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Sun 20 September 2020
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Mike Buckley argues that the toxic migration debate led by the UK Government is blinding us to the long term costs

The Government is losing the trust of the public. That is evidently true of its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the exams scandal. It is also true of immigration.

A new YouGov report found that 74% of those surveyed now believe that the Government is handling immigration badly, against a mere 15% who believe it is getting it right. 

At the same time, Home Secretary Priti Patel is ramping up the same anti-migrant messaging that the Conservatives have relied on for a decade now. The migration charity Detention Action has accused her of “flagrantly” breaking the law by holding lone asylum seeking children who cross the Channel in “effective detention” instead of in care. 

Ten years ago, the Conservative Party decided that stoking public anger against migrants would serve its interests. Former Prime Minister David Cameron chose to encourage anti-migrant feeling as a cover for austerity, believing that if people were angry against othered groups, they would be less likely to blame the Government for deteriorating public services, stagnant wages and lost job opportunities. 

The plan worked, to the extent that the public continued to believe in the necessity of austerity as late as the 2015 General Election, but Cameron sowed the seeds of his own demise. By encouraging the public to see migration as a problem to be fixed but failing to bring numbers down, he created the perfect circumstances for UKIP to thrive and for the Leave campaign to win the 2016 EU Referendum.

We are still far from having an honest debate about our need for inward migration.

Governments interested in building social cohesion – a policy area last paid attention to under New Labour – and in ensuring that key sectors including health and social care are fully staffed use their position to build support for inward migration. The Conservatives have done the exact opposite. 

Tragically for Britain, they have faced little opposition.

Journalist Stephen Bush wrote in 2018 that pro-Europeans were in trouble because no one would argue for immigration. He could have made the same point at any point between 2015 and today. He argued that, without someone making the case for immigration, any rationale for continuing a close relationship with the EU post-Brexit would fall on deaf ears – and he was right. 

Those who ought to have spoken up have been largely silent, making it easy for the Conservatives to blame migrants for social ills. Former Labour Leader Ed Miliband tried and failed to out-tough the Conservatives, while rhetorical support for migrants’ rights under Jeremy Corbyn was not backed up by robust policy.

Pro-migrant charities and pressure groups have comparatively little ability to influence the agenda, while parts of the media that should have known better than to have been complicit, giving far too much prominence to Nigel Farage and his ilk. 

The Remain campaign could have filled the gap but lost the 2016 Referendum, at least in part, by refusing to talk about immigration. Remainers failed to learn from their mistake. At no point from 2016 to their final defeat in last year’s General Election did pro-Europeans demolish the argument that immigration is an ill to be combated, preferring to reiterate the economic argument that had lost them the Referendum in the first place. Some unwittingly made Leave’s argument for them by speaking of supposed ‘justifiable concerns’ over immigration. 


The Hidden Migration Crisis

The public is now increasingly aware of the economic harm that is likely to result from Brexit.

Former cheerleaders have started to raise alarm about lost GDP, lower food standards and higher prices. And, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, people are more aware of the positive contributions made by migrants. 

The Labour Party is also speaking with more clarity. Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds responded to the Immigration Bill by arguing that “ministers who were out clapping for the 180,000 EU nationals in the NHS and the care sector on Thursday night are sending a message that they are no longer welcome. That is not fair, and it is not in the national interest”.

Thomas-Symonds is right. Restricting inward migration to the extent envisaged in Patel’s bill will cause serious harm. 66% of EU workers in the health and social work sector would not be eligible for a visa under the new immigration system. The same is true for workers in transport, agriculture and other key sectors. This would be bad enough in normal circumstances. It is unforgivable in the midst of a pandemic.

Just as people are choosing to, or being forced, not to come to Britain, others are choosing to leave. Even before the pandemic, the British medical establishment was raising the alarm about a system in crisis because of the loss of so many senior doctors to other nations due to the poor conditions here. They are being joined by academics – the UK has lost thousands since the Brexit vote – harming our universities, research and young people’s educations, and being followed by creatives, bankers and more. 

The number of people leaving the UK for the EU has increased by 30% since the vote to Leave. “These increases in numbers are of a magnitude that you would expect when a country is hit by a major economic or political crisis,” observes Daniel Auer, co-author of a study by Oxford University in Berlin.

Political and media ambivalence disguises a cultural and economic crisis. 

At some point, Britain is going to have a reckoning about the way that its economy and Government is run. Given that the UK is the worst in class in terms of the economic and health outcomes of COVID-19, and the evident truth that Government incompetence has been the driving factor, that day may come sooner rather than later. 

But if that reckoning is to be truly valuable, it must take into account the value brought by migrants to the UK, and of lost income, work and academic contributions as increasing numbers give up on the country for new lives abroad. 

By allowing the Conservatives and their allies to make migration toxic, our whole society has been harmed – not just economically, but also in terms of social cohesion and wellbeing. The case for migration must be made if Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are to be stopped in their toxic tracks.

Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’


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