Our politicians should tell the truth about immigration: it’s good for Britain

by Peter Watt

The immigration debate is very much alive again.   UKIP in particular have attempted to tap into the rise in concern amongst some of the issues.   Lurid headlines warn of hordes of Bulgarians and Romanians about to pour across the sea, hot on the heels of the Poles and the Lithuanians.  And in response the three main party leaders have followed suit as they all seek to be tough on the issue.  The result is a lot of heat and not a lot of light.

The debate focuses on a number of key themes:

  • Does immigration benefit or costs the economy?
  • Do immigrants get preferential treatment?
  • The extent to which we can “control” our borders as members of the EU.
  • Is there an increase in pressure on public services?
  • The alleged abuse of asylum status.
  • The extent to which immigration changes communities and people’s attitudes to this change.

The answers are complex and much debated in homes, streets and indeed by our politicians.  The truth is that of course we are economically benefitting from immigration.  On the whole those arriving are younger and are employed.  They pay taxes and don’t really need to access health services and rarely claim benefits.  But also that there are some areas where there has been pressure on local services that were initially ill prepared like GPs and schools.   The impact of “changing communities” is however harder to gauge.

Personally I am completely unconcerned that the number of accents that I hear in shops or on the bus has increased massively.  I like the fact that my children have friends from a huge variety of different backgrounds – certainly they aren’t worried! And I am very proud of our history of welcoming those fleeing persecution.  I suspect that many people feel the same as me.

But I also know that there are plenty of people who are increasingly wary of the changes that they see.  They worry about losing control of their way of life and feel that their area is being “taken over”.

They are nostalgic about the good old days and feel strongly that someone is to blame for letting this happen because they sure as hell weren’t asked.  For them, the proliferation of eastern European accents is a manifestation of their worries and reinforces a sense of powerlessness in the face of change.

Politicians are trying to navigate a way through these concerns and so pick up support; or at least limit their loss of support as a result.  Labour is aware that it isn’t generally trusted on the issue as it completely underestimated the impact of immigration from the A8 accession Countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia) in 2004.

The result was that there was no preparation for the scale and speed with which ambitious citizens from these countries moved to the UK.  Areas of the country that had previously been almost exclusively English speaking really noticed though.  And so the Tories talked tough on immigration at the last two elections and feel therefore that they need to do something.  Even the Lib Dems, who at the last election proposed an amnesty for some illegal immigrants, are now trying to sound tough.

But all of them suffer from the same thing – they sound inauthentic.  They are not believed when they say “we hear your pain.”  It’s not surprising because in reality they don’t really feel the pain at all.  Gordon Brown insulted a voter as being bigoted and was rightly castigated.  But most of his fellow politician’s criticism was that he was stupid enough to be overheard not that he felt it.

The result is that so much of what is said by politicians is crude positioning.  It is an attempt to show that they “get it” reinforced by some pretty bad policy.  So for instance, quotas are imposed that limit the number of non EU-immigrants – “GRRRRRR we are really really tough on foreigners” is the message.

But the impact is that our higher education sector is losing income and businesses are unable to get visas for the specialist staff that they need to grow.  Tough policies are rolled out to deal with broadly non-existent problems like health tourism or the abuse of the welfare system by immigrants.  And meanwhile we can’t actually limit the main source of migrants, the EU, even if we wanted to!

So what should politicians do?  Well, the first thing is realise that voters aren’t stupid.  Just standing up and making heavily pre-briefed speeches telling voters how worried you are, about the numbers of immigrants is pathetic.  They see straight through you as you are so clearly just telling them what they want to hear.  If anything, it confirms how much you really don’t get it!

They would be much better standing up and saying that “yes” some people are worried but that immigration has on the whole been good for the country and that our economy is stronger as a result.  That we are more likely to get growth if we stop limiting the supply of new talent from abroad.  That anyway the reality is that there is a limit to what we can do to stop immigration even if we wanted to.   And that providing a safe haven for asylum seekers is the right thing to do.

