Labour must be positive on immigration (and honest about the costs)

Labour ends its third term with one of the most comprehensive immigration control regimes in the world. Its rhetoric has shifted dramatically since 1997.

Our guest writer is Tim Finch, Head of Migration, Equalities and Citizenship at ippr

Reflecting on Labour’s time in government so far there are many areas of policy in which we might ask ‘how has it come to this?’ But none more than immigration. Labour ends its third term with one of the most comprehensive regimes for the management and control of immigration in the world – and its rhetoric on the subject is relentlessly tuned to appeasing those who would like to see even more restrictions. It is a far cry from the early days of government when the prevailing view was that migration was generally good for the UK economy and our society. So what caused the change?

In a recent Analysis programme on BBC Radio 4 – with a companion piece published in the latest issue of Prospect magazine – David Goodhart has tried to answer that question. He has been spurred to do so by some rash comments in the Evening Standard by a former junior Number Ten insider, Andrew Neather, which have been picked up and exaggerated out of all proportion by MigrationWatch UK and their allies in the right wing media. According to them, Labour’s early approach was in fact a sinister grand plan to transform the racial make up of the UK through mass immigration with the aim of freezing the Tories out of power. Since the Neather article, more memos have been obtained through FOI requests, which the conspiracy theorists believe further strengthen their case.

Goodhart, though no great fan of high immigration himself, has the good sense to dismiss these wild notions. But based on a number of interviews with key Labour figures and other experts he does argue that Labour was ill-prepared for the surge in immigration that accompanied the economic boom and that it was very slow to react to public concern. In the end the political damage caused was such that the volte face was inevitable – which is why we have a Labour government acting and talking so tough on immigration.

Here I must confess an interest because I was one of Goodhart’s interviewees and was among those that suggested to him why Labour lost control of the political agenda on migration. First, many key Labour figures were veterans in the anti-racist struggles of the 1970s and 1980s and were concerned at immigration controls were inherently racist. Second, those same figures (reflecting the general attitudes of metropolitan liberals) were relaxed about a growing multi-ethnic society which they personally enjoyed. Third – and most importantly – well into the second term what might be termed the ‘Treasury view’ on the economic benefits of an open approach to migration generally prevailed over the Home Office that much greater control was needed. Fourth and finally, Labour inherited from the Conservatives an immigration system that was hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the high numbers coming in.

Now, of course, the picture is very different, and our concern at ippr is that Labour has veered too far in the opposite direction. Labour were wrong to ignore public concern about immigration,  and nobody should ever suggest that it is racist to talk about  immigration controls. It is good to see the current Home Secretary saying that we need honest and open debate – and that mistakes have been made in the past.  But acknowledging the critics is one thing, pandering to them is another. The prevailing tone of Labour speeches on migration these days is miserably sour and negative – with almost no attempt made to put across the case for migration – which is still strong. Moreover, our own research on public attitudes suggests that this defeatism is misplaced– that with a credible system of management and control in place Labour can win public support for a positive approach to immigration.

It is also true, of course, that although immigration has overall benefits, there are costs – and these need to be acknowledged and addressed. A particular problem here has been that some of the costs have tended to fall on the poorest in our community, while the rich have reaped the benefits. But what this really tells us that is that Labour has not done enough to tackle the scourge of inequality in our society, not that a savage clampdown on immigration is needed. At the same time it is important to draw a distinction between real and perceived impacts (something Goodhart and others sometimes fail to do).  High levels of immigration have caused some problems, but migration is not the source of all society’s ills –  far from it. Progressives, however, should take seriously the fact that a significant segment of the population seems to feel worse off because of immigration – this is one impact of a political failure to engage effectively with the public on this issue.

Goodhart says in his Prospect article that Labour is now planning to unveil a population policy to counter the Conservative’s flagship policy of a cap on migration numbers.  The former is certainly more sensible than the  latter, although it’s hard to see how a policy that targets national population or population growth will have real impacts on the ground, given how unevenly spread the UK population is. Despite the political problems immigration has caused,  Labour must resist a fight with the Tories  based on who can more restrictive on immigration.  There is a middle way between the ‘laissez faire’ approach of the early years and the ‘clampdown’ approach which seems to be so often signalled now. Indeed the policy is largely in place already. What Labour needs to do now is  to take credit for its hard work and to show courage in putting a positive case  to the public .

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