Labour must not become an anti-immigration party

Leadership candidates are talking about immigration. Neil O'Brien asks: "Will Labour now become an anti-immigration party?" There's no reason why they should.

Policy Exchange Director Neil O’Brien asks a pertinent question on the Telegraph blog today: “Will Labour now become an anti-immigration party?” There is no reason for the party to do so although a debate about the public’s true concerns on the issue must take place.

In today’s Evening Standard, Andy Burnham says:

“We were in denial [on immigration]. We were behind the issue all the time, and myths were allowed to develop. There’s still an ambivalence among some in Labour about discussing immigration. I’ve been accused of dog-whistle politics for doing so.

“But it was the biggest doorstep issue in constituencies where Labour lost. People aren’t racist, but they say it has increased tension, stopped them getting access to housing and lowered their wages.”

Earlier this month, the Guardian reported that, “the former schools secretary [Ed Balls] says the Labour government’s policy of toughening the immigration system though the points system was not understood by voters on the doorstep.” Launching his leadership bid, Ed Miliband described immigration as a “class issue“. On Andrew Marr he said it had “different impacts on different people.” While in an interview with this months Progress magazine, David Miliband says one of the reasons that Labour lost was because, “we were seen to be late to the game when it came to some key issues on welfare, immigration”.

So far none of the candidates have announced reactionary policies on the issues but it is critical that they understand what voters really think and what Government can do to address these concerns.

Neil O’Brien today makes two claims about immigration. First, that it has become a “more important issue for voters” and, second, “concern about migration is concentrated where it hurts Labour most: among working class “C2″ voters, in the midlands, and among people over the age of 55”. Ipsos-MORI’s Issues Index shows that race and immigration has become the second most important issue after the economy but only because the importance of crime / law & order, and the NHS has declined. The number of people currently seeing it as an important issue has been roughly the same since 2003 (with a notable decline in 2008-09). And while 38 per cent currently see it as an important issue, only 14 per cent think it’s the “most important” issue.

Mr O’Brien’s figures about concentration are from Ipsos-MORI’s issues breakdown. His conclusions are probably true but the percentages are extrapolated from just 382 people who listed immigration as an important issue implying a margin of error of ±5% at the 95 per cent confidence interval. Using data from Stan Greenberg’s qualitative survey of 1,000 British voters, Michael Burke shows that the “least hostile group of all [with regard to immigration] is among all those who considered voting Labour but did not”. While half Tory voters are “very cool” about immigration, the same is true of just 32 per cent of Labour’s 2005 vote, 25 per cent of Labour’s current voters, and 21 per cent of those who considered voting Labour.

So what do people really think about the issue? A qualitative survey by ippr found that:

“when they are given the space to discuss the issues in detail, self-declared migration sceptics often have nuanced and moderate views on the issue. They are concerned about the scale of recent immigration, but they can also see the benefits of migration for the UK – they respect the hard work of migrants, and the contribution they make (for example to the NHS).

“Crucially, people want the government to be in control of migration.  But control does not mean a drastic limit on net migration – it’s perfectly possible for the government to be in control of a migration system that is flexible and responsive to the needs of the economy.  In fact, what often gives the public the impression that migration is out of control is politicians making promises to ‘clamp down’ on immigration that they then cannot deliver.”

Announcing her candidacy last week, Diane Abbott said last week, “Rather than wringing our hands about the white working class and immigration, we need to deal with the underlying issues that make white and black people hostile to immigration; things like housing and job security. We need to be careful about scapegoating immigrants in a recession. We know where that leads.” John Harris made a similar point in his op ed in Friday’s Guardian:

“Immigration and welfare have become hot-button issues largely because of the insecurities made worse by New Labour’s recurrent refusal to depart from the usual neoliberal script. What of the Blair and Brown governments’ long history of resisting European moves on the white-hot issue of agency workers? To securely propel the workless back into employment, what about some meaningful moves on low pay? Why did Labour fail so miserably on social housing?”

These are the areas that Labour should focus on. Otherwise it risks losing the black and Asian voters, not to mention urban liberals, who are just as much a part of their coalition as the C2s whose loss is so lamented.

