We must develop a new approach to immigration and freedom of movement

Fabian Policy Report

 

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The result of the EU referendum revealed a divided Britain: 52 per cent voted to leave in a rejection of a status quo that hasn’t worked for them in decades. People decided to ‘take back control’, even though they knew there’d be economic consequences. 

For many of the 48 per cent who backed remain, there’s been despair about what the result means for our future, and what it says about the character of our country. There can be no doubt, immigration is the issue that throws that divide into sharpest relief.

Nothing polarises attitudes like immigration: at one end it’s a universal good – economically and as a real-life expression of British openness. At the other, immigration is 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, as a country, 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 make up the Labour vote; from the working class of our heartlands to the urban socialists, liberals and progressives, and everybody in between. Unless we rebuild that coalition, Labour will never again win power and deliver the change Britain needs.

Our failure to act decisively to bridge the divide has led to a rather incoherent approach to immigration. At the last election, it produced a ‘controls on immigration’ policy that left us in electoral limbo. For one part of the electorate, it seemed like a cynical ploy, to be forgotten the morning after the election; to another it seemed we’d abandoned our core values and principles.

So, the national challenge of healing Britain’s fractured society is indivisible from the left’s existential challenges, and we must address both in tandem: no more retail politics, triangulation or tactical positioning. It’s time to get to the heart of the matter.

I believe there’s a new approach to immigration that Labour, and Britain, must take in the post-Brexit 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 left wing 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.

By treating immigration as a value, we have ended up ignoring some key truths:

Firstly, we must recognise that immigration is not the same as freedom of movement. We often treat the two as identical. However, we must be clear that while global immigration is the movement of people into Britain from all over the world, freedom of movement extends that concept to be potentially limitless.

The referendum had a clear message: the limitless nature of freedom of movement, despite its proven economic benefits, is not socially and politically sustainable. Much of this is down to government’s failure to create an economic, social and political environment that could make it so. However, opposing freedom of movement isn’t the same as opposing immigration.

The starting point must be to view our core values through the prism of immigration, and to conclude that immigration itself is not a left wing value

Being pro-immigration means making it an economic, social and political success in the long-term: as much immigration and as many immigrants as is possible and sustainable, to be limited only by our ability to create the environment for all of Britain to thrive and feel valued.

Secondly, immigrants are people; immigration is a dynamic. This is another dangerous conflation: immigration is a social, political and economic dynamic; while immigrants are people, with the hopes, dreams, needs and wants of every person. Both ends of the debate too often muddle these words to very different effect: Ukip use concerns about the impact of immigration to fuel anger towards immigrants as ‘the other’. At the other end of the debate, the left’s conflation makes it uncomfortable to discuss the real world impact of immigration as a dynamic of change in communities, for fear of being seen as racist.

Thirdly, concern about immigration doesn’t automatically equal racism. Thanks to the race-baiting tactics of Farage’s Ukip and others, concerns about immigration are too often answered with a charge of racism. As we stand up to genuine racism, we must recognise that having concerns about the impact of the dynamic of immigration, as separate to immigrants, is legitimate.

Many people are genuinely concerned about the impact of the immigration dynamic on their community, but the limitations of our discourse mean that feeling often manifests itself in vitriol directed at people themselves. Therefore, we must look past our moral disagreement with the conclusions people draw and truly listen to what has led those people to their perspective.

Finally, the impact of immigration is not measured, it’s experienced. We often answer concerns about immigration with statistics, yet you speak to people across the country who reply “I get that, but it’s not my experience of immigration.” Exploring this experience is Professor Justin Gest’s The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality. Gest’s central thesis is that over recent decades “white working class people sense they have been demoted from the centre of their country’s consciousness to its fringe. And many feel powerless to do anything about it.” And while we talk about economic inequality, Gest’s research is clear: the driving force of people’s perspective is a feeling of social and political marginalisation.

As part of this social trend, immigration is both a cause and a victim: “White working class people believe ethnic minorities have been given social advantages at the expense of white working class people.”

Many might question whether this feeling is justified; the social and economic predominance of white people in general isn’t in question and they have the advantages of language and integration. Some will say this smacks of ‘white privilege’.

However, feeling marginalised and discriminated against is born of experience and perspective, neither of which are quantifiable. To deny the reality of the experience of white working class people, quite frankly, smacks of ‘class privilege’ and ignores the responsibility of government for the structure and success of society.

In absence of anyone else, including the Labour party, engaging with this reality, the BNP, EDL and Ukip have channelled that feeling to be anti-immigrant; stoking embers of blame and grievance. As morally repugnant as we may find these parties, they’ve given the white working class not just a route for their frustration but, importantly, a voice. In the words of one of Gest’s respondents:

“The EDL & BNP exploited us. They know we don’t have a voice. They know the government doesn’t give a shit about us. For 20 years we haven’t had a voice. But to get that voice, we had to agree to be torn apart.”

With these truths in mind, we must ask ourselves – what are we trying to achieve?

I believe two key values of the society we must build are openness and non-racism. These values aren’t defined by the number of immigrants entering the country, 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 nonracist 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 nonracist 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. This 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.

So, what would managed immigration look like in practice? At the heart of the detailed policy that’s required sits a key question: how do we replace the current system of freedom of movement with a work-permit system?

The answer to this question will be driven by how we judge who should be able to receive work-permits. This must be a carefully calibrated approach given the subsequent impact on our communities and economy, so will likely have to be a system predicated on (i) the applicant’s skills and qualifications; (ii) the need for those skills in the economy; and (iii) their economic context.

We can no longer support limitless freedom of movement as our society doesn’t have the social, economic or political capacity to make it sustainable

While the priority is designing a transition to a work-permit based system, a comprehensive approach requires a broad range of complementary policy to be considered, including proposals to: establish a Scandinavian-style Foreign Worker’s Registration Agency; create a commission to consider how we can accelerate the hiring and training of British employees; expand the Migrant Impact Fund, from £35m to £500m; extend English language learning opportunities; and increase funding to enforcement bodies to crack down on exploitation of workers that has driven down wages.

The policy detail of this holistic approach should be developed by a dedicated Labour team as soon as possible, given the critical nature of immigration to a post Brexit world.

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.

However, in the short-term, as we enter Brexit negotiations, this managed approach must be driven by two core principles.

First, we can no longer support limitless freedom of movement as our society doesn’t have the social, economic or political capacity to make it sustainable. It is clear Brexit negotiations will be shaped by the so-called ‘Brexit dilemma’: we know that Britain is unable to absorb limitless free movement, but a shift to a different system is only possible on condition that we leave the single market, which in turn would present profound challenges to our economy. However, were we to continue to support limitless freedom of movement, it will do untold damage to our democracy and society.

The only way Theresa May can resolve the Brexit dilemma is to negotiate a pan European agreement on reducing freedom of movement, as a pre-cursor to negotiating the new terms of our access to the single market. Our prime minister is supposedly a tough and accomplished negotiator. For our country’s sake, she must now prove it

Second, we must protect the rights of EU citizens in Britain. It is both the morally right and sensible thing to do, given the contribution these EU citizens make to Britain, and given that we require a reciprocal commitment for UK nationals in other EU countries.

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 left wing values and anchored in the reality of post referendum Britain. It will allow us to build an open and non-racist society, and will 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 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 who bring their people together, to make immigration work for all.