First published in Progress magazine
No one has levelled with the public about what drives migration to this country
‘No compromise with the electorate’ was Ted Knight’s infamous opinion when he and his hard-left friends ran Lambeth council into the ground in the 1980s. After the 2015 general election, a senior Labour member of parliament who has long been associated with Progress said to me, ‘On immigration, you are as bad as the Trots – no comprise with the electorate.’ Recently another MP remarked how bizarre it was that, as they saw it, ‘Tony Blair and Diane Abbott basically have the same opinion on immigration’. The former prime minister’s mantra of ‘fair rules without prejudice’ is certainly a position I – and most Labour party members – can get on board with. But the initial comment made me think.
Is there a neo-Blairite/neo-Bennite, liberal metropolitan elite view and is it just a modern form of Knight’s philosophy? Do they have a point?
This is how I see it: the position of the hard left in the 1980s was not just one of no compromise, it was just wrong. In Lambeth, and around the country in Liverpool and elsewhere, the agenda from Militant and its fellow travellers cost local communities dear. The 1983 manifesto was littered with terrible ideas about nationalising an arbitrary number of FTSE companies, or Britain unilaterally giving up its nuclear weapons – and with it its role in the cold war and on the United Nations security council. There were many more like it. They lacked the support of the voting public – the basis of our democracy – and were disputable at best.
However, it is not just that a stance that is welcoming of immigration is right for Britain in and of itself – the truth is that the opposite is not possible anyway. This is the credibility gap that the British public can see but which politicians have never bridged.
We have no choice but to be pro-immigration in some form – both the ‘push’ factors and the ‘pull’ factors behind this are too strong. Yet no leader has ever properly and honestly spelled this out. We are living through a period in history when brutal dictators kill their own populations, war displaces millions, and climate change and resulting floods, famine and disaster are only on the rise. Huge displacement is heading in our direction and there is little we can do to prevent this. Equally, the ‘pull’ factors – the reasons why people choose Britain – are things that few Britons would want to relinquish: a strong economy (compared to our neighbours), the dominance of English as the language of business and commerce, and a relatively low personal taxation rate for lower-paid workers.
While there are things that Britain can do to ‘take control’ of the precise numbers, it cannot take control of what causes people to arrive at our borders nor the terrible consequences if we decide Britain is closed to new entrants.
To be for immigration and for an open economy is not ‘no compromise with the electorate’, it is the necessary complement with reality, as well as a deeply held belief. We have tried the opposite of this before. Gordon Brown in his 2007 speech to Labour party conference promised ‘British jobs for British workers’. Not only was it not possible or even legal, everyone knew that, if it were, Brown would not do it anyway. The world got an insight into the then prime minister’s thinking when he infamously met Gillian Duffy. His comments afterwards exposed his basic belief that to talk about immigration, and be concerned by its impacts, was ‘bigoted’. Here is where Labour’s problems lie.
Labour remains split. Fast-forward from the Brown era to the Brexit era, immigration was the focus of discussion in my local constituency Labour party’s recent regular meeting. One side of the room focused on how cuts, not immigration, were the reason for longer queues at the doctors’ surgery and post office and for pressure on primary school places. The other, fresh from the doorstep, said immigration surely had a role to play. Feelings started to get hostile and tense. I hazarded a guess that both sides had something important to say. And the denial of that combination is what makes us look out of kilter with voters and reality. Our values should lead us to define the solutions to people’s problems, not be blinkered to them.
The reality is that good – I would argue, progressive – immigration policy requires constant dialogue with the public about rules, entitlements and opportunity. There is a basic expectation by most people that we should know who is in the country at any given time. Tony Blair should have reintroduced exit checks, Brown should have thrown money at the Home Office’s huge casework backlog. Had Labour’s hard left and Britain’s liberals not opposed ID cards, the United Kingdom might still be a member of the European Union and Nigel Farage’s nonsense about ‘health tourism’ might have been much less potent.
Research shows that public opinion on immigration is neither ‘Fortress Britain’ nor ‘open borders’. What the public have never heard is a politician make clear that the smaller, more volatile 21st century world will result in some immigration here – while setting out measures to respond to it, whether it be assurances around knowing who is in the country, steps to stabilise the neighbourhood, or measures to address economic hardship across the globe. The UK’s decision to leave the EU will make it harder than ever to wield regional power to relieve some of these pressures; yet doing so will never have been more necessary.
As the Conservatives squabble among themselves over how hard to Brexit, Labour’s leading figures must set out a truthful picture of how to establish some control in the context of a world on the move.
Richard Angell is director of Progress