Ian Austin: People are concerned about immigration – Labour must come up with fair answers rather than hiding from it

Ian Austin

Not for the first time, Diane Abbott is trying to prevent Labour MPs discussing immigration by accusing them of trying to “outdo UKIP”.

It isn’t just offensive nonsense – it is a disastrous electoral strategy too.

Politics would be simple if we could spend our whole time moaning about the Tories, complaining about welfare cuts and praising the NHS, but we don’t pick the topic of conversation – the public do.

One of the reasons we lost the last election is that many people thought Ed Miliband was an out-of-touch member of London’s elite who hadn’t got a clue what ordinary people in the rest of Britain thought about issues like immigration or welfare. Diane’s strategy will make the drubbing he got last year look like a resounding triumph.

We’ve known for years that immigration is one of the issues people are most concerned about. You can’t ignore people’s concerns or, worse still, tell them they what they should or shouldn’t be worried about. You can’t say “I’m not listening to what you think, now you listen to me.” People won’t listen to us on issues like the NHS unless we’ve listened to them first.  Even worse, changing the subject pushes people with reasonable concerns about immigration towards extreme parties that exploit the issue and fan the flames.

I’ve sent out thousands of surveys and held hundreds of community meetings to listen to people in Dudley on all sorts of issues, including immigration.

The truth is that most people are reasonable, fair and pragmatic when it comes to immigration and other contentious issues.  Detailed research from British Future shows that most people are in the “anxious middle”, wanting fair controls on immigration but not a closed border.  Listening to them doesn’t mean pandering to UKIP or aping a hard line approach.  It means having fair and reasonable answers to people’s based on your values. For me, that’s what politics is all about.

For example, what’s right wing about saying large companies should have to train local youngsters if they need to hire skilled foreign workers? That’s in line with Labour values of opportunity for all.

Who thinks we shouldn’t enforce the minimum wage properly to end exploitation of foreign workers? That’s in line with Labour values of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

Why shouldn’t we ensure you can’t claim benefits until you have worked and paid in first, use the NHS free of charge if you’re visiting Britain or access social housing if you’ve not lived in the area? That’s in line with Labour values of hard work and contribution underpinning the welfare state.

Why shouldn’t we invest in our border force and ensure that criminals can be deported or refused entry in the first place? That’s in line with Labour’s commitment to protecting local communities.

And why shouldn’t the taxes wealthy American bankers or French hedge fund managers pay in London be used to relive the pressure migration can put on public services in areas like the Black Country? That’s in line with Labour values of redistribution and fairness.

These are the fair and progressive measures I came up with after listening to thousands of local people on immigration, and it meant that people in Dudley were ready to listen when I spoke about education, the NHS and the cost of living. It was one factor in achieving what was one of the best results in the country last May, pushing UKIP into third place in what was their sixth target seat on a night that saw them take second place in hundreds of seats across the country.

So Diane is patronising the public when she talks about a simple choice between being “favourable” or “hostile” towards immigration, and what’s worse is that she’s encouraging a public debate on immigration that is dominated by extreme voices like UKIP, so detailed discussion of serious and complex issues gets squeezed out.

Research by Prof John Curtice for NatCen published at a meeting I arranged this week shows that over 90 per cent of both Leave and Remain voters back free trade with the EU, while over 55 per cent on both sides back limits on EU immigration. Our answer can’t be to oppose free trade and oppose limits on EU immigration – a position supported by less than 10 per cent of the public.

We shouldn’t be surprised that progressives the world over are being beaten by reckless right-wing populists. To a public that is anxious about immigration, they often seem to be the only people who listen.

It’s easy to sneer and condemn in the debate on immigration, but we need to do the hard thing: listen to the public and come up with fair and reasonable answers.

Ian Austin is MP for Dudley North.


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