If we learned one thing from policymaking in the 1980s and 1990s it is that an election-winning platform has to extend beyond our core vote and have wide. If we remember that, and if those of us who will deliver the leaflets and knock on doors realise that this may mean compromise on our part, then we can certainly write another election-winning manifesto.
The problem, so far as immigration is concerned, is this: on schools, health and the economy we can construct a platform that will satisfy our core Labour sympathisers and at the same time attract a wider group of electors under the roof of our ‘broad church’. But if we design a policy on immigration that appeals to a lot of what we hear on the doorstep, our ‘broad church’ will attract a great many people who, frankly, most of us on the progressive side of politics would not want to share any sort of roof with!
The ‘perception’ of many people is that immigrants are workshy, able to access benefits that the rest of us cannot and have a shortcut to social housing. It’s nonsense, of course, but it is the perception of many people and that ‘perception’ is ‘truth’ to them.
We can make arguments about the economic benefits of immigration but if you are out of work and living in an area with a high immigrant population, your perception may well be that immigrants take British jobs. We can explain that there is a big difference between an economic migrant and an asylum seeker fleeing persecution but many members of the public see this as a distinction without a difference. And try telling someone whose perception is that east Europeans are undercutting the British workforce that the free movement of people in the EU means we can all take jobs in France and see how far you get at winning their vote!
So our first task has to be to change how people perceive immigration and Labour’s attitude to it. Let’s spell out what an acceptable immigration policy should look like and then be prepared to defend it. Immigration is a necessary part of a vibrant economy and a decent society expects its immigration policy to also have a humanitarian aspect and we shouldn’t be afraid to say so. But we also need to address public perceptions by stressing that economic immigration should be meeting skill and labour shortages and should be a short-term solution while we train local people to take those positions; that no economic migrant should have access to benefits until they have paid sufficient in taxes; and that asylum seekers should be rigorously and rapidly assessed to ensure they are genuinely fleeing persecution.
Of course, these are ‘principles’ that underpinned what we were trying to achieve in government. The problem was that people had a different perception. Address that perception and while our immigration policy might not be a vote-winner it need not lose us votes either. Ally it to a set of policies that show we are ‘on the side of ordinary people’ when it comes to jobs, aspirations and services and, without question, we can win in 2015.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.