For Labour, the hard work on immigration starts now

by Anthony Painter

Why is Labour obsessing about immigration? Try the fact that – according to a recent Lord Ashcroft poll – two of the top three most salient issues are welfare dependency and controlling immigration. 32% and 20% of Labour supporters respectively favour the Conservative positions on these issues. No party that seriously expects to compete for office can fail to respond to public anxiety on these issues. Welfare and immigration are tightly linked in concern about the failures of the modern state.

Reponses to this have fallen into two camps: there’s not really a problem and there is problem and it requires a response. Ed Miliband falls into the latter camp.

The mistake the former camp makes is that it thinks that it can win the argument with numbers when this is an instinctive, cultural and emotional set of issues. So the fact that there is a net contribution by migrants to the public purse or that few migrants come here with the purpose of claiming benefits or free-riding on the NHS simply doesn’t cut through. Nor will it. The issue is not the quantum of free-riding but that the system allows it. There is also a broader sense that welfare has become simultaneously marginal so it benefits the few, out of control in terms of cost and fosters dependency. It is about fundamental institutional logic and many people see the welfare state – with the exception of child benefit and pensions – as something for other people at an exorbitant cost which we collectively shoulder.

More specifically on immigration, trust has broken down in our ability to control the flow of migration – particularly at the lower skill level. The fact that this may be to our broad economic benefit, improve public services, or better finance an ageing society or the national debt do not seem to counter-balance the anxiety over loss of control.

If your immigration and welfare systems do not have wide public legitimacy then you have a problem. That is the situation.

Some ‘I feel your pain’ rhetoric is not enough. Ed Miliband went further than that. He came up with some practical changes to protect low-paid workers. He emphasised the importance of English language provision in colleges. He demonstrated an awareness that some low paid workers have been negatively impacted by migration.

This is a modest and practical package of measures which was then added to by Yvette Cooper on Thursday. Labour is daintily walking onto this territory and that is the right thing to do – it requires care. The only element of the PPB that left me uncomfortable in terms of political message (the mood of the broadcast left a little to be desired – bleak or what?) was where he seemed to promise a reduction in low-skilled migration. Given that the bulk of such migration comes from the EU with its freedom of movement, that would be a foolhardy commitment. There are no guarantees – proponents of the immigration cap beware.

What Miliband’s approach to immigration shows is that Labour has understood that the bulk of the British population aren’t in the grip of a popular mythology. It’s an expression of democratic choice. People are worried and serious political parties have to respond.

The question now is how far Labour will travel down this road as it is only really at the beginning – though it has now gone beyond the ‘we’re now talking about it’ stage. Yvette Cooper’s speech argued in favour of limiting intra-EU access to benefits in order to protect the current welfare state. This is a seductive argument but it fails as the anxieties move from immigration to welfare to culture to economic opportunity and round again.

Contribution, responsibility, opportunity and reciprocity all play a part here. It applies to access to welfare, work, migration, and what we expect of each other as citizens. The state provides support when we are in genuine need, helps us develop to skills and knowledge to prosper, ensures that all contribute and in return we have to do the responsible thing.

All this trips off the tongue easily but it’s actually very hard. It entails major reform and there are always losers as well as winners from reform – it requires us to choose between different groups of people. Labour is proving to be very bad resisting supporting the losers of change which is seen as a choice. To move to a more contributory welfare system will mean that there will be losers. Currently, this is where the Labour party gets stuck.

Fundamentally, there is a gap between the instincts about what is fair and just amongst those who are centre-left activists and the bulk of the British public. There is agreement that there should be fair taxation of the rich, an NHS, and a welfare state but a large cross-section of the public also believe that welfare should be based firmly on contribution, immigration should be controlled, and the government should be tough on crime.

The choice for Labour – and it is a choice – is whether to respond to these preferences. It’s simple really: have a convincing response or leave it open to others to do so. You don’t get to have an electorate of your choosing.

