The regrets and half-apologies for Labour’s mass immigration policy are starting. The Eds, Balls and Miliband, and Jon Cruddas have all accepted that too many people came in too quickly. Ed Miliband told Andrew Marr on Sunday that the costs and benefits of mass immigration were very unevenly distributed and too many of the costs fell on Labour’s core working class voters. Jon Cruddas described the policy as acting like an unforgiving incomes policy for those in the lower part of the income spectrum.
This should be just the start of a historic shift on immigration policy. Labour should become the party that is anti-mass immigration, but pro-immigrant. This would more accurately reflect the interests of its voters, both poorer whites and minority Britons.
Labour can be proud that since the 1950s it (often alone among the main parties) has championed the cause of race equality and stood up for immigrants. It should continue to do so, but not in a way that conflicts with the economic and cultural interests of the British mainstream. The party therefore needs to re-think its commitment to the laissez-faire multiculturalism that has left many of Britain’s towns ghetto-ised and divided.
Social democracy and a generous welfare state cannot survive in the long run unless there is a strong sense of a common life, of shared cultural references and experience. Rapid and high-level immigration weakens a sense of reciprocity and “exchangeability” (that could be me without a job) and lowers trust between citizens. Without a widely accepted national story a society can quickly begin to feel like a random collection of individuals or, even worse, a collection of Balkanised ethnic or religious groups battling for recognition and resources.
Labour should make common cause with the Tories if they are indeed serious about bringing net immigration down to tens of thousands a year rather than the 150,000 to 200,000 that is has been averaging in recent years—and expose its wishful thinking on this subject when, as seems likely, it doesn’t happen. (Employers in both the private sector and public sector may have become addicted to the highly motivated but cheap labour that mass immigration brings.) But it should also, in opposition, develop a distinctive policy of modern “nation building” and citizenship integration. A clearer citizenship offer needs to be made to new citizens and a new language is needed to reach existing citizens, especially younger ones. Gordon Brown’s “Britishness” debate had the right intentions but it sounded clunky and out of date (like Gordon himself).
Labour has, in fact, made a start in several of these areas. Many years too late we are finally starting to control movement across our borders and will soon be able to count people in and out. And we have developed a language, and even institutions, of citizenship: citizenship ceremonies (mocked by the bien pensants, but a huge success), citizenship and language tests, citizenship in schools and so on. Moreover, it IS now possible to decouple the pros and cons of mass immigration from the question of race and racism. There was quite a direct and open debate about mass immigration in the course of the election campaign (it featured in all three of the party leader debates) and the BNP was crushed—suggesting that when Labour organizes and addresses the legitimate grievances of the disaffected, people will return to mainstream parties.
But the default position of liberal Britain is still to think of immigration in terms of the interests of the immigrant. Immigration (when it is voluntary) is always in the interests of the immigrant, but not always in the interests of the existing citizen. In an age of mass transit and European Union membership we need to think harder about how we can still put the interests of British citizens first. Too much of our rhetoric and our legislation (some EU legislation, parts of the Human Rights Act) is liberal universalist and in effect abolishes fellow citizen favouritism.
Only deranged people are against immigration per se. Of course any healthy society benefits from a flow of outsiders, just as many Britons go and make their lives abroad. But between 1997 and 2010 there was a historically unprecedented surge of people coming to the country to work, study or settle for a year or more—3m more people came than left. And 1.6m people were granted permanent right of residence, mainly from developing countries.
Nobody planned or prepared for this huge act of social engineering. It was never mentioned in Labour manifestos in 1997, 2001 or 2005. It happened as the result of several apparently small decisions, which together produced a big and unintended outcome. The main decisions were: the liberalization of work permits in response to the big increase in illegitimate asylum claims, the opening of the door to many more foreign students (to help pay for the rapid increase in higher education) and the decision to open our labour market to the new EU states in eastern and central Europe at the end of 2003.
Labour sleep-walked in to a huge, and in many places very disruptive, change. It happened because of a combination of metropolitan Labour’s cultural liberalism, which saw immigration as an inherently good thing, and Treasury economic liberalism which welcomed its labour market effects.
Social democracy is about reducing risk and uncertainty in peoples’ lives—in areas of high immigration both have risen too sharply. We need time to absorb the people who have arrived in the past 15 years, and Labour, as Jon Cruddas says, needs to repair the covenant with its core vote. Labour must close the door.
David Goodhart is Editor of Prospect.