It’s time Labour challenged the toxicity of the immigration debate

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Yesterday the excitement over the Conservative’s manifesto made it clear once again that the toxic debate about immigration is still in full flow.

Many jumped on the Tories’ failure to include immigration – and the NHS and Europe –  as one of the six main issues they’re going to address in their manifesto (although they have, somewhat depressingly, lumped immigration in with welfare because all migrants are ‘benefit scroungers’, presumably).

This opportunistic attack left me feeling rather cold. It may seem to make sense to score political points over this subject by pointing out the Conservatives’ hypocrisy; they’re constantly trying to talk tough on immigration to fend off Ukip but haven’t addressed it as a stand-alone issue.

But is this really where the conversation has to be?

Labour, along with the other political parties, are engaging in a race to the bottom (to borrow Ed’s terminology) on immigration, instead of laying out the facts.  Moving away from the terms of the current debate doesn’t mean dismissing the concerns of those people who are critical of immigration or who feel like they are losing out to migrants. It’s about making it clear that immigration is all too easily used as a proxy by parties like Ukip for other problems in the country and – crucially – including the voices of migrants within such arguments. Otherwise, the anti-immigration sentiment will simply continue to rise.

Let’s analyse these arguments again.

Survation have done some exclusive polling for LabourList that is particularly revealing. When asked ‘thinking about your local area, what issue is most important to you and your family at the moment?’ 40% of people answered the quality of NHS hospitals and GP services. Meanwhile, only 16% of people chose immigration.

However, when asked what goal they would most like the next government to achieve on a national level, the largest percentage (39%) chose reducing the overall level of immigration to the UK. (Although among undecided voters – as well as, more predictably, Labour voters – improving wages and living standards scored most highly at 33%.)

This begs the question, if immigration isn’t the highest concern for most people locally, why do these same people want the next government to prioritise reducing immigration?

To find your answer look at the way immigration is being presented in the UK. Immigrants (treated entirely incorrectly as a homogenous mass) are held up as the ‘other’. Whether demonised by Ukip or accepted as a problem (albeit alongside noting the positives) by the Labour Party, immigration becomes an abstract and mostly negative concept. While the people being discussed, the migrants themselves, and their lived experience disappears into the ether.

Many peoples’ reactions to immigration are built on these representations created and sustained in the political sphere. It makes sense, then, that most people who are likely to vote Ukip, live in areas of low immigration; it is the fear of immigration rather than it’s realities that is the main issue here.

Where immigration may be blamed for causing problems such as unemployment and housing shortages, the real cause is underinvestment from central government. Evidence shows, for instance, that there is no link between rising immigration and rising unemployment. Instead, unemployment levels are related to fewer new, stable jobs being created: it’s government that bears this responsibility.

Much in this vein, YouGov’s Peter Kellner notes that the answer to the country’s problems is not to “stop immigration” but “sort out our schools, improve training, revive the NHS, enforce the minimum wage and build many more homes.”

At present, immigration is all too often the easily reached for explanation for peoples’ anger and the issue upon which so much is blamed. Labour must change the terms of the debate and stop playing the damaging game of linking so many of our social ills to immigration – because that’s a very dangerous road to go down.

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