Having said that, on the immigration side, what exactly is the concern about an agenda that invests in people, tackles law-breaking bosses, ensures that everyone has a chance to learn English, defends the legitimacy of the welfare state, and manages immigration with some of the lowest paid in mind? Ed Miliband was clearly warm towards diversity also (he dropped the pretty vapid ‘common bond’ stuff from last year though it did reappear in Yvette Cooper’s speech.)

Now the really tough terrain approaches. If Miliband is smart he will be able to weave together a pragmatic approach to immigration, signal a clear shift on welfare reform, build a skills, innovation and productivity agenda, and ensure that all have the basic chances to succeed. Everything is connected. The task is not just to win an election but to find a way of governing with legitimacy. If Labour doesn’t find a legitimate centre-left approach to immigration and welfare then the alternative is a centre-right or even far right approach. To allow the space for that isn’t principled. It’s an abdication – and one with harmful consequences.

Anthony Painter is an author and a critic

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9 Responses to “For Labour, the hard work on immigration starts now”

  1. Nick says:

    So the fact that there is a net contribution by migrants to the public purse


    Absolute lie. Blatant lie and completely racist too.

    You’re saying that British people aren’t as good as foriegners. How racist can you be?

    Next, the state spends 11K per person per year. That needs a salary of over 40 K a year.

    That’s not the case for migration over all. They don’t earn over 40K a year on average.

  2. Saying there is a net contribution doesn’t mean that migrants contribute more in absolute terms. It just means migrants contribute more in taxes than they use in public services or extract in benefits.

    Actually, it’s not a matter of being ‘better’ but mainly to do with the economic and demographic characteristics of the migrant population – which is in part a factor of the types of immigration controls we have in place.

    You have proved my point about why numbers don’t really work in this debate quite nicely though.

  3. Ex-Labour says:

    The “net contribution” line is often trotted out by the left, but there are many economic studies that dispute this. Even those which are positive towards migration recognise that the overall benefit is small and subject to how the statistical classification of migrants is done. Certainly most (postive and negative) studies conclude that unskilled migrants are a drain on our national resources.

    The main point is here though, that Labour are defining the problem in their terms in talking about learning English and cracking down on employers. The basic truth is that the population wants less migration and is not really interested in the health and welfare of migrants. Until Labour grasp this and the fact that it was their secret “open door” policy under Blair /Brown that has contributed massively to the current situation they will have no credibility with the electorate.

    At least the Tories understand the publics issues and are trying to react to them. The sort of vague, flimsy rhetoric from Milliband and Cooper will do nothing to raise Labour’s lack of credibility.

    If Labour recognised the issue, put say a 5 year residency requirement on immigrants before recieving benefits and make them pay for NHS care, or alternatively make employers responsible for health and welfare coverage, then Labour may make some headway. Other EU countries have restrictions in place, so why should it be wrong of us to do the same ?

    Its clear the poorest people and communities are suffering as migrants drive down salaries and distort the labour market in general so by imposing restrictions directly or constraints on employers it may be beneficial to our own welfare claimants and unemployed as well as protecting the public purse.

  4. Robin Thorpe says:

    I think Anthony is right on this one; immigration is a complex issue because the electorate consider this (and welfare) in an emotional context. Therefore regardless of the stastics the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) must have a response to immigration that is founded in an emotional context. Regardless of what the statistics say about migrant labour and their impact on our communities those opposed to immigration and their allies in the media will find the exception to the rule and exploit this story as a stereotype.
    In particular I agree with the concluding remarks; “a pragmatic approach” and “everything is connected”. These concerns cannot be viewed in isolation. When individual issues are considered independantly then solutions are provided like the ‘pasty tax’ and the ‘bedroom tax’. Ideas that in isolation might make sense, but viewed holistically just aren’t practicable.

  5. Robin Thorpe says:

    @ ex-labour; would you be willing to accept an identity card being imposed on everyone then? Becauase that is what it would take to prevent people ‘exploiting’ our welfare provision. The management of healthcare and social security provision would have to change and be predicated on the basis that no-one is entitled to help until you prove otherwise. For this to be protected against fraud the identity card would need to be biometric and therefore very expensive. Think about the IT database that would be required to ensure that all applicants are entitled to care because they are in work/british national/married to british national/resident for 5 years etc etc. Is this what you want?