They could then concentrate on helping people, families and communities deal with change rather than pretending that they can stop it.  The tone doesn’t need to be preachy or moralistic.  It doesn’t need to force people to welcome diversity just because we do.  And it can certainly be respectful of people’s concerns.

Some voters might not like the message; but at least they would know that it was honest and that they weren’t being patronised.

It would also be the right thing to do.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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13 Responses to “Our politicians should tell the truth about immigration: it’s good for Britain”

  1. SadButMadLad says:

    A lot more nuanced and balanced than any thing said by Sunny Hundal. Sunny just does one track – immigrants are good, always; any one who doesn’t like immigrants in any way is a racist.

  2. swatantra says:

    As in most things there has to be balance or equilibrium and that means some kind of regulation or control. Sometimes the labour market dictates that we need to shift the equilibrium towards more labour because the economy demands it, ie what happened when labour was imported to supply our transport and manufacturing and health industries as in the days of Windrush etc
    Sometimes exernal events beyond our control result in an influx of immigrants we are honoured to take in like the holocaust, or the East African Asians.; sometimes its civil wars that we had fingers in that lead to mmigrants like in Afghanistan and Iraq fleeing to this country. Refugees and Asylum Seekers, mostly genuine but definitely a lot bogus.
    And sometimes its treaty obligations like the EU and reciprocal free movements of people across borders. ut sometimes we create headaches for ourselves by being overzealous and taking on more than our partners do, as in the case of the current batch of Romanians and Bulgars.
    Voters understand the need for economic migrants that bring skills. But what they are not prepared to put up with are bogus refugees and asylum seekers and people jumping ahead of the queue, and terrorists and criminals and undesirables. And that is the area that really needs to be sorted out with a bit more rigour , first to prevent their entry, and second to put them on the next plane back.
    Peters argument about Higher education expansion is valid only if they are genuine students coming in and then returning home; but they don’t.
    And where we have failed miserably is in training up our own people with those technical skills like plumbing and building and financial economists and engineers to service this growth we keep talking about.

  3. Nick says:

    There is the out and out racist position of the left. Migrants are better than Brits.

    There’s the next error. Because some migrant are good for the uk, all migrants must be good. Same logic as all Muslims are terrorists.

    It’s very simple. If you are good for the uk economically, you can stay, if not you have to go.

    11k a year in tax per migrant is the starter

  4. Nick says:

    40,000 have claimed and got asylum. It’s not about them. It’s all about racism and the Brits bad migrants good racism of Watt and co.

    It’s all about the if one migrant is good all just be good logic. The same logic of the BNP that all Muslims are terrorists, now that’s moved to be at the heart of labour.

    What we need is a simple test. Do you pay more tax than the government spends on you? Yes – you can stay, no – you have to go.

    Lets have a referenda on it. It’s called democracy, not your style of telling people what’s good for them dictatorship

  5. BenM says:


    “What we need is a simple test. Do you pay more tax than the government spends on you? Yes – you can stay, no – you have to go.”

    That has already been answered. Migrants DO pay more tax than is spent on them.

  6. Ex-Labour says:

    We need to put to bed this myth that immigration is economically beneficial. There are many studies which show that this is not the case, but the message is always the same from the left. Secondly those studies which do show some benefit all show that it comes mainly from highly educated highly paid migrants – NOT the unskilled low paid which are in fact a negative force on the economy and far outweight the skilled / edcuated. A recent meta-analysis also showed that where studies show migration as beneficial, a lot depends on the way migrants are “classified” in the statistics. A tweek here and there can sway the results massively.

    Until Labour are honest and open about this, and apologise for the last immigration debacle where their secret open door policy allowed millions in without any form of checks, they will again have no credibility. We have about 12,000 foreign criminals currently in our prisons which we probably can not deport due to Labour enshrining EU human rights legislation into UK law. Not included in this number are the estimated 200+ foreign murders, rapist and paedophiles on the run in the UK. How much resource is is taking to house these criminals and run around the country looking for them ?

