Immigration policy is a popular target for criticism. Often the proposers of new ideas are called mugs, but here the problem is highlighted by a particular mug, of the ceramic kind.
The Labour Party is issuing new mugs that are branded with one of five new key pledges. Greatest attention has turned to the mug bearing the fourth pledge – “controls on immigration.” LabourList’s Maya Goodfellow wrote recently that the problem is that the mug is a painful reminder of “just how wrong Labour are on immigration.”
To be fair, Maya and I agree on several things. We agree that immigration has benefited the UK economy. We also agree that Labour needs to work harder to convince the public they have the best immigration policies to choose from.
But I disagree strongly that immigration control should not be a major pledge – and I fully support Ed Miliband on this. Let me explain why.
Fair controls on immigration are not about ending it. Nor is it about peddling myths, half-truths and worse to stoke unwarranted public fears.
Launching Labour’s election campaign, Miliband rightly said that “the Labour Party will never cut ourselves off from the rest of the world, but we are a party that believes in rules which protect working people.” These rules include ensuring everyone working in Britain receives no less than the minimum wage and migrants must have at least two years’ residency before claiming benefits.
These policies do not assume migrants are benefits scroungers any more than they do migrants work only for scraps. But they rightly link fairness for some to fairness for all. Fair immigration controls are a key and integral part to the idea of One Nation Labour.
The debate over immigration is one that Labour should win. Alternatives largely seek to tweak what Labour introduced. This fact needs to be broadcast more loudly. It was Labour that introduced the UK’s first points-based system, the formalisation of English language requirements, the launch of the citizenship test, codifying the rules on immigration requirements like good character to improve Home Office decision-making and the start of citizenship ceremonies. These are only some of the many policies that Labour governments introduced and are here to stay. When the Tories transform the citizenship test into a bad pub quiz or where UKIP call for an Australian points-based system, call them out on it. Labour has forged widespread agreement across parties on the fundamentals.
It is true that other parties have indulged in tweaking with the consequence of making things worse. There is the citizenship test debacle rendering a potentially helpful tool for integration I support unfit for purpose in its current form. There is also the coalition government’s poor judgement in scrapping the Migration Impacts Fund that raised funding from a levy on immigration application fees used to target areas of greater need to reduce migration-related pressures on public services. I’m not pretending the system is perfect, but it is worth fixing – and building off of the fair immigration controls that Labour introduced.
People are usually surprised to hear Labour did so much on immigration. One reason why is because these achievements aren’t trumpeted enough. The next government – of whatever party – urgently needs to launch a Citizenship Advisory Group to engage the public more so they know more about UK policies and so that these policies better reflect the public – it’s a two way street and time we minded the gap.
My interest is somewhat personal. I am a migrant. Worse, a non-EU migrant. I know about the Migration Impacts Fund because I paid into it. I know about the citizenship test because I took it and I’ve attended a citizenship ceremony, not as a spectator, but as a participant. I have serious concerns about negative stereotypes and inflammatory rhetoric. I recognise the importance of controls, but also their transparency and fairness.
And so this is why I support a future Labour government. I believe it is best placed to deliver the kind of fair controls we need. We shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about controls because the rules in place are largely of our own making – we can trumpet our achievements and how little the government has done with this other than make things much worse.
Now that I’m a UK citizen, I’m even more motivated to ensure we have a system that works and fair for all. Whatever our disagreements about coffee cup slogans, surely this larger picture is something we can be united on. The only mugs I dislike are those who say Labour has nothing to contribute on immigration policy.
Thom Brooks is Professor of Law and Government at Durham University.