It’s time for a rational discussion on immigration

by John Stephenson

The divisions within the coalition appear to have widened of recent, as Vince Cable broke rank yet again to denounce the Tory approach to immigration. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr last week, the business secretary dismissed the proposed 75,000 cap on EU migrants as “illegal”, making reference to Enoch Powell in his assessment of Cameron’s populist style of politics.

Such a move speaks volumes for the quandary and confusion the Conservatives are facing in the run up to 2015 and Labour can now seek to cash in on any discord among the Tory frontbench.

Labour is right to steer clear of the battleground that has seen UKIP dominate the thinking of Tory strategists. Recent victories for the far-right party have arguably led to the prime minister’s tough stance on immigration and it bears a striking similarity to the concern surrounding James Goldsmith’s Referendum party, which went on to have little, in any, impact on the 1997 general election.

Though the Tories are keen to stress the errors of their predecessors for the “mess” they’ve found themselves in, this is not to say that Labour have not acknowledged the error or their ways.

In a speech to the IPPR at the Local Government Association, Chris Bryant admitted that the measures taken by the party when in government had at times been mistaken. A lack of transitional controls on workers from the eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 saw a disproportionately high volume of workers stream into the UK, while countries like Germany and France (which retained controls until the last possible moment in 2007) were spared such an influx.

Yes, the arrival of around 500,000 migrants between 2002 and 2010 created problems, but if the Conservatives are so willing to play the blame-game then it seems only fair that Labour return the favour. At the start of the Blair years, the government faced a mountain of around 71,000 asylum applications each years; dealt with by just 50 employees. The very position of Immigration Minister was created by the party to deal with the challenge.

By opting for a serious discussion on migration, Labour can avoid the calamities of old and focus on open and frank party politics within a debate that usually blurs the lines between fact and fiction. Remember Gillian Duffy, the Rochdale pensioner labelled a “bigoted woman” by Gordon Brown during the 2010 election campaign? That was a political disaster for Labour prompted by a lady intent on engaging the PM in conversation over immigration.

Brown was quick to move the discussion on, only commenting by saying that the tide goes both ways, as over a million Britons have flocked to the continent. Whether or not she was “bigoted” is irrelevant, but what is certainly possible is that she was caught up in the media storm that usually surrounds itself around immigration.

Immigrants have for too long been scapegoats for parties in need of resurgence in the polls and Cable was right to call out Cameron on his empty political gesture of the 75,000 cap. Any potential referendum on the EU is far from certain and the PM will have known that such a move is impossible under British membership.

On the other hand, a rational discussion on the problems of immigration will only pay dividends for the country in light of the economic recovery of recent and freeing ourselves from the fear of being labelled “racist” is just a start.

At present, a cost-benefit approach to the issue shows that immigration has a positive economic impact and a UCL study found that, between 1995 and 2011, benefits outweighed the costs by around £9bn. And just today, the Centre for Economic and Business Research has predicted that the UK will become Europe’s biggest economy, overtaking Germany by 2030, partially as a result of immigration.

Though in certain areas immigration has seemed to be synonymous with a decline in living standards, much of this comes as a result of a housing shortage not helped by Tory policy which allows landlords in the social sector to charge up to 80% of the going market-rate.

A sensible discussion on immigration will allow us to move on to the real root causes of the challenges we face in this country, such as housing.

Labour plans to build 200,000 homes a year have been labelled as “statist” by Conservative commentators, yet the Labour policy review pledges to simply aid tenants within the private sector while regulating the letting of non-decent housing stock which, according to the English Housing Survey, currently comprises 35% of the market.

Talking rationally about immigration will strip away attempts to scapegoat immigrants which divert the debate and expose the real failings of this government.

John Stephenson is a final year student at Lancaster University

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4 Responses to “It’s time for a rational discussion on immigration”

  1. swatantra says:

    The fact is you can’t stop economic migration; its impossible; people with skills will always seek out opportunities for a better and more rewarding life, where opportunities at home are denied them. Largely because the Regimes back in the homeland are pretty much feudal and regressive and backward. There is an irony here. You actually want to keep the skilled in their homeland to develop their country, but they want out. And who can blame them. What I am not so keen on in immigration through asylum or refugees spilling across Europe, because you get a whole lot of a mixed bag, som with talent some without, the goo, the bad and the ugly with blood on their hands, and the latter we should definitiely keep out. And the preachers of hate; and the radical fundamementalists of whatever persuasion the christian, moslem or jew, or whatever.

  2. Ex-labour says:

    There is one massive problem for you and Labour which is that immigration controls are very popular with the electorate including Labour voters as all the polls show. Coupled with this is that immigration is yet another issue on which the British public do not trust Labour. Miliband made some half hearted attempt to gloss over Labours secret open door policy exposed some years ago by a civil servant who was subsequently sacked. As usual he spoke and said nothing and just left people more confused on where Labour stood.

    As for the housing issue I find it incredible that nobody within Labour equates a huge influx of people in a short space of time to having these issues along with pressures on schools, hospitals, social services etc. Until Labour acknowledge this then there is no way forward.

    As for the “statist” comment, that’s a classic spin. The problem is not with building houses, but it is statist to steal the land to do it. Is this fifties Russia or the Uk ? Labour has not put forward credible answers as to where they will get the money to build.

    We need also to put this myth to bed on the economic gain of taking in so many migrants. There was a meta analysis done around 12 to18 months ago of all of these so called studies into the economics. It found that the positive results were largely down to how the data was classified by the researchers and even a small adjustment gave a negative result. So we are back to lies, damned lies and statistics.

    There is no doubt that highly skilled migrants are a positive benefit as they have skills we need. However Labours track record of letting in one armed window cleaners from Bulgaria on a nod and a wink will not wash this time round.

    Once again we have Labour swimming against the tide of public opinion as Zen-like Miliband does on numerous other issues.

  3. treborc says:

    500,000 god that’s gone down from 5 million

  4. southern voter says:

    Good article.But I am afraid labour has its work cut out trying
    to convince the public it has a credible immigration policy.
    The period 2004-2010 destroyed trust in labour with regards to managed migration
    and will take a long time for it to be regained.

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