Talking like UKIP on immigration isn’t the answer for Labour

October 13th, 2014

After the by elections of last week, the clamour from the commentating class has been that the mainstream parties have to tack sharp right on immigration. The argument must be made for fortress Britain. This is all anathema to me and seems to represent a widespread political amnesia among the political classes. Anyone remember the failed Tory campaigns that took a hard line on immigration – William Hague in 2001 and then Michael Howard in 2005? Or what about the not so successful initiative of the Cameron led government to drive down immigration rates – now up around 60,000 from last year?

If immigration is just about the suppression of wages caused by an influx of EU workers then this does not explain why in areas where immigration is low that UKIP is so appealing. Clacton is a case in point. Even Douglas Carswell has been reluctant to parrot the UKIP party line saying:

“You must have heard me dozens of times challenge people whose votes I wanted who expressed views that I thought were illiberal,”

“I do so respectfully, I did so determinedly, and I do so using arguments that I thought had traction. Every single time I tackled I those issues, I think I left behind voters who I think a) agreed with me, b) were reassured to hear that their pessimism was unjustified. I remember saying to someone who said something I disagreed with, hang on a second, we’ve got a shortage of GPs, and I know your GP was born in Egypt. And we could do [with] more GPs in this area.

“So let’s not blame outsiders for failures caused by our political insiders. I make that argument, I make it fiercely, and I make it where it counts, to voters. I have demonstrated that you can make those arguments. If you don’t say what’s populist, don’t say what people automatically agree with, people will come with you if you make those arguments.””

Quite frankly if Eurosceptic Carswell is happy to make these arguments, then why isn’t Labour? Politics should not be about telling the public what we think they want to hear. If we do that we cease to become agents of political change and instead become part of an echo chamber. Pandering is rarely electorally successful.

Dealing with the issue of immigration will require Labour to be comfortable talking about the benefits of immigration, as well as acknowledging the challenges. The Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration at University College London released research in the autumn of 2013 that between 1995 and 2011, immigrants from the European Economic Area contributed £8.8bn more than they received in benefits. Immigrants are often net contributors to the UK state and are crucial to the financial viability of our finances with an increasingly ageing population. Even the CBI expressed concern about the ramifications of the 100,000 immigrant cap in 2012 as exacerbating skills shortages.

The gap that has opened up for UKIP is not because of their political distinctiveness. Owen Jones in an article today describes the UKIP / Tory crossover with eviscerating precision, though I do not agree with his diagnosis of the main political parties as soulless. Disconnected perhaps. Failing to communicate, absolutely. Without the ability to talk to people in a way that engages them, politicians become redundant or at best irrelevant. UKIP appears for the moment to offer an alternative.

Forging and maintaining consensus is hard. This is something the Labour Party has not been sufficiently mindful of. I vehemently believe that only Labour can provide the right answers to the questions about growing inequality in this country. Before we earn the right to be heard, we need to articulate our values of inclusion, equality and fairness for all.

We should be confident enough to be honest about what we can do and what we cannot or will not do. Voters crave honesty from politicians. Labour could and should do well to remind people of how we benefit from immigrants because we need them to help supply and pay for the services we need in Clacton and the rest of the UK. To refuse to acknowledge the need for and contribution of Immigration would not, in fact, be British.