldn’t always do it. But they knew whose side we were on. And this isn’t just about white working class communities. Established minority communities often feel pretty much the same about the impact of more recent migration. They want Labour on their side too.
6. While Labour was never liberal on migration, we were committed to making a multi-racial, multi-cultural society work. From the establishment of the Joint Committee for the Welfare of Immigrants, to the Race Relations Act, to support for the cultural and religious rights of the growing minority communities, to the introduction of ethnic monitoring, to scrapping iniquities like the primary purpose rule, Labour was consistent in its commitment to build a tolerant, fair and diverse society. We didn’t get it all right, but under Labour’s leadership, Britain handled these challenges better than many EU countries. Ironically, as the biggest ever post-war migration took place, Labour diminished its efforts and creative thinking in this area. The arguments against multi-culturalism were conceded too easily with nothing, save a few initiatives like Connecting Communities, to put in its place.
Where do these six points take Labour’s strategy?
First we should defend our own history of a hard headed pragmatic approach to migration, coupled to a commitment to make our diverse society cohesive, tolerant and fair.
Second, let’s not be shy of taking measures which advantage local workers and local access to services, and discourage future migration. There’s much more that could be done, from using national monitoring in employment to granting protected access to affordable housing.
Third, let’s lead the debate in the EU about changing the rules. This won’t be a swift argument to win, but we will get more credit for trying than for avoiding the issue. Merkel won’t let Germany pay for Southern Europe. Why should we cope with the migration consequences of Euro zone failure?
Fourth, give no ground on the case for being in the EU. Nigel Farage fully understands the consequences of leaving the EU. That’s why UKIP is so deeply committed to scrapping labour market protection, making the UK the home of the most unstable and unreliable investment, and letting the rich get richer. We will win more votes on this argument than trying to defend the current free movement rules.
Fifth, refresh Labour’s commitment to making our diverse society work. Make nation building – the idea that everyone here has a responsibility to create a country that works – the core of our identity.
John Denham is the Labour MP for Southampton Itchen