It's time for the left to step up and make a positive case for migration.
It’s time for us on the left to state a hard truth – we have failed to win the argument on migration.
Too often our approach has been to ignore the issue, hum loudly and pretend it’s not happening. We have failed the make a positive case to the country, with the result that the right have owned the negative narrative.
We have allowed Farage and his copycats in the Conservative Party to blame migrants for poor quality public services when a lack of funding is the cause; to point the finger at migrants when wages haven’t risen, when a broken economic model is the culprit; and to blame ethnic minorities for rising community tensions when it is the right’s dog whistle calls to a racist few which has created increasing harm and fear.
Time to step up
In truth, we have never properly made the case for inward migration. Blair’s open door policy may have worked while the economy was doing well, but it didn’t make the case for immigration to the public. Ed Miliband’s response to Conservative anti-migrant policies coming from Theresa May’s Home Office, and to rising tension, was to triangulate and issue those mugs, making a bad situation worse. More recently, we have failed to defend freedom of movement, handing an easy victory to the right.
We need to step up. If we believe migration is a good, and that migrants are deserving of our solidarity and support, we must make the arguments to the public and take on the lies and deceptions of the right.
When parties of the left tack to the right on migration they don’t win a greater vote share or neutralise the issue. Instead they legitimise anti-migrant views, hastening a shift to even more extreme attitudes. The only way to win the argument on migration is to have it head on. Anything else diminishes us and lets down migrants.
It has never been more important to win the argument on immigration. It will be vital if we’re to have a hope of reversing Brexit. More broadly, the world is seeing the greatest movements of people since WWII, caused by a rise in conflicts, rising climate chaos and associated water shortages. This will only continue. In this context it’s certain that climate and conflict refugees will continue to seek a new life in Europe.
In 2015-16 the UK was at the forefront of efforts to support countries in the Middle East, including Jordan and Lebanon, which hosted and still host large numbers of Syrian refugees. Where we failed was in welcoming refugees here – where Germany took in 1 million, in the UK we took in only just over 15,000 last year. Even worse, the Dubs scheme is capped at only 480 unaccompanied child migrants. We have to do better – but we need to do so with public consent. This cannot be won without making the argument for migration as a whole.
As for Brexit, it is clear that immigration was a driving factor behind the result, and that the only effective way of guaranteeing EU membership in the long term is by proper, full-blooded persuasion of people to our point of view, rather than simply offering short-term or superficial solutions. And so we, again, are left with no option but to persuade people that migration is something our country should not just tolerate but support and promote.
How do we argue for migration?
We can talk about how – if you let people move around – you get a world where people are able to move where their skills are most needed, and populations everywhere benefit from that as vital vacancies are filled. We can see that in action right here in the UK, with an impending post-Brexit shortage of people in health care, social care, agriculture and construction, for example.
We can talk about how, whether we like it or not, freedom of movement within Europe is reciprocal, and therefore we benefit from freedom of movement to other places if we extend it to them.
But, perhaps above all else, we can talk about how migration is something which benefits everyone, socially. More important than the money we make is the freedom we gain to build human relationships and communities, unrestrained by artificial barriers placed between us by our governments.
In making these arguments we need to understand that people have concerns about immigration, and adjust how we communicate accordingly. There is no shame in doing this, as long as we remain true to our beliefs.
Ending the silence
Winning public consent for migration, for giving refugees a home, and for freedom of movement is not an easy prospect. But this is our fault. Our silence has for too long given the right the space to make their anti-migrant, anti-compassion arguments, and to spin their outright lies about migrants’ effects on the public purse, wages and public services.
Only by engaging with these issues can we hope to change public perceptions, to change the argument, and to remove a major obstacle towards winning public consent for our continued membership of the EU, and hence to gain and win a new referendum.
Remain and Reform is a new campaigns and policy organisation which aims to provide the space for discussions on how progressive and radical Remain and Reform policy can transform the UK and Europe to the benefit of all.
Listen to Remain and Reform’s new podcast on immigration here, featuring Lord Alf Dubs and Marley Morris, who works on migration for a think tank.
Mike Buckley is the Director of Remain and Reform. Kate Green is the Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston. Claude Moraes is a Labour MEP for London and is the Former Chair of the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee in the European Parliament.
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