Explaining Labour’s immigration confusion

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November 29, 2019 by Paul Goldsmith


In the absence of a sensible debate about immigration, the Tories having a policy that might control it is attracting working class voters. But the Labour Party’s equivocation on it is understandable, given the coalition it represents

Living as I do in West London liberal Remainia, I find myself often hearing the words ‘racist’ and ‘bigoted’ and ‘lazy’ in any debate about immigration. The idea that immigration can have effects on peoples’ livelihoods is brushed off with an airy ‘benefits to GDP’ argument that completely ignores how that is distributed. Put simply, if one person earns £1 million more a year, say because they run a company that gets cheaper, better quality labour, and 999,999 people earn £1 less a year, because their wage has fallen, GDP per capita has still risen.

Someone like me, whose life only benefits from the social and cultural mix, job opportunities created by, and improvement in the price and quality of goods and serviced provided by, immigration, ends up blocking out any noise on it, particularly if we have less use for public services. This, in public discourse, means those who worry about the effects of a social and cultural mix they haven’t experienced before, those whose job opportunities might be restricted, and who can’t afford the goods and services added because of their lack of opportunities, and who are seeing more competition for the public services they rely on are dismissed as..racist, lazy and bigoted.

Imagine if, from 1997, when encouraging immigration became government policy, there had been a programme of migrant impact funds, aimed at supporting public services wherever new entrants to the country go. Imagine if there had been a National Skills  Fund,  enabling vocational training of adults who were being exposed to competition from cheaper and more skilled labour from abroad. This isn’t as pie in the sky as it might seem. It was in fact suggested to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in 2003 as the Cabinet prepared for the relaxation of any transition controls on Eastern European migration in May 2004. It was dismissed by the Prime Minister, because it would amount to admitting there was a problem. Instead, it happened, resentment built up, the BNP got European Parliament and London Assembly members in 2009, UKIP got 4 million votes in 2015, and the UK voted Leave in 2016.

So a political party that simply ignores this, and pushes ahead with a policy of encouraging free movement of labour whether we leave the EU or not, could lose the people who, rightly or wrongly, view immigration as a threat.

The Conservatives are talking tough on immigration, mentioning the possibility of an ‘Australian-style points system’ to measure the potential contribution of migrants. They have at least dropped their ridiculous ‘tens of thousands’ target, which was literally undeliverable within the EU.

There is clearly some debate within the party about whether to promise a fall in immigration. After all, as Diane James (former UKIP leader) pointed out on a visit to my school, a points system can result in a rise in net migration.

The key is that the points system provides some ‘control’ over immigration that doesn’t exist at the moment. It can also be promised because the Conservatives are the party of Brexit, so they are making commitments for how the UK would be governed outside the EU.

Labour can’t do that. Because they sit on the fence on the EU. So they have to not make commitments on immigration that are undeliverable if, as their Brexit policy states, they negotiate a new deal, call a new referendum, and the decision is to Remain. So they will have to retain free movement if the UK stays in, and then they say they will negotiate on it should the UK leave. In Labour’s credit, as part of their National Education Service, they say they will create a National Adult skills fund to help train adults in new skills, which is a policy that has come 20 years late.

But there is another problem for Labour. It is, whether it likes it or not, a coalition between relatively prosperous middle class voters and really quite socially conservative working class voters. The former are pro-immigration, the latter are not. This is why you can have a situation that occured at Labour Conference, where a motion was adopted ‘extending free movement’ that was volubly opposed by Len McLuskey, the leader of the Unite trade union, who voiced the fears of his members about the effect on their lives of that policy.

The trouble for Labour is that in this election, a party that promises immigration controls can and probably will attract the working class voters they need to stop the Tories winning a majority. Yet if Labour moves in that direction, it could lose its more middle class voters to the Liberal Democrats. So there is a squeeze in both directions on the party, and no surprise it is struggling to know what to do.


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