UPDATE 12.12

I thought worth updating this story with the following from David Coats excellent paper, “Migration Myths: Employment, Wages and Labour Market Performance” published in April 2008 by the Work Foundation:

“Migrant workers have filled gaps in the domestic labour supply, helped to ease inflationary pressures in otherwise tight labour markets and enabled the UK economy to remain on a stable growth path. Moreover, while some studies suggest that high levels of migration can have an impact on the wages of the lowest paid, these effects have been avoided in the UK because the NMW has been rising fairly rapidly. Product markets and labour markets are lightly regulated and the policy mix in the UK is oriented to the rapid absorption of migrants.

“On the other hand, it would be unwise to say that there have been no losers from the migration phenomenon. Indeed, the best evidence suggests that those already detached from the labour market, in other words those identified in the official statistics as ‘inactive’ may have been pushed even further away from participation in the world of work.

“It is important to understand that this problem is neither new nor a direct consequence of high levels of inward migration.”

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38 Responses to “Labour must not become an anti-immigration party”

  1. Peter Ptashko

    Absolutely concur. We must be the true progressive alt. RT @leftfootfwd Labour must not become anti-immigration party

  2. Shamik Das

    Indeed! RT @leftfootfwd: Labour must not become an anti-immigration party:

  3. Jenny Bunker

    Precisely RT @leftfootfwd: Labour must not become an anti-immigration party

  4. winston k moss

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour must not become an anti-immigration party

  5. winston k moss

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour must not become an anti-immigration party

  6. John West

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour must not become an anti-immigration party

  7. Gavin Lambert

    Most definitely – RT @leftfootfwd: Labour must not become an anti-immigration party

  8. Immigration Tips

    Labour must not become an anti-immigration party | Left Foot Forward: Leadership candidates are talking about immi…

  9. oldpolitics

    More on housing is key, and housing was a policy failure at some crucial moments in the new Labour story. That said, I think we overestimate the political shift that can be achieved – gain some voters who previously blamed immigration for their lack of access to affordable housing, lose some voters who blame immigration for their loss of green spaces and more general overcrowding.

    Not sure what kind of a political message is sent out by the implication that black and Asian voters have either a monolithic single view on immigration (I know a fair few who feel that the recent volume has made life much harder for established minority communities) or that they won’t be responsive to other issues. If we genuinely can’t up the build rate to cater for net immigration in the hundreds of thousands, then what is to say a long-term resident ethnic minority family in overcrowded housing wouldn’t feel the same way about managing the rate of population growth as would a family of Britons?

    The average country in the world has net immigration of 0, right?

  10. Shamik Das

    Indeed! RT @leftfootfwd: Labour must not become an anti-immigration party:

  11. cim

    Are you trying to say that after the 5 separate immigration-restricting Acts of Parliament, after ignoring the abuse of immigrants and refugees in detention centres, after sending refugees back to their deaths on spurious grounds, and after pretty much accepting the Daily Mail/BNP “Immigrants are bad” framing in the last 13 years that Labour isn’t already an anti-immigration party? (But, yes, fully agreed, Labour must definitely not get any worse on this issue)

    “people who listed immigration as an important issue”

    As you might be able to tell, I think immigration is an important issue. I never admit this to survey companies, because the assumption that’s always drawn from this is that the only reason someone could think immigration was an important issue was if they wanted to stop it. Not all of those (admitting to) thinking immigration is an important issue will be against it – some would prefer a more permissive policy.

  12. Liz McShane

    Hopefully no Labour representative will ever use the term ‘British jobs for British workers’ ever again ( I am sure GB rues the day when he uttered it) – it only panders to racist views and we should never try and out do the ‘Right’ on this subject.

  13. Lord Pont


    What’s wrong with ‘British jobs for British workers’?

    British is not a race, ethnicity, culture. It is a legal designation that is held by millions of people who have heritage abroad.

    I think the idea that we give jobs preferentially to people (of whatever colour) who legally reside here over people from abroad is completely sane. 5.5 million people unemployed in this country is a scandal.

