Immigration has long been a contentious issue on the left. This is reflected in the instruction issued by Labour to its activists in the 2015 election to “move the conversation on” when it arose on the doorstep.
With the UK facing immediate and hard choices in the coming months, the need for a clear stance is undeniable. But more than two years since a referendum that sent shock waves through Westminster, we still have far too little understanding of what got us here, and consequently, too little idea of how to respond.
The dominant narrative that has found a home on the left is that leave voters were racist ‘little Englanders’, or insufficiently engaged in politics to understand the consequences of their choice. This completely fails to understand the complexity and strength of feeling across the country.
The majority of those who voted leave have consistently refused to vote for openly racist parties, like the BNP. These parties are still viewed as toxic by most people. For generations, in the words of playwright David Edgar, “millions of working class people have fought racism and fight it still because it’s the right thing to do”. Towns like mine, in Wigan, who overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU have a long history of internationalism. Across Lancashire, textile workers stood shoulder to shoulder with Indian cotton pickers at great personal cost when they went out on strike several decades ago, and those values and principles are still palpable today.
There is little sense in leave voting towns and villages that UKIP speaks for them. Across the board, UKIP support has collapsed since 2015. To accept that this roar of noise was an endorsement of UKIP values obscures our understanding of why people voted to leave and clouds our ability to develop a sustainable response.
While the ‘little Englander’ narrative has gone unchallenged, Rob Ford of Manchester University points out that attitudes to immigration have become much more positive, strikingly across both the leave and remain, socially liberal and socially conservative divides.2 This has gone largely unnoticed by advocates for a liberal, humane immigration policy.
The explanation for this complicated picture relates to globalisation and the way our economy has developed. A significant section of the population, who live outside of the urban centres, haven’t benefitted from global opportunities. In those same areas we have also witnessed the loss of the things that tie communities together. Good jobs, community assets, and thriving high streets are the beating heart of a community. The EU came to embody a sense of frustration with the effects of globalisation, while the referendum provided an outlet for it.
Over time we have fractured into two groups: those who are globally connected and those who aren’t. This global divide, between those who have opportunity and those who do not, was a running theme through the referendum campaign. Graduates have very different views about immigration to people who didn’t go on to university.
People disconnected from the global economy look at the EU and see a system that favours the skilled and mobile at their expense. The EU has undoubtedly brought benefits to the country as a whole, but it has allowed successive governments to fill gaps in the labour market without having to invest in young people in towns like mine.
Across France, Germany, and the UK, there are young people who aren’t grateful that we can attract migrants to work in healthcare or in industry, because they have lost training grants and nursing bursaries and no longer have the opportunity to get those jobs themselves. The remain campaign messages fell flat in communities where life experiences and priorities are a million miles away from those who penned them. What use is warning of economic catastrophe to people who are already struggling to get by? These communities have watched us defend a system that gives advantage to the skilled and mobile at the expense of them and their families. Now they have learnt, as Bevan once said, that ‘silent pain evokes no response’.
They are ordinary people in decent neighbourhoods with a home and a mortgage, a job and a family. But life has become harder over recent decades as jobs and opportunities have moved to the cities, depriving people of the chance to live near their children and grandchildren. Jobs have also become increasingly insecure and wages haven’t kept up with prices, making the mortgage payment more of a struggle. The loss of disposable income has pushed high streets into decline and cost us community institutions. The result is fractured families and communities and an erosion of any sense of hope about the future.
This drives a deep sense of loss and a sense that the country that has staked out its future on a set of values that are at odds to their own. While some expressed anger in the referendum, for many the prospect of change had briefly brought hope flickering back to life.
While people might accept, or even, as Rob Ford has highlighted, feel increasing positivity towards immigration, they do not accept the rules of the game being written for them by people who live very different lives and have a totally different experience of playing it.
It is no longer sustainable for decisions to be made hundreds or thousands of miles away, changing lives and communities without the ability to challenge decisions and hold people to account.
We also need more honesty, integrity and clarity than in the past. On immigration Labour is often, as Tawney put it, “hesitant in action because divided in mind”. We owe it to the public to be clear. Immigration matters to our lives and our economy. In areas like agriculture and social care it is critical to protect it. The most straightforward way to achieve this after Brexit is through continued access to the single market and we should be clear that this is preferable to tighter controls on immigration, if that is the choice. The evidence suggests that now would be a good time to find a hearing.
This should go hand in hand with opportunities for young people. If ‘for the many not the few’ is to have meaning we must reject a system that pits immigrants and citizens against one another, forcing us to pick a side. A commitment to investing in people, from early years all the way through to a renewed commitment to lifelong learning, has been and must become again a fundamental, non-negotiable part of a socialist vision.
There are 3.5 million EU citizens in the UK who deserve clarity about their position after 2020 and Labour should guarantee their rights to live and work in the UK. The opportunity to advance science, culture and study across Europe has brought huge benefits to us, our universities, our healthcare and our lives and we should continue to participate in shared programmes like Erasmus, paying our contributions and pulling our weight.
But a commitment to providing people with much more control over their own lives must extend to every community in the UK. It means a radical approach. Decisions about immigration are among many areas, like housing, planning, licensing, arts, culture and transport, where we deny communities the ability to make decisions for fear they’ll get it wrong. But in doing so we have denied people the opportunity to shape their own communities and take control over their lives.
This is not consistent with our traditions. As Attlee said, socialists: “do not think of human beings as a herd to be fed and watered and kept in security. They think of them as individuals co-operating together to make a fine collective life. For this reason socialism is a more exacting creed than that of its competitors. It does not demand submission and acquiescence, but active and constant participation in common activities”.
Immigration is one area where devolving the right to make decisions about the placement of refugees, skills funding and the use of migration impact funds, would create a more sustainable, and I suspect humane, outcome. I’ve seen it in my own constituency when a decision by Serco to place, overnight, a hundred young refugee men into a hotel in a small village in my constituency caused chaos until people were empowered with knowledge and the ability to act. The warm response – sparking food and clothing donations, the opening up of homes and community institutions and the rejection of the far right – was overwhelming.
For too long we have accepted that immigration and community are at odds. But there is a sensible, decent committed majority in this country who believe in a global, tolerant, open, outward facing, and diverse Britain and the future must belong to them. Progress is not inevitable but by handing people the knowledge and power to control their own lives, it can thrive. This requires us to have the courage of our convictions that has been lacking for too long. But the public should be our source of confidence. For all the division in Britain, our best hope remains each other.