Our immigration dilemma

Jeevun Sandher is a Young Fabian and member of the contributing writer team. He tweets at @JeevunSandher

As a nation, our views toward immigration are intelligent, nuanced and complex. Immigration is welcomed as long as it is seen to benefit Britain and, crucially, the lives of British citizens.

A majority of the public welcome migrants who will both contribute to our economy and integrate successfully into British society. Almost 90% of us want the number of skilled migrants in the UK to either grow or remain stable and a small majority believe that immigration is good for the economy. At the same time, a majority want to see a reduction in unskilled migration with large (and growing) majorities also believing that being able to speak English (87%) and a commitment to the British way of life (84%) are important criteria for those wanting to live in the UK.

Only 15% believe that limiting immigration is the most important issue in the Brexit negotiations and just over half of the population is willing to accept freedom of movement as long as it is coupled with migrant welfare restrictions. However, around three-quarters of the British public still want to see less overall migration.

See what I mean by nuanced and complex?

There are no easy answers on immigration and for Labour the problem is especially acute. Our voting coalition is split on both immigration and Brexit. Of the ten constituencies with the largest Remain majorities, we hold seven of them; of the ten constituencies with the largest Leave majorities, we hold five.

Labour managed to exceed expectations in the last election by holding together this disparate coalition, picking up a small section of the Leave vote and large sections of the Remain (or Remain-sympathising) vote. The dilemma for us is that, in order to keep holding this coalition together, we need an immigration strategy that can satisfy both Labour Remainers and Labour Leavers.

In order to see the path forward, we need to look carefully at places like Stoke-on-Trent. Labour held all 3 Stoke-on-Trent seats before the 2017 general election but saw our majorities fall in all 3 seats, losing one to the Tories in the process. It was not a coincidence that over 70% of Stoke-on-Trent also voted to leave the European Union in 2016. In 2017, Labour would lose votes to the Conservatives in areas (like Stoke-on-Trent) that strongly supported Brexit.

Like other areas that were more likely to vote Leave in 2016, Stoke-On-Trent has seen a large influx of migrants since 2004 (migrants went from 3% to 12% of the population between 2004 and 2016) and has low living standards (with consistently low employment levels and weekly wages that are around £90 less than the national average).

Lower living standards are a defining characteristic of the Labour Leave vote. Labour Leavers are far more likely to be struggling financially when compared to both the total population and Labour Remainers. A majority of them want a fairer, more equal society, believe that immigrants take jobs away from Britons and, unsurprisingly, a large majority want to see a reduction in immigration.

Because for many Labour Leavers, mass migration coincided with a period when their incomes stopped growing. The average income for working age households (after housing costs) has not increased since the mid-2000’s, which was around the same time that the Eastern European EU8 (e.g. Poland) joined the EU. Whilst immigration did not reduce income growth for the British citizens, it is easy to understand why people draw a connection between the two.

In order to keep these Labour Leavers within our voting coalition (and pick up votes elsewhere), it is essential that we commit to a comprehensive package of economic policies that will increase their incomes and invest in their local economies. As part of this package, we have to commit to staying in the Single Market as leaving it will only make us all poorer. Our leader has made it clear that we will pursue a Brexit that prioritises jobs and living standards and these aims are incompatible with leaving the Single Market.

But no package of economic policies, no matter how comprehensive, will be able to address the cultural anxiety that Labour Leavers feel. A majority of them feel that Britain was better in the past and that it is changing too quickly. Intertwined with this is a sense of anomie, a gaping chasm where our nation’s shared identity and culture should be.

This is the same chasm that has been filled with a vision of an insular, “independent” United Kingdom where patriotism is incompatible with openness or international co-operation. Unfortunately and understandably, the siren calls of nativism and populism have become ever more attractive at a time of falling living standards and rapid cultural change.

It is time for us to challenge this narrative and promote our own vision of the United Kingdom as four strong, open and generous nations whose identity, culture and pride is rooted in both our shared history and present experiences. We were the last line of resistance against fascism in Western Europe; we have a long tradition of giving immigrants like my parents the opportunity to work, earn and contribute to life here; patients are treated by world-class doctors and nurses every single day regardless of their bank balance; and there is a sense of decency, fair play and civility that permeate and define our daily interactions with other Britons. This is a history and a set of experiences that we should all be proud of and can celebrate together, no matter where we “originally came from”.

This is the path to resolving our immigration dilemma: raising living standards and setting out a shared, national vision of inclusion and compassion. It will not be easy. But it is worth fighting for.

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