  6. savepenrhos says:

    It’s not really immigration that hacks the public off and gets their hackles up – it’s having to compete with them for resources that are under immense pressure.

    Is quite easy to address:-

    You cannot have social housing until you have been resident X number of years.

    You cannot have JSA, Local Housing Allowance, mortgage interest relief until you have been resident X number of years.

    You cannot have child benefit, working tax credits until you have been resident X number of years.

    You cannot have British citizenship until you have been resdient X number of years.

    If you bring elderly residents to the UK ( as many south Asian families do), it is entirely at your cost. They will not qualify for home helps, pensions, etc etc.

    None of the above is difficult to enact. None of it.

  7. Ex-Labour says:

    @ Robin Thorpe

    Yes to your first question. I have worked overseas and had an identity card – whats your problem with this? Moreover I could not live in the country without having a job and I had to pay for healthcare and my employer had to guarantee that should I be unable to pay for rent, taxes etc they would pay. What is the problem with this ?

    I think you are overstating the complexity. It could be done using the national insurance number. If a migrant wasn’t allowed to have a UK NI until say 5 years working residence, then they could not claim benefits or access to healthcare or education etc without payment.

    Unfortunately those who favour immigration sometimes overstate their case and create issues where there are none. Just lets have a fair system. If you pay nothing in you get nothing out – thats fair enough is it not ?

  8. Robin Thorpe says:

    @Ex-Labour; I agree that social security should be a return for paying in – a national insurance scheme. The NI number is the basis for this but in itself it is not enough. I still think you are being too simplistic about your solution. The issues that you accuse me of creating are issues of how your proposed solution could be administrated. The NI number is probably adequate for deciding on JSA, pension and/or sickness benefit but in order to make judgements on peoples access to housing, education, healthcare, libraries and childrens services then the systems need bringing together in a single record. To protect this information then biometrics would be required. I am not diametrically opposed to identity cards on libertarian grounds, as some are, but the ramifications of their introduction needs to be thought about.
    Furthermore, what you are proposing in your response to my question is just not viable without leaving the EU. Many countries still require an employer to sponsor and guarantor an immigrant worker; but EU agreements mean labout can move freely between nations and have access to education and healthcare.
    The issue of complexity that I raised in my initial response was to do with the philosophical approach that the Labour Party have towards immigration. As a nominally democratic socialist party they have a moral obligation to at least consider the effects of legislation on the workers of the world. I know that this hasn’t stopped Labour governments in the past from introducing protectionist policies, but it is still a part of the socialist aspect. For those on the liberal side of the party there is the issue of free-trade – a free labour market should be self-levelling (should!). The market would decide what the value of the work is etc. Then there is the issue of immigrants kept in labour-camps and controlled by gang-masters. Then there is the skilled workers, builders, plumbers etc who are doing the same jobs as ‘our boys’ but cheaper; don’t the people who pay these builders in cash have a responsibility to ‘their nation’. The issue of immigrants entitlements to welfare and housing is inextricably bound up with other issues to do with labor, human rights and european politics. I’m not creating these issues, I’m just asking you to recognise them. It’s very easy to say in a comment, just do this, but another question entirely to carry it through. Next you’ll be proposing an in/out referendum on the EU in 2017 after you’ve renegotiated the UKs role in Europe.

  9. savepenrhos says:

    Several major trades unions openly support an immediate in/out referendum – the RMT is one. Then UKIP’s raison d’etre is exactly the same. Most tories also demand an immediate referendum – and I can tell you now that in the area of Wales where I live at ground level most LibDems, Plaid and Labour voters also want an immediate referendum and want out.

    Cameron’s promise to hold one after 2015 if he wins is seen for exactly what it is – hollow and sooner or later his advisors will tell him the only way to win the 2015 election is hold it before hand – or at the same time so that it becomes a defining election issue.

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