Thursday 14 April 2011

Ed Miliband on why immigration matters

The immediate focus of political and media reaction to the Prime Minister's heavily trailed speech on immigration - on which I blogged overnight after the early release of the text - has been on criticisms from senior Liberal Democrats, notably Business Secretary Vince Cable of the tone and approach of the speech. Cable fears the speech risks doing more to stoke extremism than to addres public anxiety.

But there has been some discussion among the political twitterati are discussing of whether the Prime Minister has somehow 'set a trap' for the Labour leadership, with his claim that the last Labour government has sought to close down public debate on immigration.

However, this reading doesn't make much sense to me, as no doubt the Labour party's reaction to the speech this afternoon may demonstrate.

It is very clear that Ed Miliband thinks immigration is an important public issue to debate and respond to. He should therefore seek to open up a constructive, rational and less polarised debate about the issue, perhaps seeking to add more light and less heat than much of the debate this morning.

Take Ed Miliband's very first speech launching his leadership campaign, to the Fabian Society a week after last May's general election that immigration is an important issue, and that it is both possible and important to welcome the positive contribution that it makes to this country, while doing more to adddress the social and distributional pressures that it causes.

Britain’s diversity is an enormous strength: economically, culturally, socially and we should never cease saying it and we should say it more often.

But the truth is that immigration is a class issue.

If you want to employ a builder it’s good to have people you can take on at lower cost, but if you are a builder it feels like a threat to your livelihood.

And we never had an answer for the people who were worried about it.

When competition is driving down your wages and your pension rights, saying globalisation is good for you and for the economy as a whole is an example of what I mean about becoming a technocrat. Because it is a good answer for economists but it is no answer for the people of Britain.

So, for that voter in my constituency, and many others, we need to rediscover our sense of progressive mission.

Miliband made a similar argument in his first party conference speech as party leader. I noted in blogging on its themes that the emphasis placed on the importance of Labour root its engagement with the pressures of immigration and its response to public concerns in its own social democratic values.

Will Ed Miliband tell his party things they don't want to hear? The commentators claim not. He insisted that he would. The speech showed how one part of the strategy is to tell the party that it must face up to difficult challenges - not to trim on its values for electability, but because doing so is what is demanded by its own principles and values.

Take immigration: he told the party that being deaf to concerns about the social and economic pressures of immigration was to betray its own historic mission. Not to chase headlines in the Mail and the Sun, but to meet the concerns of Mirror readers about the wage pressures of immigration. "Immigration is a class issue" is an argument which combines Labour concerns with anxieties held by a broader public.

Most recently, the Labour leader was praised across the House, including by the Prime Minister, for his speech in the Libya debate which ended on why he and his family had important reasons to celebrate and be grateful for Britain's historic tradition of openness and generosity to refugees.

"Today's debate is conducted in the shadow of history of past conflicts. For me, it is conducted in the shadow of my family's history as well: two Jewish parents whose lives were changed forever by the darkness of the holocaust, yet who found security in Britain. This is a story of the hope offered by Britain to my family, but many of my parents' relatives were out of the reach of the international community and perished as a result. In my maiden speech in the House, I said that I would reflect

"the humanity and solidarity shown to my family more than 60 years ago".

These are the kind of things we say in maiden speeches, but if they are to be meaningful, we need to follow them through in deeds, not just words".

If we are going to have an open, rational and evidence-based debate, it is to be hoped that he and his colleagues can try to capture these nuances in how we talk about immigration.


Paul Sands said...

