Labour must not be ‘squeamish’ about immigration

The Labour Party must start talking about immigration seriously. It’s the elephant in the room that we can’t ignore any longer.

Labour appeared too ready to avoid the subject. The pledge to support ‘controls on immigration’ branded on mugs and even chiselled in stone showed a surprising lack of imagination and political vision. There was never a debate over whether there should be border controls.

UK Border Immigration

The question was about what the controls should be. Targeting firms hiring illegal migrants is a good first start, but these fine-tuned policy details needed to be connected to a wider conversation about what Labour’s immigration policy should be.

The leadership candidates have been quick to highlight this flaw that may have damaged Labour’s election fortunes in some key constituencies. Yvette Cooper rightly says Labour should not be ‘squeamish’ about immigration and it’s helpful to see Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall talk about this issue, too. But let’s be clear: Labour has been too ready to avoid immigration and this must end.

In fact, the immigration debate is one that Labour should win. The big secret rarely acknowledged is Labour set the foundation for how immigration works today. Rival parties like UKIP and the Tories only propose to tweak what are essentially Labour policies launched by a Labour government.

It was Labour that introduced the UK’s points-based system modelled on Australia’s, formalised English language requirements, launched a citizenship test, introduced citizenship ceremonies and codified new rules on requirements like good character to improve Home Office decision-making.

These policies are here to stay and no major party calls for their abolition. When the Tories transform the citizenship test into a bad pub quiz as I’ve argued before or where UKIP call for an Aussie-styled points-based system, they should be found out for either tinkering what Labour launched or trying to reinvent the wheel. Labour doesn’t lack a vision for immigration – it created the framework that all parties work within because they accept the fundamentals of the system.

People are usually surprised to hear Labour accomplished so much on immigration. It’s because these achievements aren’t trumpeted enough.

I’m not surprised because I’m an immigrant. And politicians from across parties need to engage with more people like me so they can gain a clearer understanding about the real effects immigration policies have on those of us coming to Britain and how well they assist integration while preventing abuses. Naturalised UK citizens have a voice that must be heard.

Labour introduced many of its key reforms nearly 10 years ago. Much has changed since in terms of the numbers coming to the UK and the concerns that many voters have about their impact.

This is why there should be cross party support for urgently launching a Citizenship Advisory Group that can review current policies and engage directly with the public so that any changes better reflect broader concerns and the latest evidence, preferably chaired by an expert with direct first-hand experience of immigrating rather than an ideologue cut-off from the real world.

Whatever our disagreements about slogans on coffee cups, Labour should embrace its achievements in setting the terms of the debate that all broadly accept. There is much more work to do, but we have a record worth standing on and a foundation for future reforms.

The big question now is which leadership candidate is ready to take this important step and help make Labour relevant again. 

Thom Brooks is Professor of Law and Government, a columnist for The Journal and Communications Lead for Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson.

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