The likes of Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Nigel Farage will continue to capitalise politically on Labour’s unwillingness to portray immigration as a benefit to Britain, argues Mike Buckley

In the Summer of 2018, the commentator Stephen Bush argued that pro-Europeans were in crisis because no one would argue in favour of immigration. “While Labour’s Remainers sound cautious about defending the rules of the club”, he wrote, “they will struggle to make the case against Brexit and for European engagement.”

I believe he was right. Remain’s failure to argue for the benefits of immigration and rebut Leave’s lies ceded a key issue to the populist right. By the time of the EU Referendum in 2016, public concern about immigration was at an all-time high. What was true for Remainers is true for Labour now. Just as Remain allowed the Leave campaign to own the immigration issue, so Labour cedes it to the Conservatives, with the result that their narrative wins by default. 

The Conservatives consistently poll as the party best able to handle the country’s asylum and immigration system. Their narrative shifts the blame for poor public services, low wages and job insecurity away from the true culprits – deindustrialisation, the financial crisis and austerity – to an easily identifiable and powerless surrogate: immigrants and all that can be tied to them, including the EU, the elected elite, lawyers and judges.

The Home Secretary Priti Patel’s new immigration system is the logical conclusion of this. She will restrict immigration from people without certain qualifications or below an income threshold. The pitch is that by restricting immigration to what she terms “skilled” workers, the UK will benefit from the ‘brightest and the best’. 

The problem is that her system is based on lies and will fail to meet the needs of the economy. Restricting migration to skilled workers will hamper economic growth and create labour shortages in key sectors. “Everyone suffers when migration is switched off,” writes Sean O’Grady, “higher taxes, less cash for public services, fewer people there to work in them. You will simply wait longer for the nurse to turn up, because he or she will have gone back to Portugal or Slovakia.”

This matters for our economy and public services, all the more so as the Coronavirus pandemic endures. It matters too for the Labour Party. Consistently polling behind the Conservatives on this issue hampers its ability to win power and makes it harder to give its own explanation for Britain’s crises. If Labour cannot bring itself to explain that migrants are not the culprit, it will find it hard to explain the Conservative failures of austerity, Brexit and under-investment.

Creating A New Narrative

The sad truth for Labour is that failing to defend migrants is a longstanding habit. As Nesrene Malik writes, just as the right “exploited immigration for cynical ends”, Labour “made its own cynical compact with this sentiment, using it, when needed, to show its own ‘toughness’ against the devious migrant”.

Under New Labour, migration became a “legitimate concern” and the Government pledged to look out for “the indigenous population”. Gordon Brown spoke of “British jobs for British workers”; Ed Miliband campaigned with “controls on immigration” mugs. Jeremy Corbyn accepted the premise that immigration was at best a hardship to be endured, refusing to commit to keeping free movement.

The party fails to realise that if accepted wisdom is that immigration is bad for Britain only one party benefits: the Conservatives. A new narrative would be honest about the contributions migrants make to our economy and society, one that explains our need for migrant workers if public services and businesses are to thrive. 

There is no lack of evidence. “Migrant workers will be critical to the UK’s economic rebirth” writes Personnel Today. “Without migrants,” says Sean O’Grady, “there are fewer workers to support the old, lower tax revenues, fewer people willing to work in hospitals and care homes at affordable wages, and a generally lower level of spending in the economy, which is bad for economic growth.” Economist Philip Inman writes how “study after study has shown the UK is a net gainer from migration, even the uncontrolled version courtesy of EU membership”.

COVID-19 has further highlighted how dependent the UK is on migrant labour. Our hospitals, nursing homes and farms depend on a regular supply of so-called “unskilled” labour. Numbers have been dropping in anticipation of new rules, causing sectors to cry for help.

Farmers describe an “unsustainable” shortage of workers. Health and social care faces shortages of nurses and care workers. “EU nurses no longer feel welcome in Britain,” found the London School of Economics. 22,000 had left the NHS by December 2019, a number that will only have grown since then, contributing to this year’s fears of staff shortages as we head into Winter. 

The alternative to forming this new narrative is to continue to allow Nigel Farage, Priti Patel and Boris Johnson to set it. Fifteen years of that has contributed to four Conservative election wins and a hard Brexit. Labour needs to step up.

Mike Buckley is a freelance journalist and director of Campaign Central


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