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