Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Keep it simple

Those of us who knock on doors or watch lower league football often hear the same complaint: don’t complicate things; keep it simple! Whether it is the delights of watching York City or the difficulties of explaining policy on a Walthamstow doorstep, things are better when they are simple. That is certainly the case when it comes to immigration.

To be workable, immigration policy has to be accepted as fair by the majority of people. And to be accepted as fair, it has to be easily explainable. Unfortunately, the principles underpinning our current system are anything but simple – which makes the system difficult to justify. This government has made things worse by chasing cheap headlines through an overall cap on immigration which keeps out the very people our economy needs. There may be good reasons for freedom of movement for all European Union citizens, but it is difficult to explain why an unemployed Italian labourer should be able to move here while an Indian PhD student is denied access.

This is not for a moment to play Farage-light – it is simply to say that, when the rules are inexplicable, we should not be surprised when the public thinks that the system is broken. An over-complicated system appears to have no underpinning in principle – who do we want to come to this country and why? Is our immigration system an instrument of foreign policy or of economic policy? What is the point of it? Some may say that we shouldn’t air these questions in public but this is self-defeating nonsense. If we refuse to talk about it, it won’t stop these conversations happening; they will just happen without us. We will become irrelevant.

And when it comes to immigration, there is no doubt – many rules are at best baffling. There has been much gnashing of rightwing teeth about the prospect of Turkey joining the EU and exporting thousands of its citizens to the UK. But this worry is 40 years out of date: any Turkish citizen can apply for free to live in Britain now as long as they are going to set up a business here. Earlier this year, a Turkish shoe-shiner won his appeal to be allowed to set up his business on London streets with just £500 of capital. This rule and the judgement in this case may be perfectly reasonable, but there is nothing simple about applying different rules to different non-EU countries, so the system appears to have no basis in fairness or principle.

Other rules appear to discriminate against British citizens. An EEA citizen living in the UK can bring in a non-EEA spouse without any financial checks – as EU law requires. However, under rules introduced by this government, a British citizen who has always worked here cannot bring in a non-EEA spouse without showing that they earn more than £18,600 (or higher if they have children). But a British citizen who is returning from working in another EEA state can bring in their non-EEA spouse without the financial checks. If your Aussie husband is a student and you want to live here, you’ve got to get a job in Belgium first! This is neither simple, nor fair. Financial requirements might be a good thing, but it can never be right to apply harsher rules to British citizens than to others. Try justifying that on the doorstep!

Some might question why we have to justify these things on the doorstep at all – aren’t they just too difficult to have a popular conversation about? My answer would be a resounding ‘no’. Russell Brand has made an interesting point about alienation from the political process. But, whatever you think about his attempts to turn non-voting into a positive value (and give me Robert Webb over Russell Brand any day of the week), he is right about the gap that has opened up between the governors and the governed, and he is right that this is a bad thing. He is wrong that there was some golden age of political discussion, certainly in this country, if not in ancient Athens. Was political discussion rife in an era when people knew their place, MPs visited their constituencies once a year and the BBC wouldn’t report on anything which was due to be debated in parliament in the coming fortnight?

Gaps have developed partly (but only partly) because the political consensus has been that some subjects are just too difficult to be discussed. Immigration is central to this – both who should be allowed to live here, and how we would like them to interact and integrate into the country when they get here. The trouble is that these political ‘no-go’ areas are precisely the topics that the public wants to ‘go’ to – and wants politicians to discuss with them, even if they end up not agreeing. Here is where the gap develops, into which steps the United Kingdom Independence party and more unsavoury characters, who give the public the discussion that they want, even if their solutions are far from those that the country needs.

We should never be afraid of having these discussions, whether they occur in the pub or on the doorstep. The solutions may not be simple, but the logic, principles and values behind the solutions always should be. Unfortunately, our current immigration system fails this test: complicated solutions betray muddled values and apparently shifting principles. It is right that such a system doesn’t attract support.

Rules should be based on compassion for those fleeing oppression and welcome for those who will contribute to our economy. These are values which most will buy into, even many of that slight majority of Brits who currently say that we should have no immigration at all. That statistic sounds unpromising, but what they may actually be saying is – ‘no more immigration under these rules, which we don’t understand and which we don’t think are fair’. If the rules were to be based on solid, predictable, values which could be strongly enforced on the pavement and vigorously justified on the doorstep, then my hunch is that this majority would prove a soft one.

We need to rediscover (or just discover?) the courage of our convictions on immigration. We should be clear – we believe that our country and our economy need immigrants, but we are not in favour of a free-for-all. We want rules which are simple to understand, fair to administer and easy to enforce. And we will create a system which works for those of us who are already here, those who want to come here, and those who we want to come here. That would be a system in which complex rules are a recognition of a complex world, not a substitute for enduring values. Simples!

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Mark Rusling is a Labour and Cooperative councillor in the London borough of Waltham Forest and writes the Changing to Survive column. He tweets @MarkRusling

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Photo: Jarkko T

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Mark Rusling

is cabinet member for economic development and corporate resources on Waltham Forest council

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