11th April 2016
Labour has a problem with immigration. In the 2015 General Election campaign the campaign mugs – which became almost more infamous than the ‘Ed-stone’ – made that clear.
‘Controls on immigration’ may seem a fairly bland statement and a reasonable one. But it angered many and pleased none. Some on the left argued that it symbolised a betrayal of traditional ‘socially liberal’ principles of toleration and multiculturalism. One member of the political twitterati went as far as to label the mug ‘racist’. On the other hand, the mug did nothing to those who have an image of Labour that has stuck since the mid 2000s. An image of a party that lost control of the nation’s borders when the former Eastern bloc countries entered the European Union. This unfair image helped UKIP gain 4 million votes and pushed them to being the main opposition to Labour in much of our heartlands.
But because Labour has previously failed when addressing the issue, is no excuse to keep ignoring it.
It is the one issue that comes up every single time that I knock on doors. In my ward, which has high levels of deprivation, it comes up several times in an hour-long canvassing session. The issue has to be addressed and I believe this can only be done by going back to basics.
The most important thing is to stop treating immigration as something we are not prepared to talk about because we find it uncomfortable.
The reality is that talking about and being worried about immigration is not racist. This is not an original statement. It has been made by Owen Jones, among others.
Yes, there is a xenophobic aspect which does creep in to the debate. But in areas of deprivation and high unemployment, often Labour areas, fear of immigration is often rife, and it is usually linked to a series of larger concerns. Concerns about immigration are seldom solely couched in terms of there being “too many foreigners”. Instead, usually, it involves a greater concern at a lack of decent jobs or affordable housing.
And it is an entirely understandable reaction.
Understandable to someone unable to access decent, affordable housing, sharing a bedroom with their brother or sister, or sofa-surfing with friends. They may be in and out of low paid work with no money to spend on rent or a deposit. Nearby in their hometown is a large factory. It pays £9 an hour to employees putting screws in car-doors or riveting ring-binders. And many of the workers are people from Poland or Lithuania. These employees leave work every day and go to a house or a flat. Can we really be surprised that this issue is being raised?
We can’t fob voters off by saying, even when true, that a substantial number of immigrants are on low pay with insecure employment and living in sub-standard and expensive accommodation.
We have to address people’s issues directly. Whether that is making sure that there is sufficient low-cost, decent housing or that there is enough quality employment. We must make sure that we tackle these issues.
But we also have to face up to a harder truth. We can and should be welcoming to people from around the world. That, however, does not equate to saying that all of them can come to live and work in Britain. So we need to devise a system regarding who can come in and settle and who can’t; a system that is fair but robust and has the confidence of the British people.
Does that mean welcoming refugees fleeing persecution? Absolutely and unapologetically, yes. But we also have to ensure that we work with our partners, in particular the EU, so that this is done fairly. Where someone lands is not necessarily, nor should it be, where they settle.
And where does that leave economic migrants? No reasonable person begrudges anyone from seeking a better life for themselves or their family. But we need to make sure that people who come into the country are able to contribute to our economy as the vast majority of immigrants do. That does not mean just accepting doctors or lecturers. But it does mean that those who come here and are not in work are not able to claim resources from the state without having made a contribution. There is nothing racist about saying that other countries have a responsibility to look after the welfare of their own citizens. This of course counts for the millions of Britons living abroad as well.
Finally, that system, starting at border control, needs to be properly resourced, administered and staffed so that it is incredibly difficult to circumvent or cheat.
Labour’s path to victory in 2020 is fraught. Up against a rampant SNP victory can only realistically come by winning in England. But winning in England means winning the argument on immigration, not ignoring it. So let’s get started.
Cllr. Sean Woodcock