Labour needs a fresh, honest approach on immigration

First published in the ‘i’ newspaper

The people’s decision to leave the European Union has sent an earthquake through the political class. All major parties have been shaken. Brexit has been as hard on the Labour party as it has on the pound, at its lowest level since some point in the early to mid 1980s. The danger for Labour is that how many voters in its heartlands felt on one day in June 2016 defines how they behave and vote for a decade to come.

If Scotland is a guide, moving to a post-referendum politics – where whether you voted ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ defines how you vote – will take some time. It will not, as in Scotland, be a resurgent Tory party that will come for our heartlands but their rightwing cousins in the United Kingdom Independence Party.

Mixed blessing

Nigel Farage’s exit will be a mixed blessing for his party. His bombastic style was the personification of voters very anti-establishment feelings. He, however, was the the cap on Ukip’s support across the country, particularly with woman and in Labour areas. His departure is therefore is no reason for Labour to cheer.

Whoever the new leader – current deputy Paul Nuttall and former deputy chair Suzanne Evans seem to be the front runners – they will have their sites set firmly on Labour areas.

The benefits for Labour is its incumbent MPs are hard working, have routes into their community and traditionally Labour’s ground game and postal vote strategies have beat Ukip in critical by-elections. But complacency will be the death of Labour.

Labour cannot ignore the reasons why people – often its voters – considered Ukip and voted ‘Leave’. Immigration is something we should, and be seen to, discuss, debate and propose reforms to. However, two-thirds of its vote picked ‘Remain’ and while not huge fans of immigration, are by definition not so anti. These are groups will not be convinced that migrants make a net benefit to the UK economy and I would argue its cultural life.

Pull factors

But those people cannot deny the reality that the pull factors for immigration – that Britain is a great place, the English language is so widely spoken and our economy is performing well by international standards – and the push factors – an aggressive Russia, war-torn Middle East and extremely poor North Africa – will only get stronger.

Labour should be upfront and clear about this, setting the problem in the wider international context in a way it has never yet really done. In a world where people do not want to listen to experts, starting a conversation with simple facts might not be the worst place to begin.

Richard Angell is director of Progress – the Labour centrist pressure group

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