Can Labour win on immigration?

Thom Brooks


Immigration is an issue that continues to challenge the Labour Party. The official report by Dame Margaret Beckett into why the 2015 general election was lost concluded that Labour’s ‘failing to convince on benefits and immigration’ one of four key reasons behind its defeat.

Labour’s manifesto included a pledge to ensure all customer-facing staff at public authorities speak fluent English – a policy pinched by the Tories and in the current Immigration Bill – and a commitment to linking residency with contribution. But these positions became quickly overshadowed by mugs declaring ‘controls on immigration’ that appeared more gimmick than concrete for critics.

The choice for Labour is how it might develop and defend an immigration policy consistent with the Party’s fundamental values that can win public confidence. If this key electoral liability is not dealt with, it will impose limits on what Labour can deliver in future contests – and time is not on our side with major votes this year.

This is no easy task. We need more than specific policies, but crucially we need a narrative. The public need to understand not only what we believe – but why believe it.

There is virtually no issue that lacks dissent. A welcome development in Labour is Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence that the ‘new politics’ is about a constructive dialogue that brings people into politics rather than shut them out by declaring official policies from on high.

This dialogue is set to launch with Sir Keir Starmer QC and his national fact finding tour over the next three months. Keir will visit constituencies across the country to gain a clearer picture of the different perspectives and impacts of migration.

This is welcome not least because no such immigration review has taken place in many years – and no detailed policy since at least the White Paper ‘Controlling Our Borders: Making Migration Work for Britain’ in 2005 under Tony Blair when Charles Clarke was Home Secretary. And the fact is that Labour should be trying to complete what it started and not begin from scratch.

It was a Labour government that introduced:

  • A transparent points-based visa system
  • English language tests for all who want to become permanent residents
  • Fixed penalty fines on employers for each illegal worker employed
  • Pre-boarding electronic checks on all persons entering or leaving the UK by air
  • Increased residency requirement for permanent settlement
  • The Life in the United Kingdom citizenship test
  • Grant temporary leave for refugees opening a clearer pathway to permanent residency and citizenship
  • Reduced abuses of the asylum system

Some of these achievements will surprise. I lost count of how often Nigel Farage claimed a vote for UKIP was to choose to launch a points-based immigration system – despite the fact the UK has had it for years. I should know. I am an immigrant and met the points-based criteria allowing me to work here. The online calculator you can use is perhaps as informative as it is entertaining.

We should start conversations about Labour’s immigration policies by making clear that the best parts of the current system were created by a Labour government. The importance of knowing English for long-term residency, raising the bar for employing non-EU workers, requiring knowledge of British life set out in a test to improve integration, citizenship ceremonies to celebrate becoming British and reducing abuses of the asylum and immigration system. Labour also spelled out in new guidance tough measures restricting residency for non-EU migrants with convictions and tests for ‘good character’. These policies are popular – and Labour made it happen. We need to communicate much better how Labour created today’s border controls that the Tories seek only to tweak with ineffective gimmicks.

And we can go further still. The public’s concerns about immigration is that it is too much and too fast. Labour should continue to reject the government’s use of net migration and instead focus on different numbers. Net migration counts people in the wrong way. It finds success when British citizens choose to leave or not return.

But that’s not the kind of migration that concern the public. They worry about migrants taking benefits without paying their fair share – and they worry about the pressures on employment, housing and public services. An important first step is to reject net migration and its discrimination of UK citizens – and stop counting students as migrants because they are not part of the public’s concerns.

Instead we should look to ensuring that those who can work and contribute can do so. One of the first measures David Cameron scrapped was the Migration Impacts Fund. This was a pot of money paid into only by migrants through a surcharge on immigration applications. The fund help support integration and provided relief on public services affected by migration-impact. The coalition government ended the scheme, but kept the high application fees using this money to plug holes elsewhere while turning a blind eye to impact of migration on local communities.

Labour should bring this back – and call on the EU to establish an EU Migration Impacts Fund that has the same goal on a wider scale. This would be funding distributed across EU member states to help relieve impacts on public services, such as in schools, housing, health and public transport.

Labour is about work – as they say, the clue is in the name. We should be tough on creating full employment and the ripe conditions for it. Taking migration-impact more seriously is a key part of this. Those who worry Labour more on the side of taking benefits than doing work will be shown to have it very wrong – and on immigration, too.

When Labour launched citizenship tests and ceremonies, it did not accept a proposal at the time that migrants already settled in the UK – such as naturalised British citizens – could serve as voluntary mentors to help enable the integration of newly arrived migrants. Integration remains an important issue where Britain can do better. Requiring people to learn English – usually at their own expense – is necessary. But it is not sufficient.

Other EU countries like France and Germany provide integration classes, usually incorporating some language instruction into their curriculum. Attendance can be mandatory to receive any benefits and programmes must be completed for long-term residency. Something along these lines is well worth considering for the UK – and it would fit in our history of achievement on immigration which has always welcomed contribution and integration over separation and isolation.

These are only a few ways in which Labour can develop an immigration system that is fair and fit for purpose. Our Clause IV is clear: ‘by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone’ – and it is this that can help flesh out our narrative that provides the why to the what: why we believe in what we want to do.

Migration should become not something that happens out of control. But instead where there is a plan for ensuring a fair and transparent system that does not turn a blind eye to those refugees needing our urgent help – but nor be deaf to public concerns about the impact migration has or is perceived to have on them and their communities.

I warmly welcome Keir Starmer’s national fact finding tour as a moment whose time could not come soon enough. Labour can listen and learn from the public on immigration – we clearly do not have their trust on this issue. Doing nothing will do little to help improve our electoral chances in future and we need to perform better.

Perhaps surprisingly, we start from a stronger position to set the record straight and move forward. Labour has done much to create what is right about the UK’s immigration system. But we must go further building on Labour values and in the spirit of Clause IV make a stronger Britain more confident in itself and its place in the world – rather than create gimmicks dressed up as ‘policy’ that does much to increase people’s worries without doing anything substantive about solutions.

Thom Brooks is Professor of Law and Government at Durham University, Visiting Fellow at Yale Law School and Communications Lead for Phil Wilson MP. His new book, Becoming British: UK Citizenship Examined, is published by Biteback this month.

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