We are confronted, in various outlets of the media, with daily reports of how immigration to the UK is reaching crisis point and how "good plain English folk" are deserting this land of hope and glory in their hundreds of thousands (the last figure I heard was 450,000 !) If that is true I have nothing other to say than "good riddance you hypocrites". The main reason that people come to the UK is to try and find a better way of life, or at least standard of living. Is that not exactly why predominantly white English are emigrating to the Antipodes and other far flung former outposts of Empire?
I have to admit I have caught myself falling into the "bloody foreigners" trap when I catch a screaming, incomplete and misleading headline but the truth always tells a different story and its a known fact that English "workers" are far happier to claim rather than get their hands dirty and work in a field picking cabbages. If they were willing there wouldn't be so many "bloody foreigners" in the country. You may remember the TV series Auf Wiedersehen Pet. I seem to recall we were the "bloody foreigners" then, the Polish plumbers, but that was fine because we were all just having a laugh at the German's expense.
So I say bring it on, come from all four corners of the Earth and lets together build a better society, an inclusive society, a free society where we don't suffer apoplexy at the sight of a burka or niqab, where the colour of your skin means nothing more than a reminder of the accidental random allocation of your birthplace on this planet.We all need to learn a lot more about the history of this nation and some of the very very cruel things that it has done in the name of Empire, and before (and is still doing in the name of Capitalism thinly veiled as national security).
Embrace our differences to discover our similarities.

Newmania said...

Perhaps not everything is rational and not everything irrational is bad. How do you feel about your children? Some special loyalty perhaps, some unreasonable preference?
What about your home,if someone wandered in and told you they wanted a rational debate about whether you should change it what would you say?
Milliband`s pretence that this can be subsumed into a clunky Marxist class war is purest drivel .He knows it, its just a polite excuse me for man obliged to fart in the lift. It is about an extended imagined family , a tribe , the English and their place in England even their right to say it is their country and they would like it to remain English.

If thats ok and I am not at all sure it is.

Paul Newman

Nick said...

You may remember the TV series Auf Wiedersehen Pet.

I remember the reality of work-away fathers during the 1980s, whether it was tradesmen to Europe or, more commonly in my part of the world, oil workers out to the North Sea rigs or to the Middle East. Lots of kids with lavish coming-home presents in lieu of a dad around.

My dad's views on race are generationally sour, but I never heard a bad word from him about the influx of Polish tradesmen over the past decade: he respected the quality of their work, because it was the kind of work that decades of experience helped him understand.

It is about an extended imagined family, a tribe , the English and their place in England

And once again, I think of the different nuances of the word 'imagined', and the historical marginality of any kind of bottom-up English national identity, having spent some time today reading reflections from the red side of Liverpool, including one that addresses the sense of betrayal at the hands of the English establishment, and ends 'I'm not English, I'm Scouse.'

Sunder Katwala said...


I am a member of the 'English tribe'. England will remain England, as it always has, though it will also change, as it always has.

Am reminded of Orwell in the Lion and the Unicorn

"Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature.

What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person".


It has changed and changed and changed .... due to the many and different social influences from within - class, economics and social welfare of Beveridge and Thatcherism, social mobility and lack of mobility, feminism, liberalism, religion and the loss of faith, the countryside and the city, technology, the railways, radio, TV, the internet - and, which is not new either, from without - trade and exchange, Empire, Commonwealth, immigration, emigration.

But it may well still be England.

Aren't we about to have a Royal wedding?

Nick said...

A pointer to something that might be off your radar, Sunder: the exchange between Stephen Harper and the Bloc Qu├ębecois leader Gilles Duceppe in the French-language Canadian leaders' debate this week.

The base positions aren't new: Duceppe has long been a critic of multiculturalism, arguing for a strongly integrationist policy for Canadian immigrants (aka 'new Canadians') in francophone Quebec, which is somewhat at odds with the long-standing approach that stresses diversity over assimilation. What's new is the way Duceppe matter-of-factly invokes the UK as an example of failed multiculturalism.

It's a cheap appeal to his electoral base, of course, but it shows how the standard political dividing lines on immigration aren't a given: it was Harper who offered the strongest direct challenge.

Cantab83 said...

Perhaps it would help if both the Labour Party and the Fabian Society first had a coherent economic argument to justify their position on immigration (whatever that is). How much immigration is economically desirable? What are the social and economic costs and benefits? Who ultimately pays the most and who benefits the most from any given policy? These are the issues that need to be addressed, not empty political rhetoric about multiculturalism.

This week the IEA posted an interesting proposal to use market demand to auction off work permits instead of using caps, quotas or points. My main criticism of this idea is that it seems to place the financial cost on the wrong participant - the migrant worker rather than the employer. These, though, are the sort of ideas that Ed Miliband and the Fabians should be debating.