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Labour’s Migration dilemma

November 28th, 2016

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Don Brind looks at the challenges

Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary is always worth listening to these days, not necessarily because of the quality of her analysis, but because she tells us what her leader thinks.

So when she warns against a move to the right on immigration so that Labour becomes “Ukip-lite” she is undoubtedly reflecting the view of Jeremy Corbyn.

In her interview with Guardian political editors Anushka Asthana and Heather Stewart  the Shadow Home secretary undoubtedly reflects concern within Labour and beyond about the nasty post-referendum atmosphere “We have to acknowledge how frightened some people are about this type of debate on immigration, because they do not know where it ends,” Her multicultural London constituency, she said had seen sharp rise in hate attacks, targeting long-settled, non-white people who were not from European countries.

There will be plenty who endorse her view that Labour’s goal should be to keep part of the single market and that means telling  voters the only way to achieve that is to accept continued freedom of movement…..it is absolutely fair to say that on doorsteps colleagues are finding people complaining about immigration, but it is simply not the case that immigration has driven down wages, or that immigration has created the insecurity or instability they perceive,”

But if the Abbott Corbyn aim is to close down debate on immigration policy within the party it’s unlikely to be successful.

“The elephant in the room is the issue of immigration. The Labour Party is not in tune with many of our voters,” the widely admired chair of the Labour Movement for Europe Giampi Alhadeff told the LME’s annual meeting at the weekend.
He said: “Immigration has enriched us, both culturally and economically, yet the pace of change in some parts of the country has been de-stabilising…. The problem is not freedom of movement, but the way it is implemented and the way that we have failed to use the safeguards that could be available to us.”

The former Brussels based trade union official said Labour need a credible immigration policy based on strengthened workers’ rights “so that non UK workers cannot be used to undercut wages.”

The LME chair’s approach is similar to that of the Shadow Business secretary Clive Lewis who said Labour would champion British businesses’ desire to stay on the single market but there was a quid pro quo – “you have to give workers more job security; better terms and conditions; recognise trade unions. It will have an impact on the number of people coming to this country, if you make it more difficult for employers to bring people in, to undercut people.”

At the heart of Labour’s dilemma is that the fact that while a majority of Labour’s 2015 voters backed Remain a majority of Labour MPs represent areas where there was a Leave majority.

A good example is Tameside which voted 3-2 for Leaving. One of the local MPs is Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary. Like Lewis she is an enthusiastic supporters of Jeremy Corbyn but she “We have to have controls on immigration, that’s quite clear,” she told BBC News. “We have got to make sure that our economic situation is good for everybody because immigration is a good thing for us, but what undermines [that] is when people feel that it is unvetted and that we are not able to deal with the issues and the concerns that people have around that.”

It is easy to depict Labour as in a muddle when compared to Theresa May’s simple assertion that the referendum result was all about curbing immigration.

It reality the public mood is much more nuanced as Professor Rob Ford explained in an excellent edition of BBC Radio Four’s More or Less  which drew on a British Future / ICM survey  It supports the view that there are many who want immigration controlled – but not if they can be shown it will make them worse off.

Labour has to talk about immigration in order to get a hearing from pro-Leave voters but if that’s all the party talks about it will fail. The key is to come up with a convincing economic and business agenda that is about creating shared prosperity.
The point is made strongly by a Sunderland MP Bridget Phillipson. Her city, which is home to Nissan in the UK voted by more than 60% for Leave. Writing in the New Statesman  she has no doubt that “Immigration into Britain has boosted our economy year after year and thus raised the standard of living for people in this country.”
But she argues that for potential Labour voters, those who thought of backing the party then shied away, what mattered most was “having decent messages for people on middle incomes” and “being trusted to run the economy”.

Don Brind