OK, let’s talk about immigration.
Watching the debate about immigration that raged during the Labour party conference was illuminating. It’s clear that Labour MPs are torn between repeating their traditional mantra about the benefits of immigration and their newly found belief that doing so will lose them dozens of seats at the next general election.
While the Labour party are currently having a tough time over their stance on immigration it would be foolish for the Conservative party to be blinded by schadenfreude. We are the party in government and this needs to be addressed on our watch. It’s a tricky, party political issue for the Labour party, it’s a core social policy issue for us.
Immigration is such a sensitive subject, with many opportunities to offend, anger, provoke or distress and few opportunities to enlighten. Even as my fingers hover over the keyboard on the computer I think to myself “should I just stay well clear of this issue?”
The subject is such a sensitive one because it is so often about everything except immigration. It draws in arguments about racism and anti-racism, class, poverty and prosperity, age and geography.
While immigration is not just about race it is impossible to debate migration without doing so through the prism of race. Diane Abbott did exactly that in a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference claiming the Brexit vote was driven primarily by concerns about immigration and those concerns were driven by racism. In her simplistic model nice people aren’t racist, nice people therefore aren’t concerned by immigration and therefore nice people didn’t vote for Brexit. Oh, that the world were that simple.
The problem with Ms Abbott’s childishly binary worldview is that it leads to equally simplistic policy responses. The debate has been so polarised for so long it has become almost meaningless. Two groups shouting “immigration good” or “immigration bad” at each other is no use to us.
I owe my life to immigration, literally. My mother came from Sierra Leone in the 1960s and met my English born father in one of the few ethnic melting pots at the time, a West End jazz club. My mother worked in the NHS her whole career, an organisation that relied then and now on immigrant labour. I’ve lived a comfortable, stable, middle class life and immigration has had a positive impact on me throughout it.
If I extrapolate from my own experience I can be left with no conclusion other than immigration is purely good thing. But not everyone has lived a life like mine. There are millions of families who have struggled to find work, find housing, get their children into good local schools. Seen through their eyes large scale immigration is scary.
If your job is largely immune from competition driven by immigration, if you are a procurer of human labour, the beneficiary of reduced labour costs, then immigration can only be a good thing. If you are the supplier of middle or low skilled labour then increased competition is harmful.
All the credible research show that immigration has had a significant and positive impact on the UK economy. I have no doubt that this is true, but that is not the same as saying that it has had a significant and positive impact on everyone in the UK economy.
There are winners and losers from immigration, and dismissing the concerns of those who have lost out or who are fearful of losing out is politically and morally wrong.
Brexit gives us the opportunity to re-evaluate our attitudes and policies towards immigration. We have for many years focussed almost exclusively on the raw numbers, spending little time discussing the skills mix, the permanency or otherwise, cultural links, or any of the other potentially relevant factors.
We have also ducked some of the important conversations that we should have had about attitudes to work. Speaking to people in the care sector, farming, hospitality industry, and the facilities management industry I’m told that British people are unwilling to work in these sectors irrespective of salary. I don’t know if this is true, but there is clearly a noticeable lack of British workers in these areas.
Building a perfectly fair and successful immigration policy isn’t going to be easy, perhaps it will prove to be impossible, but I hope there will now be a political environment where debate can be had without lazy accusations of racism being thrown around.
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