Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Windrush wake-up call

The shameful mess of the past few weeks must force us all to reset our approach to the politics of immigration, says Jack May

It just gets worse and worse and worse.

The first stories of Home Office hounding, deportation and detention after decades living in the United Kingdom. The victimisation and dehumanisation. The apparent nonchalance by government in the early days giving way to a frenzied attempt to backtrack and apologise as the scale and severity of the failures became apparent.

Then Amber Rudd misleading parliament and facing a grilling by Yvette Cooper and the Home Office, only to unveil more contemptible Home Office behaviour enforcing contemptible policy set by Theresa May.

Even now, almost unbelievable figures, statistics, and individual stories emerge. Thousands of foreign students mistakenly ordered to leave the country with no chance of appeal. Visas for doctors from overseas denied on May’s personal instructions at a time when NHS posts desperately needed filling. The past few weeks must serve as a wake-up call. Our political approach to immigration has to change – sometimes you have to fight to build a consensus rather than succumbing to populism.

There have been those across the political spectrum – from the libertarian right as expressed by organisations like the Adam Smith Institute, to the liberal left, the Green party and sections of the Liberal Democrats – that have resisted the past decades’ impulse to obsessively kowtow to the going line on immigration. The ‘go home or face arrest’ vans, the ‘tens of thousands’ net migration targets, the ‘controls on immigration’ mugs – all are symptoms of an utterly broken approach to immigration. We must say mea culpa where we know we have played a part in that.

📖 My grandfather was a Windrush migrant. His generation deserves to be respected

As Diane Abbott very wisely put it in her interview with The Times: ‘It’s almost impossible to produce a hostile environment for immigrants and not produce a hostile environment for people who look like immigrants.’

Labour should at this point be taking the reins of the conversation, coming up with a profoundly new approach to immigration, however unpopular it might be, and making the case loudly and clearly. Immigration is an economic benefit to our country, migrants bring diversity, culture, innovation and new ideas to our society, and – most fundamentally – it shames us as a nation to provide this kind of ‘hostile environment

As it stands, Labour has not yet unveiled a substantially different position. To a certain extent, we have to ask – what the point is of having a slightly outlandish leader who postures as an outsider (despite 35 years in Westminster) if he cannot use his position to say the home truths our country needs to hear?

And what is the point of having an army on the streets and in the sinews of social media if they cannot use their strength in numbers and conviction to change the narrative, conversation by turgid conversation, and start convincing people that migration is part of the solution to what ails us as a nation, not its symptom, cause, and corrupt doctor to boot. That said, freedom of movement is not – as some London-based, bleeding heart europhiles would have us believe – the silver bullet to this dilemma. The silver bullet comes in being clever, and being kind.

We know that this government and its coalition predecessor’s attempts to bully into work those who, whether by personal circumstance or economic malaise, are out of a job only serves to divide us, creating a Benefits Street culture of hostility, resentment and fear, grounded not on facts but on a total misunderstanding of how welfare in this country works and the true scourge of low pay in a low-skill economy.

We know that a ‘hostile environment’ approach to immigration not only fails to lower immigration in any significant way, but sends a vulgar, abhorrent, and insulting image to the world of who we are as a nation.

We know that ‘hostile environment’, and its poorly disguised puppet successor, ‘something environment’ breaks up families, destroys lives, hurts our international alliances and leaves us looking as mean and unfeeling as our debased prime minister.

There is no shortage of room for new ideas. In the coming months, it is imperative that the right to remain is emphatically ensured for European Union citizens currently living in the United Kingdom – in tangible, concrete means – and that this right extends right up until the day of our departure from the EU as freely and liberally as it does today. Considering unusual but intelligent ideas, like how ID cards may allow us to navigate the thorny patches of transition more easily, must be part of our new immigration consensus. So must bilateral agreements with key international partners on what is so often wanted –  easier access to our labour markets, just as we so often struggle without their skills and talent. It is time we learned how to be as open to talented individuals from all parts of the world as free movement has forced us to be to our continental neighbours – not in shutting the door to Europe but by opening it up to the skills we need and the people who can help us grow from around the world.

The shameful Windrush saga is a blot on our politics, and everything must be done in the short term to ensure those lives are mended and that this can never happen again. In the long-term, it bears serious lessons for us.

When the mindset of stick stands so firmly in the face of the evidence and in the face of basic decency – when it prevents us pursuing an approach that can help us continue to grow richer not only as a country, but as a culture and most importantly as individuals, surely we should try the carrot?


Jack May is a Progress columnist. He tweets at @JackO_May


Photo: By EU2017EE Estonian Presidency (Theresa May) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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