Instead of conducting a policy arms race, Labour should stop conniving in blatant myths
Politics in Britain has turned nasty. Shirkers versus strivers. Scotland versus England. Migrants versus natives. We are in the land of divide and rule. And all the political parties are at it.
Nowhere is this truer than in the debate on immigration. Even before its election success, UKIP had spooked both Labour and the Conservatives. For months they have engaged in a Dutch auction of attempting to trump each other with ever tighter immigration controls. Now UKIP’s electoral breakthrough has thrown down the gauntlet to all three main political parties and it can’t be ignored.
Their response so far has been a promise to listen more to public concerns — code for more stringent immigration policy.
Such an approach has serious consequences for the wellbeing of both our economy and our society. Nor will it work politically. Every time David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband give an inch on the issue, Nigel Farage takes a mile. Instead of kowtowing to UKIP’s unpleasant form of populism, now is the moment for all three main parties to change tack and make a positive argument for the benefits immigration brings to Britain.
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Of course migration has to be managed. A free-for-all is in no one’s interests. Ensuring newcomers are integrated into local communities, not separated from them, makes good social sense. Equally, sending a signal that foreign workers are not welcome in Britain would be a calamity for our country. Turning the clock back 50 years to create a fortress Britain cannot work in a modern globalised economy.
Across the board, the political parties should stop conniving in myths about migration and do far more to explode them. Recent migrants for example are half as likely to claim working-age benefits as Brits. One study found that eastern European migrants contributed 37% more in taxes than the cost of public services they consumed. That’s because most migrants, if they are not students, come here to work. They are young and healthy. The majority leave before they get older.
Young migrants are a bulwark against an ageing population. Demographic change could make our public services and welfare state unaffordable. Unless, of course, migrants help to cover the gap by working, caring and paying their taxes here. In the decades to come it will be a competitive advantage for Britain to be open, not closed.
Some object that such openness would see immigrants taking jobs away from British workers. There is no factual basis to support that contention. Every day in Britain 20,000 people start a new job; 85% of them are British born. Nor, under the previous Labour government’s immigration policies, did British workers lose out in the jobs market. Between 1998 and 2008 the employment rate for British-born adults was above 73% in every single quarter, the highest sustained rate in our economic history. So Labour in particular should stop apologising for its handling of immigration policies and instead make the proper arguments in favour of managed migration — something it did in government but seems reluctant to do now.
Instead of preparing to concede yet more ground on the issue, Mr Miliband should have the courage of his convictions and come out fighting. He should be joined by Messrs Cameron and Clegg in making the economic case for managed migration. The government’s own figures show that levels of net migration of 250,000 per year boost annual GDP by 0.5%. Conversely hitting the government’s target to reduce immigration below 100,000 a year would reduce GDP per head by 3 per cent by 2060. There is no rational economic case for increasing such burdens at this point in the recovery.
If our political leaders can resist an unseemly arms race on immigration and instead give some leadership they will find ready allies in organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry and Universities UK. Both have serious concerns about the negative impact of unbalanced migration policy. Overseas students alone bring £8 billion a year into our economy but British universities are forced to compete with one hand tied behind their backs because of artificial caps on numbers.
Today’s debate puts short-term political considerations ahead of the long-term economic and social interests of our country. The weekend’s election results are a test for Mr Miliband as much as they are for Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg. They have a choice: to retreat in the face of the myths and fears of the anti-immigrationists or instead to champion a modern, open Britain that embraces peoples of all cultures who are prepared to work hard and add to our future economic success. It is time for all the progressive forces in our politics — in whatever party they happen to reside — to step up to the plate. To lead, not follow.
Alan Milburn and John Hutton are both former Labour secretaries of state
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Observations: There are two main kinds of immigration: overseas, especially from Muslim countries that are incompatible with the West, and immigration from the poorer Eastern Europe, that drives down wages.
It is the latter that the EU election was fought over, but I suspect more people find the former far more disconcerting.
Huge communities of Muslims will never integrate. Just look around you, stupid Labour! And you brought them in!
The Eastern Europeans will eventually integrate (unless they are Muslims, of which there quite a few in Eastern Europe), but there is a short term problem with wages. That Labour does not recognize this is scarcely believable. What is the name of your party, idiots? You are carrying water for the businessmen! Where is your commitment to the labouring classes?
They are not a bulwark against an ageing population. “The majority leave before they get older.” You must be kidding me. They come here, work for low wages, but as soon as they get older and truly in need of the services of the welfare state, they will return to their poverty-stricken countries. Yeah right.
That is, unless they have discovered the Fountain of Youth and will never grow old! For anything is possible in Labour Dreamland.
And that is, unless they have no ability to bring in their elderly relatives too: “family reunification” is the phrase, and it applies to all immigrants, especially the ones from poor countries who want their older parents to have a better life. Labour Dreamland again.
Sample comment left by enraged reader:
What do Labour politicians know about economics or what is in the best economic interest of this country? Labour have just left an economic catastrophe of biblical proportions for others to clear up, a record which has been repeated by every Labour government since the party was founded.
Nigel Farage is not a racist, which is a slur used by socialists to stifle debate. UKIP is aiming to establish managed migration, something which Labour politicians have wilfully failed to achieve. I would agree we need immigration, but not mass unskilled migration, which the Labour party encouraged in its attempts to gerrymander future elections.
We are a small over crowded island with a shortage of housing, schools and health facilities. Migration should be tuned to the needs of the country and controlled by our national parliament. Listening to Mr Milliband in the aftermath of his defeat, it is clear he has not heard the countries verdict. He simply restates his position while arrogantly claiming that he as an intellectual knows better.