How Labour can – and must – change the conversation on immigration

When the history of Theresa May’s time in government is written, one constant will be front and centre: her hostility to immigration. When she was Home Secretary, her pledge to reduce immigration to tens of thousands was notable for never coming close to being achieved.

For almost a decade, we have lived in a world where the prevailing view has been that inward immigration is bad. Few politicians have spoken up in defence of a different narrative. The Labour Party, with its infamous ‘controls on immigration’ campaign mugs in 2015, triangulated instead of defending migrants and the principle of migration.

Since 2016, the immigration debate has been inextricably bound up with the Brexit debate. Any possible Brexit outcome is viewed in light of how it will affect immigration levels, often with no comment on how it might affect migrants, the industries, businesses and public services in which they work, or the communities in which they live.

The figures are stark. The number of EU migrants leaving the UK is now at a record high, according to Oxford University’s Migration Observatory. Net migration to the UK from the EU has fallen by more than 60% since the 2016 referendum. We are attracting fewer Europeans, and not enough others to make up for them. Putting off newcomers is now the norm.

We argue in Open and Ethical, the latest Fabian Society report, that Labour’s challenge is not only to develop a coherent and viable immigration and integration policy programme, but also to reshape a national narrative that has for too long been dominated by the right.

The government’s immigration white paper will exacerbate the situation. Its plan is simple – end low-skill migration, attract more high-skilled migrants to power our economy and add a few tweaks to make it work in the real world. The main aim of the Tories is to ban so-called low-skill migration, and ministers hope this will reduce net migration.

But the government’s own advisers acknowledge that claims that migrants significantly push down wages simply aren’t true. And key sectors like social care remain desperately dependent on migrant workers. The government hopes that there will be an increase in high-skilled workers, but even these groups will be disincentivised by a visa system and costs.

In this context, it shouldn’t be difficult for Labour to do considerably better. Labour needs to paint an appealing vision, one that cannot be achieved by being marginally less anti-immigrant than the Conservatives. It can only be done by telling a different story, and by having a robust policy programme to give the public confidence that this new vision can be achieved.

A home affairs select committee report on immigration published earlier this year found that public attitudes to migrants are more nuanced than the media would have you believe. Where the report failed was in its call for concerns over migration to be dealt with by increasing controls on migrants. The reality is that immigration has made the UK more productive and prosperous. The future net contribution of 2016 arrivals alone to the UK public finances is estimated at £25bn.

Labour does not need to invent a pro-immigration argument – it just needs to own the one that already exists. To build public trust in our immigration and asylum system while delivering fairness, we suggest three priorities now: policies to promote integration, policies that help enrich our country, and policies that have justice and wellbeing at their heart.

When it comes to successfully integrating migrants, we can learn lessons from cities like Bristol and Manchester, from the faith sector and from other countries. English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes and citizenship ceremonies clearly have a part to play. Importantly, this year, Labour came out in support of asylum seekers’ right to work, not least because of the benefits to integration.

Labour’s immigration policy also ought to take into account the needs of the nations which migrants leave as well as the UK. A policy of unreserved welcome can exacerbate deprivation in a sending country, because it steadily strips that nation of professional skills and long-term working commitment as well as producing a weakening of ordinary civic solidarities. These are societies that are often already economically and socially vulnerable.

We must introduce policies that welcome workers, family members and students who can help enrich our country economically and culturally, while tackling Conservative austerity, underinvestment, and managed decline of public services – the root cause of the poverty and insecurity that were such a huge driver of the 2016 leave vote.

Finally, the cruelty of Home Office delays, state hostility and a culture of disbelief that blight the experiences of immigrants and asylum seekers must be transformed into a system based on access to justice that emphasises individuals’ welfare and rights. Labour must invest in and embed leadership, training and accountability mechanisms that support speedy, accurate and humane decisions.

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