Feeding the Fire: How New Labour’s attempts at neutralising the immigration debate unwittingly made it dominate the discourse

Labour must be a progressive force, and though immigration might now seem firmly entrenched as a negative in the public consciousness, with courage and vision, the current can be altered. 


In 2006, former Home Office advisor Nick Pearce hailed a ‘shift in the political landscape which is here to stay.’ So firmly had the public been persuaded of the benefits of migration that, Pearce believed, it had ceased to be a topic of contention: ‘Even the Tories will not row back on this.’ He could not have been more wrong.

In 2016 Britain voted to leave the European Union following a referendum campaign overwhelmingly dominated by the question of immigration, 56 percent of Britons reportedly viewing it as the most important political issue. Back in 2007, when Tony Blair left Downing Street, the figure neared 40 percent. Yet ten years before, when New Labour swept to power, only 3 percent rated it their top concern and the new government came to office intending to remove the issue from the arena of political debate. Instead, they only fed what they fought to extinguish.

Blair’s government was determined to appear strong on the issue of migration, determined to reassure the public that immigration levels were under firm control. To this end, new measures were introduced and a rhetoric of toughness on immigration, inherited from the Conservatives, widely adopted. But in treating immigration as a problem to be ‘tackled,’ Labour effectively endorsed the premises of the anti-immigration voices they aimed to silence, and by repeatedly presenting the government as moving to take control, a currently out-of-control situation was implicitly accepted.

The tone of the debate was thus firmly cast in the negative and, instead of seeking to emphasise immigration’s benefits, the impossible was attempted in trying to satisfy its critics. Instead of arguing the good of immigration the focus was put on resolving the bad. The lack of an argument for immigration, instead of only against its detractors, was in part the result of widespread

complacency in government circles that such a case unnecessary: it was self-evident. Once economic benefits brought by immigration were widely felt, it was believed, what opposition there was would see sense and die down. But vast swathes of the public saw no self-evident positives, they only heard that the government was fighting immigration, and you don’t fight what’s good.

The battle over public perception of immigration was a battle lost by the last Labour government. Policies aimed at assuaging the fears of a few succeeded only in spreading them to the many. A position of toughness on immigration little different from that of the Conservatives many have gained some votes, but in adopting parameters set by others the opportunity was lost to set them anew. French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron recently commented that shifting closer to your political opponent simply to beat them is often pointless: people always prefer the real thing to the copy, distinctness and principle are also prized. Labour should take heart from Macron’s rise. It shows one need not always swim with the current of the moment but can shape that current oneself. A strong argument for immigration, its benefits clearly communicated at a time of public receptiveness, could have seen the debate won conclusively in Blair’s first term. But past failures inform future successes and currents can change. Labour must therefore stand emboldened, having faith that it need not accomodate itself to today’s public opinion if it disagrees. Labour must be a progressive force, and though immigration might now seem firmly entrenched as a negative in the public consciousness, with courage and vision, the current can be altered. 

Fraser Gray is a Young Fabians member. Follow him on Twitter at @FJ_Gray

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