How Labour can win on immigration and welfare

UK Border Agency

To regain traction with the public on immigration and welfare, Labour needs an over-arching, strategic policy programme with a strong and compelling narrative.

It’s said that Labour faces two “toxic” issues as it learns the lessons of the 2010 general election: welfare reform and immigration. We’re not seen as tough on either. But as we seek to develop our policy response, it’s important that we should understand what lies behind public perceptions in each of those areas, for their history is not one and the same.

It’s certainly not the case that either immigration or welfare reform were neglected by the Brown and Blair Labour governments. Early promises were made in relation to both, and for welfare reform, changes followed thick and fast . What’s more, until the global financial crash, in many ways the approach was successful. Employment rose, especially lone parent employment (which increased from 44% in the mid-1990’s to 57% by 2008), unemployment was at a historic low, benefits fraud fell significantly, and child and pensioner poverty were substantially reduced. There’s lots to be proud of in that track record, yet somehow our message went wrong.

Labour thinking now on welfare reform must therefore draw on the success of our policies in reducing poverty and increasing employment. That’s why the interest in recasting the early success of the “rights and responsibilities” narrative, focusing on new concepts of contribution, a so-called “something for something” approach, is to be welcomed. Whether this can be sold to a sceptical public remains to be seen, but it’s certainly right to explore it.

But immigration is another matter: here, performance did not outshine perception.  At a meeting of the all-party migration group last week, Dr Robert Ford of the University of Manchester highlighted the nature of the problem. He presented research to show complex and contradictory public views on immigration, though voters’ attitudes are broadly negative. Against this backdrop, Labour’s policy response simply wasn’t speedy enough, nor sufficiently coherent. An ever-shriller rhetoric was at odds with the policy reality.

That’s not to say we got everything wrong, but the lack of attention to proper management structures in the first Blair government led to significant problems, and increased negative public perceptions, as backlogs of cases came tumbling out of the cupboards. The impact of the accession of the new European Union states was neither properly anticipated nor adequately planned for. The rise of global terrorism, and the decision to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, led to increased public hostility to what Dr Ford describes as perceived “problematic” migrant (and settled minority) groups, compounded by mixed messages from political opinion leaders on the desirability or otherwise of multiculturalism. No wonder such effective steps as were taken by Labour, improving monitoring and management systems, and a decline in migration flows, were scarcely noticed or given credence.

The truth is our policy approach needed to be far more strategic, and placed in a broader context. As Dr Ford explained, among the contradictory attitudes held by the voters is the recognition of the contribution made by some migrant workers to public services and to the economy, while at the same time there’s considerable hostility to migrants consuming public services and “taking our jobs”. So Labour must be braver and more transparent in exposing the trade-offs implicit in managing migration, and in our dialogue with the voters. After all, capping the number of migrants is a race to the bottom that we simply can’t win.

Better therefore to concentrate on values-led policies that improve labour market prospects and employment conditions for everyone, and that are ahead of the curve in addressing scarce service provision (housing’s the current headache, but already we can anticipate that schools are next in line to feel the pressures as rolls increase – let’s start our policy planning now). And, given that voters do understand the contribution made by migrants, we should make use of the “something for something” narrative, exactly as we’re now doing for welfare reform.

Hardening attitudes and picking off “toxic” issues one by one won’t persuade the voters.  New Labour’s great strength was its over-arching , strategic policy programme, and the compelling story we could tell as a result. If we’re both to address voter scepticism and remain true to our values, that’s the approach we need again.

Kate Green MP is MP for Stretford and Urmston and former chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group. She also served as a magistrate for 16 years.

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