The EU referendum revealed a divided Britain and it’s clear: nothing polarises attitudes like immigration. One end believes it’s a universal good – economically and as a real-life expression of British openness.
At the other, immigration is seen as the cause of changes many people believe have relegated them to the outside of their communities. The former are portrayed as politically correct elitists, running the country in their own interests; the latter are denounced as racist nationalists.
It’s an issue we must tackle head on, because we’ve seen where ignoring it leads: exit from Europe, fractured communities, and the emergence of a publicly confident racism. Healing these divisions is the pre-eminent challenge of our time if we are to create a post-Brexit future for our country that offers hope to all.
Addressing immigration is also vital to the left because the national divide is particularly deep when it comes to the broad coalition that makes up the Labour vote. Unless we rebuild that coalition, Labour will never again win power and deliver the change Britain needs.
I believe there’s a new approach to immigration that Labour, and Britain, must take in the post-referendum era. It’s no cheap imitation of Ukip, nor an “electoral ploy”, but an approach born of progressive values and our desire to see them realised. The starting point must be to view our core values through the prism of immigration, and to conclude that immigration itself is not a leftwing value. I am resolutely pro-immigration, yet I don’t see immigration as a value; I see it as a social and economic dynamic. The difference is vital.
Being pro-immigration means making it an economic, social and political success in the long term: as much immigration as is possible and sustainable, limited only by our ability to create the environment for all of Britain to thrive and feel valued.
The referendum had a clear message: the limitless nature of freedom of movement, despite its proven economic benefits, is not socially and politically sustainable. That’s why opposing freedom of movement isn’t the same as opposing immigration.
Two key values of the society we must build are openness and non-racism. These values aren’t defined by the number of immigrants, but by the quality of experience every person has of this country. This allows us to set out the role of immigration within that: as much immigration as possible, without driving social tensions to such an extent that racism breaks out.
It says we can be pro-immigration and champion immigrants as part of a non-racist and open society, while recognising we have to manage immigration so those values aren’t threatened.
This is facing up to a human truth: nobody is born racist, but immigration that reaches levels beyond a society’s capacity to cope can lead, in extremes, to racism. That racism fuels a vicious, ugly backlash, in which there is tremendous anger in one community and tremendous fear in another. Nobody wins and everyone suffers. It sets back our ideal of an open and non-racist society, makes further immigration politically unsustainable and, as we’ve seen in relation to Syria, means we cannot show our humanity to the refugees who need us.
This approach doesn’t mean we become less pro-immigration, just that we recognise we must balance our desire to encourage immigration with our ability to manage immigration and its impact.
So, what would managed immigration look like in practice?
The answer will be driven by how we judge who should be able to receive work permits. This must be a carefully calibrated approach so will likely have to be a system predicated on the applicant’s skills and qualifications; the need for those skills in the economy; and their economic context.
While the priority is designing a transition to a system based on work permits, this requires a comprehensive approach that stretches across almost every responsibility of government, from entry requirements and integration support, to economic and public service investment to combat marginalisation. This managed balance is what makes immigration sustainable and takes us ever closer to a non-racist, open society.
These are complex questions, both in the process we create but also what the answers say about the nature of our country, with implications for our economic, trading and international future. We can’t be squeamish about having a comprehensive discussion about how we do this – getting it right is too important.
Some will say managing immigration is a “tough” approach. If limiting immigrant numbers were the defining objective, I would agree. But it is not.
The managed immigration approach I am proposing is rooted in leftwing values and anchored in the reality of post-referendum Britain. It will allow us to build an open and non-racist society, and help rebuild Labour’s electoral coalition, staying true to the values and pragmatism that have been the basis of our historic successes and support. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
It is also an approach that will be vital to Britain in a post-Brexit age: in the era of increasing globalisation, the people and countries who are successful in the future will be those open to other cultures, international opportunities and to new technologies. And the successful governments will be the ones that bring their people together, to make immigration work for all.