    Conservatives, LibDems, UKIP have all grasped the public mood and concerns, yet here we are with yet another senior Labour supporter going in the opposite direction.

  7. e says:

    Can there be doubt that the economy benefits from the free movement of migrant workers from across the EU and specialist from further afield? I don’t see how…The point is, do all its workers?

    On the social side: I hate having to argue the worth of diverse communities, it should be self evident, maybe after 50 odd years of migration it would be were it not for the greed, laziness, untrustworthiness, I could go on, of so many of our state actors. The issue is and always has been how the resources and benefits that ensue from an unfettered economy are shared and maintained.

    Do we have a social security system which includes access to affordable housing; useful, quality training and an income that sustains life and a positive social identity – one which actively promotes the ability of a diverse indigenous community to compete amicably in a “flexible” jobs market? We haven’t come close. Quite the opposite, the indigenous population’s resilience has been hammered, and hammered again by the ever more demeaning ways of measuring need and intent which have been devised over the years. Efforts to reduce access to “our welfare” have reduced as all. The causes of “irrational hysteria” are plain enough to me, but then I live with them.

    I don’t myself hold with the few that our state actors have yet to notice that periods of “irrational hysteria” tend to accompany periods when new economic lows are foisted upon us.

  8. LesAbbey says:

    Peter really must live in a different world to Labour’s core support. I thought Mrs Duffy’s remarks might have made it through to him during the last election. Not included in his list of six themes are the greatest worries to the working class which are:

    1/ Are immigrants taking away jobs from those already here?
    2/ Does immigration reduce wage levels on some jobs?

    Now as Gordon Brown found out, a flippant reply to Mrs Duffy’s complaints on East European (EU) workers didn’t help much. So let me, if I may, slightly rephrase her remarks.

    Is freedom of movement of labour, in the EU and otherwise, being used to to ‘improve’ flexibility in the labour market? If it is, and that is one of the reasons for supporting it, then it is anti-labour movement policy. I would never call for a ban on immigration but an open door policy will only help put income pressure on the working class here.

    I could give examples of how the cost of getting electrical or plumbing work done in London has fallen, but for our political class this is probably appreciated and seen as a good thing.

  9. Albert says:

    White Genocide

  10. Paul J says:

    If the last labour government made one big mistake, it was to forget that economic distribution matters. Some people seem very keen to repeat that error, as the immigration debate shows.
    In a nutshell, immigration tends to benefit the wealthier, and hurt the poorer, parts of society. The net benefit that immigration brings accrue upwards, the costs downwards. This is not good, at least not for people on the left.

    Furthermore, mass immigration lessens the perceived legitiamacy of the welfare state. If people think benefits are unfairly weighted towards foreigners, they’ll stop supporting them. Which means they’ll vote for a party which wants to slash, or eliminate them altogether.

  11. savepenrhos says:

    It’s good for Britain ONLY IF it doesn’t cause competition for jobs, competition for social housing and competition for services.

    If it does then it isn’t good – quite the opposite in fact.

  12. The claim by the above article and by BenM that immigration is desirable because immigrants pay more in taxes than Brits is absurd: obviously immigrants pay more – they tend to be young or of prime employment age 20-40.

    As for the idea that young immigrants solve the aging population problem, that is equally absurd because (amazingly) immigrants themselves eventually grow old.

    As for Nick’s claim that BNP members think all Muslims are terrorists, that is pure rubbish. But my answer is that all Labour voters think all Tory voters are banksters – if you want a contest to see who can talk the most ridiculous bol*ocks.

  13. You claim “our higher education sector is losing income and businesses are unable to get visas for the specialist staff that they need to grow”. It seems extraordinary that after 13 years of Labour government we still need “specialist staff” from overseas. If employers focused more on providing proper training for recruits there would be no need for immigrants to fill UK job vacancies.

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