Five lessons for Labour on migrants’ rights

Don Flynn on why it is time for Labour to make the progressive case

There is a mood abroad on the issue of immigration which too many people in the upper echelons of the Labour Party are in danger of missing.

It is one that is ever more ready to recognise that claims made for the arrival of migrants as a major cause of the degradation of life in Britain over the last twenty years have been exaggerated to an obscene degree.  Yes, the opinion polls capture a gasp of surprise at statistics which show net migration running at around 250,000 incomers a years and for a lot of people this quickly resolves itself into the simple statement ‘too many’.

But digging a little deeper into the same groups of respondents the polls also show a deepening reluctance to attribute any of the problems which people see in their local areas to the presence of newcomers.  On the contrary, there is growing recognition, admittedly often begrudging, that the migrants living down our street are amongst the most hard-working sections of the community, doing essential jobs, paying taxes, and generally keeping their noses clean. Labour ought to be working harder to strengthen this mood, not because it is ‘politically correct’ to be nicer to newcomers, but out of recognition that mental attitudes are changing as people face up to the actual realities of life in the modern world.

What we are seeing is the emergence of a visceral adjustment from the ground up to facts of life which are telling us all that immigration is the ‘new normal’ and we have to get over whatever hang-ups we have had in the past with it. It is a mood that is stronger with young people, and more so with those who have had experience of higher education.  With those who have been raised in cities with strong traditions of immigration and diversity it is more than a trend – it has all the hallmarks of being a positive movement with the potential to burst into the sort of ‘Rock Against Racism’ which forged so much of the reversal of attitudes on race and discrimination which had prevailed in earlier years.

What should Labour do to work with these emerging trends and moods?

Firstly, it should make consistent use of the clear evidence that immigration has not caused damage to the material interests of ordinary wage-earning citizens in Britain.  Studies conducted by many independent bodies, including the Migration Advisory Committee, the panel of experts which advised the government, have shown that the main factors producing wage stagnation and high levels of under-employment amongst young people cannot be attributed to migration.

Secondly, we need to hear more about the positive contribution that migration has been making to sustaining economic growth during a period when this is increasingly hard to come by.  It is not the answer to all the problems of a flat-lining economy, but everything we know shows that migrants are net contributors to the production of wealth in Britain today.

A ‘hostile environment’

Thirdly, Labour should make it clear that the UK has gone much too far in the direction of creating a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants, intending that by a succession of measures intended to limit access to benefits and services it will ‘send a message’ to migrants that they are not welcome and should consider going home.  Much of what is now being done, in making employers, private landlords, financial institutions, higher education institutions and, potentially, NHS GP services responsible for checking immigration status, is radically undermining a basic sense of security and welcome amongst people from migrant communities. The provisions of the Coalition government’s Immigration Act 2014 should be looked into by an incoming Labour administration with a view to wholesale repeal.

Fourthly, we need to hear that the right to free movement within the EU will remain in place and continue to underpin the rights of working people across the continent to locate themselves in regions where they are most likely to prosper.

Finally, Labour should be advancing a set of positive polices that will address not just the vulnerability of migrants, but of all working people, to the types of exploitation and abuse which are becoming more common across sectors of the economy.  Foremost amongst these needs are for a living wage level properly enforced by an adequately resourced official inspectorate, and an employment tribunal system empowered to hear legitimate grievances without imposing exorbitant costs on employees.

Guided by these principles the Labour party would be able to argue the progressive case for immigration in a way that relates to popular moods over the social justice deficit the in the UK and across the world.  It would relate to the aspirations of young people with positive, anti-xenophobic outlooks as well as the four million voters who are themselves of migrant backgrounds and who have long been waiting to see the emergence of a political party that will have the courage and the vision capable of winning the day at this and future general elections.

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