On immigration, we need to cut off the options that allow our opponents to disguise their prejudices as caring about inequality
All successful campaigns are about change. Donald Trump offered change, Hillary Clinton seemed to offer little, and Theresa May literally offered none at all.
The triumph of Vote Leave in 2016 was to paint a ‘Remain’ vote as both an endorsement of an insufficient status quo and advocacy for increasing federalisation of the European Union. Their offer to the voters was a reversion to a Britain that arguably never existed, but with component parts that did: more money to the National Health Service, British supremacy (although they called it ‘sovereignty’) and significantly less immigration. This Brexit is not, it turns out, available.
As Boris Johnson knew when he sold his red bus lie about the NHS, a third of our European Union contribution never gets paid – it is Margaret Thatcher’s much lauded ‘rebate’. Half of the remaining amount goes to British farmers in common agricultural policy subsidies and the lion’s share of the rest goes to the United Kingdom’s regions – Northern Ireland, Wales, the south west and the north – in structural funds. There is little left over for the NHS.
The ‘sovereignty’ debate was thwarted by the prime minister’s Munich speech actively pooling British sovereignty in security policy and the like. The government’s favoured post-Brexit argument of ‘Canada plus plus plus’ – also known as a comprehensive trade deal – would need an international court to rule on cross border issues, which suggests a role for the European court of justice.
The type of Brexit floated by Liam Fox and Jacob Rees-Mogg is not going to limit immigration, just change it. Every one of the emerging markets that they suggest will offer Britain more favourable trade deals than can be achieved with the EU want one thing in return for British access to their domestic markets: visas.
So the change 17 million voters opted for does not exist. Everyone is simply trying to make the best of a bad situation. For Labour, the priority is a ‘jobs first Brexit’.
Staying a member of the single market and customs union is the only chance of meeting that vision. However, it is very hard, as former Labour member of parliament and Vote Leave Scotland director Tom Harris points out, to argue this is a substantial change to the UK’s relationship with the EU. Not a winning formula.
Immigration and borders were prominent in the minds of those who voted ‘Leave’. They were also high in the mind of those who wavered but voted Remain at the last minute, as Caroline Flint points out. Progressives must, therefore, embark on a scale of change that meets with our values and gives ‘control’ over the British border. Oddly, this view is rarely articulated – prominent Leavers in the Conservative party believe in the ‘go global’ vision of Brexit that Matthew Elliott infamously had to ditch in favour of the voter friendly ‘take back control’. It therefore falls to Labour.
For too long, however, the political left recoils from talking about immigration. When it does, with few notable exceptions, it looks visibly reluctant or misses the point. There are some who would rather avoid the debate or change the question – a strategy that has not worked.
When voters talk about immigration, they really mean immigration, with their concerns generally articulated in at least one of three forms.
First, competence. Do we have control over our borders? They strongly feel the answer is ‘no’. A mainstream conversation about managing the border stopped in 2007. Gordon Brown promised voters something he did not believe and could not deliver in his ‘British jobs for British workers’ speech and the Tories – Theresa May in particular – embarked on a immigration target they not just failed to achieve, they barely even tried to meet.
Second, opportunity cost. More people will add more pressure on public services and local job markets. That is a fact. People’s issue, however, should be with the employers, agencies and lawmakers who allow for it to happen, not the workers looking for a better life.
Finally, culture. There are voters who do not like the change migration brings, do not like other languages spoken in public spaces and have a ‘fear’ of Islam. They feel it is happening without their consent and are simply victims of a seismic societal change.
There is nothing anti-progressive about mastering competence – in Australia, where the debate on migration is more poisonous, the more confidence the public has in the border system, the more migrants the country can admit – and it is the very purpose of progressive parties to deal with the opportunity cost of pressures on wages and public services. However, progressives simply do not agree on the ‘culture’ point.
As Richard Angell argues, there are substantive and transformative, if expensive, reforms we need to the management of the border. Counting people in and out, identity cards, Belgium-style rules about outstaying the three months grace for finding work, German-style registration at town halls, Emmanuel Macron’s reforms to the posted workers directive or Swiss-style, locally advertised work rules, are all possible as full members of the single market and customs union.
James Bloodworth deals with reforms to the labour market that tackle wage pressures and job insecurity. Both the 2015 and 2017 manifestos would make a serious dent on these issues and all previous Labour manifestos have shown the party’s commitment to funding public services. Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to reintroduce the migration impact fund, created by Brown’s government but abolished by David Cameron, could support courses to teach English as a second language, supply additional resources to schools with high pressures and pay for community cohesion measures.
Get the ‘control’ and ‘opportunity costs’ agenda right, and progressives have the strongest platform to express our fundamentally different view on the ‘culture’ debate. This is the way to challenge the pernicious racism that has followed the Brexit vote; cut off the options that allow our opponents to disguise their prejudices as caring about inequality.
The last Labour government’s organising theme on immigration was ‘fair rules without prejudice’. It should guide the next Labour government too.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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