In the run-up to the lifting of restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian migrants at the start of this year Britain’s immigration debate reached a new level of panic. This culminated in dozens of journalists – and a few politicians – gathering in Luton airport to meet passengers on a new year’s day flight from Romania who, for the most part, already lived in the UK but had gone home for Christmas.
In advance of this projected ‘invasion’ the prime minister announced new curbs on migrant workers’ access to benefits. These were uncontroversial in themselves because conditionality on benefits is the right thing to do. But the measures announced ignored the inconvenient fact that most European Union migrants come to work, not to claim and that the proportion of people claiming working-age benefits in the UK who are EU migrants is tiny. That didn’t matter, because the prime minister, driven by terror on the Tory backbenches over the threat from Ukip, wanted to do something, anything, to pretend somehow he could deal with this ‘problem’.
Labour has not shared the Tory pessimism about this issue but its rhetoric has become more apologetic and two things which are very different have become merged. The first is the official underestimation of the number of people who would come to the UK following the enlargement of the EU to take in eastern and central European countries. And the second is that this underestimate somehow proves the whole thing was an enormous mistake. It is a very important point to make in the immigration debate that these two things are not one and the same.
Underlying all of this recent debate is the view that the opening up of the UK’s labour market to workers from central and eastern Europe was wrong and that immigration is a problem to be dealt with. Few want to acknowledge that EU migrants pay more in to the tax and benefit system than they take out. Or the energy and creativity contributed by those who want to make a new life in the UK. Or that having the brightest students from around the world come to study at our great universities is an advantage for our country and something that has lasting trade, cultural and political benefits.
Much has been made of tightening minimum wage or other labour market laws because of EU migrants ‘undercutting’ workers already here. Exploitation in the labour market does happen. Migrant workers are sometimes poorly treated and regarded as cheap labour. If the law needs strengthening we should certainly do it. But we are kidding ourselves on if we think the only reason employers want to hire EU migrants is because they are always cheaper. There are tough questions here about skill levels in the workforce and willingness to do certain jobs. This is not just about the cost of labour.
Opinion polls show high levels of public concern about immigration and some politicians have mirrored the concerns. But leadership is not just about mirroring fears or joining the rush to resist change – it is also about explaining change and arguing for the opportunities the future holds.
Britain has changed irrevocably in recent decades. Some of this has been disruptive and difficult to deal with but to conclude that it was all a mistake and should be stopped reflects a profound and unnecessary pessimism about our country and its place in the world. One of Britain’s great strengths is our ability to adapt to change and our willingness to seize new opportunities. In today’s world no country is going to succeed by trying to stand still or turn back the clock. 1950 is not coming back.
Beneath all the facts and figures about immigration and the cost-benefit analyses over who pays in and who takes out is a more fundamental question: what kind of country do we want to be? One that reaches out with confidence and optimism and engages with the world or one that concludes all this globalisation is too difficult and we are better turning away from it? That is the real issue facing the UK as it debates its membership of the EU and indeed its own break-up. There are huge opportunities for us in continuing to engage with the world, being confident about our place in it and in what we can achieve. The call for more isolation is not the future we should embrace.
Pat McFadden is Labour MP for Wolverhampton South-east. He tweets @PatMcFaddenMP
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