Immigration is an awkward subject for Labour. With the legacy of mass migration looming over the party, it is a topic they chose to avoid. However, the recent EU referendum has forced a conversation within the party. The pro-European party failed to convince its core vote to choose Remain as 70% of Labour constituencies voted to leave, exposing a gulf between the party and its supporters. As the polls also showed immigration to be the defining factor for Leave voters, its position on the matter clearly needs to be reevaluated. The solution, however, would not be to fall in to the fluctuating whims of the electorate. The solution would be to make a muscular case for immigration and to bust the myths that have become so powerful in the debate.
Since the end of the Blair government, Labour has shrunk from making an established position on immigration. Blair was the last pro-immigration leader of the party and under him, net migration never fell below 100,000. The failure of the Iraq War and the financial crash in 2008, however, brought it with the demise of other Blairite principles, including his positive endorsement immigration. In 2009, Ukip made a breakthrough by overtaking Labour in the European elections with the second most MEPs over Labour, while in 2010 the successful Conservative campaign promised to impose an annual limit on immigration. Later on in 2015, Ukip received the third most votes (12.5%), while the once-more successful Conservative campaign promised to curb immigration, this time to 'tens of thousands'. In the aftermath of the EU referendum, the anti-migrant narrative has only grown in strength. Labour's record on immigration, alongside distrust over the economy, has been its biggest vote-loser in all occasions.
Throughout the period, Labour leaders have flirted with the anti-migrant narrative. Gordon Brown promised 'British Jobs for British workers' in the 2010 election, while Ed Miliband introduced the 'Controls on immigration' mug in 2015. Even in the leadership election that shortly took place afterwards, contenders were making promises to curb immigration, the most vocal being Liz Kendall. She wanted to refocus on the 'white working class' and was willing to make cuts to tax credits claimed by EU workers. Jeremy Corbyn's victory did weaken the influence of the anti-migrant narrative, but the voices were still there. MPs such as Simon Danzcuk and John Mann have long acted as critics of immigration within the Labour party. And with the reality of Brexit settling in, it is likely that these voices are only going to get louder.
Yet adopting the anti-migrant narrative would only be counterproductive. The forces driving the blow-back against immigration are far from rational. Most of the concerns raised by the anti-immigration camp have been proven factually incorrect. For a start, studies have shown that immigrants seem to have no impact on property prices, nor any negative impact on wages. In terms of social securities, EU migrants are perceived as burdens to the economy yet they give £20billion more than they take. Furthermore, the public has always grossly overestimated how many EU migrants are in the country. An Ipsos Mori poll showed that the average estimate was 10.5 million, which was seven million off the actual number of EU migrants. Thus it comes no surprise that the areas most concerned about immigration were the ones that were least affected by it. When seen in relation to statistical truths, the anti-migrant narrative can hardly seem reasonable.
But then what is the driving force behind the anti-migrant narrative? Fear. Tabloid journalists and politicians have made their career selling scare stories about Britain's new residents. They have offered an alternative scapegoat for all their economic problems. This is also not to mention how the hate towards EU migrants is clearly racialised. For much of the anger is not directed towards the well-educated young professionals from Western Europe but towards groups of people that have long been racially stereotyped: eastern Europeans and, as the controversial UKIP poster showed, refugees from the Middle-East. To peddle these false narratives on immigration for political benefit, as other parties have done, would be self-harming, if not disingenuous. As Britain gradually turns into a post-factual democracy, the truth risks being something that is felt rather than something that is proven.
Labour is now paying for its own silence. It let the anti-migrant narrative go unchecked and, in doing so, it gave ground to the xenophobic factions within the Conservatives and Ukip. With the premiership of Theresa May, the stakes are much higher. A key proponent of the anti-migrant narrative, her legacy in the Home Office has been one of mass deportation and ruthless net migration targets. Labour is losing the immigration debate but it still can turn back the tide. To do so, it needs to reclaim the topic of immigration. It needs to challenge the false narratives put forward by careless politicians and journalists. It needs to challenge the norms around the immigration debate rather than conform to them. It needs to make a positive case for immigration.
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