  14. Molly Moggs

    RT @sunny_hundal: Labour must not become an anti-immigration party, says @wdjstraw

  15. alantravis40

    Good blog by Will Straw at Left Foot Forward as to why Labour shouldn't become the anti-immigration party

  16. sunny hundal

    Labour must not become an anti-immigration party, says @wdjstraw

  17. sciamachy

    RT @sunny_hundal: Labour must not become an anti-immigration party, says @wdjstraw

  18. Liz McShane

    Lord Pont – it’s about being mindful of people’s sensitivities and not falling into a trap that BNP et al can exploit. It’s the thin end of the wedge and we should not be pandering to populist tabloid headlines.

  19. Jonathan Taylor

    RT @sunny_hundal: Labour must not become an anti-immigration party, says @wdjstraw

  20. Vicki Butler

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour must not become an anti-immigration party

  21. Dave Cole

    Quite apart from not being an anti-immigration party, I’d like to see Labour articulate the positive case for immigration. It seems that everyone mention of immigration at the moment is almost wholly negative.

  22. Will Straw

    @kcorrick @martinbright Given our tweets on Sat eve, I thought you might be interested in this piece on immigration

  23. Liz McShane

    Dave – I agree wholeheartedly. We should never go on the defensive on this or be boxed in to corners where the language & rhetoric panders to racism. We need to be bold.

  24. Sun, Sun, Sun … « @Number 71

    […] at Left Foot Forward, more on that Labour immigration debate. An equally important message for the leadership contenders […]

  25. Lord Pont


    I still don’t see your point. “British jobs for British workers” may or may not be a stupid slogan, but it is not racist because British isn’t a race. It is about jobs for British people over non-British people which seems sensible because we have to pay for unemployed British people but not non-British people.

  26. Malcolm Evison

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour must not become an anti-immigration party

  27. Liz McShane

    Lord Pont – with the greatest respect slogans get misused and become very simplistic excuses for other things… something like this is just fodder for people who aren’t so skilled at understanding subtle nuances etc of The English language….. and gets hijacked by the likes of The BNP etc. It’s gris to their mill

  28. Michael Burke

    Of the many myths surounding immigration isthe notion tha immigration ceates unemployment or drives down wages. Neither is true.

    The large-scale immigration that took place in Brtian beginning in 1994 was accompanined by a FALL in unemployment, 9.2% to 2.7% on the claimant count, less pronounced but equally clear on the ILO measure.

    In a similar vein, non-British born workers are paid more than their British-born counterparts. There has been some convergence over that period, overwhelmingly to the detriment of the latter.

  29. Lord Pont


    I don’t think that particular slogan was pinched from Labour by the BNP

    But anyway, I get your point. It’s just that people can be so hypersensitive. I mean, why can’t we all just say what we think and have an honest debate about this sort of stuff. Telling people what they are/aren’t allowed to say shouldn’t be part of it (apart from obvious abuse)

  30. law

    "Labour must not become an anti-immigration party | Left Foot Forward" #immigration

  31. Noxi

    RT @sunny_hundal: Labour must not become an anti-immigration party, says @wdjstraw

  32. Confused of Croydon

    What interests me the most about the rise in immigration under the late Government is the spectacle of large numbers of immigrants working their proverbials off and paying taxes to keep several million Brits economically inactive (unemployed, incapacity benefit etc)! It seems that the Government preferred relying on migrant labour to the hard work of bringing people back into the labour market.

    I certainly agree that the key thing is for the Government to be seen to have control of migration. The last one wasn’t- despite the shrill rhetoric. But control means actually enforcing the rules and removing those who come here illegally. Is the Left really up for that?

  33. Labour must read political tea-leaves carefully | Matthew Cain's blog

    […] lost because it didn’t have the right approach on immigration. That’s the view being debated by a number of people analyzing the party’s defeat. I don’t know if they are right but I do know […]

  34. Maureen Lewis

    It is about keeping ones culture! Without immigration reform your country will cease to be British very quickly. All over the world
    third world countries are rushing the gates of first world nations not the other way around. In other words, they keep their culture and you lose yours.

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