THE BLOG

We Need to Talk About Immigration

15/10/2014 17:05 BST | Updated 15/12/2014 10:59 GMT

I hate writing blog posts. I hate writing blog posts almost as much as I hate writing passive aggressive notes on shared fridges about the pilfering of milk. I am only driven to write this by the same sense of resignation and anger at having to say something that should be obvious to start with. Don't steal my milk! Labour leaders, don't engage in an anti-immigration arms race with Ukip! It's the same thing, please stop.

We hear a lot about the perceived negatives of immigration, which it turns out can be pretty much anything if you hate facts and can be inventive enough with your arguments; but we never hear about the absolute, basic, inarguable economic fact that immigration is essential to our wellbeing as a nation.

As has been pointed out many times previously, the NHS would collapse overnight without the contribution of people from overseas. Recent figures suggest that 11% of all staff and 26% of doctors are non-British. Whether you listen to those in Ukip who want to privatise the NHS, or those who don't, as things stand it is impossible to sustain the anything like the quality of healthcare that we presently enjoy without immigration.

It's not just the NHS where immigration has been vitally important though, it's the economy as a whole. A recent study by the University College London suggests that since stricter rules were introduced, immigrants to the UK since 2000 have made a "substantial contribution to public finances."

The report suggests that immigrants who arrived after 1999 were 45% less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than UK natives in the period 2000-2011. The report also suggests that between 2001 and 2011, immigrants contributed to the fiscal system 34% more than they took out, whereas the net contribution of "natives" was actually negative. The report concludes by stating that there was a net contribution by immigrants of £25 billion during this decade. In other words, however bad the financial crisis was, we'd have been a hell of a lot worse off without immigration during this period.

But that's only the report of two senior academics from one of the world's best Universities, which sets out in detail its research methods and evidence base. Whether you believe that or the unreferenced ramblings of Ukip and the Daily Mail is up to you.

There is also a massive demographic challenge facing this country and we're not remotely prepared for it. There are currently around four working age people for every pensioner in this country; however, by the 2035 this number is expected to fall to 2.5, and by 2050 to just two. This demographic challenge is caused by two factors; people living much longer and healthier lives, with the average life expectancy in Britain increasing by 30 years during the Twentieth Century and also declining birth rates, particularly since the baby-boom era of the 1960s. Ask yourself how we could cope with this pressure when we already have a social care system which is reliant on migrant labour.

Immigration does have an impact on our communities and the country; but it is vital that we remember that the impact is largely extremely positive and incredibly important. If we support immigration to any extent, then the debate should start with a recognition of the positive role that immigrants play in our country and not with tough talking and rhetoric aimed at appeasing tabloid journalists, because that only draws us further into a battle that we will never win. It's a battle premised on false assumptions, which only ever magnifies rather than addressing fear and frustration. The more that people hear only negatives and never positives, the more that they forget that there are positives at all.

We're currently in an incredibly depressing downward spiral of discourse. Labour's response to the Heywood and Middleton result was to promise to introduce tougher rules on benefits for new migrants (the same migrants who are 45% less likely to claim already than the general population). I can understand the temptation of this responding in this way; but let's be clear, those who vote UKIP because of their views on immigration aren't likely to be swayed by Diet Ukip.

Our response has to be positive. If there are issues with low wages, let's set out how we will improve living standards. If there are issues with housing supply, let's set out how we can provide more homes. If there are issues with school places, let's set out how we will deliver new schools where they are needed. Let's also ensure what we have the right immigration system in place, delivering the maximum benefit for the country.

But along with the above, it should be Labour's responsibility to reshape the debate. Let's leave the lowest common denominator to other parties, that's not what we are here for. Playing to Ukip's tune only risks reinforcing their views, legitimising arguments based on myths and alienating many of our supporters, who believe above all else in fairness.

Labour will never win an anti-immigration arms race with Ukip and it is stupid to try.