The post-Brexit eruption of anti-foreigner hatred has opened up an opportunity for opposition politicians to assert moral leadership over immigration. As he delivered his leader’s speech to the annual party conference in Liverpool, Jeremy Corbyn attempted to step up.
But for all the talk of needing a new approach on immigration, the prospect of uniting his party around a policy seems unlikely. And given how toxic this debate has become, perhaps the moral position is to talk about immigration less, not more.
It is exceedingly difficult to deliver a convincing formula on immigration with wide appeal. It’s something Labour has struggled with since well before Corbyn’s time. There is a broad desire within the party to avoid scapegoating immigrants while weaving a policy on immigration into a coherent progressive narrative.
A historic problem
However, Corbyn has tied himself in knots by promising to listen to the concerns of those who voted for Brexit while also claiming that talk of cutting immigration numbers would “sow division” and “fan the flames of fear”.
History is littered with previous attempts by Labour politicians to resolve the issue. In the 1960s, Roy Hattersley came up with the liberal equation of tougher controls alongside new integration measures – ie. “race relations”. More recently, David Blunkett, home secretary under Tony Blair, resorted to a Jekyll and Hyde approach. “Good” immigrants were traded off against “bad”. Some should be let in and others not.
The conundrum for Corbyn is even more complex. For a start, his own support base is divided on the issue. His more cosmopolitan backers are pro-immigration, while others are more concerned about how immigration affects workers’ rights.
But immigration also pits both these forces against the Parliamentary Labour Party, which has absorbed the “consensus” that there should be something “tough” done on immigration because that’s what the public wants. Taken to its extreme, this view is exemplified by MP Rachel Reeves warning of riots if the people don’t get what they want, thus implicitly arguing that politicians should respond to xenophobia by doing what xenophobes want.
Corbyn’s party conference speech fell short of a new grand narrative but it underlined his willingness to defy the PLP and avoid the obvious strategy of copying the Tories on immigration. This was something that Tony Blair did to win in 1997 (when shadow home secretary Jack Straw boasted that there was not a “cigarette paper” between the two main parties on the topic).
Ed Miliband found the same tactic brought less electoral success in 2015 but it remains received wisdom for Labour figures such as Andy Burnham. Yvette Cooper is trying a modified version of the Blunkett good/bad equation in favour of certain types of refugees, while Chukka Umunna seems to prefer a nod back towards the Hattersley equation.
Falling short of a bold vision
Was there anything new in Corbyn’s speech? It is certainly novel that there was no talk of being “tough” or “firm”, and a refusal to talk numbers. But there was also a sense of a rather odd timing. Corbyn spoke of tackling the unfair employment practices driving migrant labour in the UK and of enforcing the EU laws that protect the rights of domestic workers. These were exactly the sort of arguments that many Remainers were crying out for a few months ago, before the referendum.
Corbyn’s other flagship idea is the migration impacts fund, which provides money to communities to help integrate newcomers. But this is definitely not new. It was something originally done under New Labour. It makes sense that if immigration makes money for the government, those resources are put where they are needed. If immigrants are net contributors, shouldn’t public services respond where newcomers live and work? The challenge in putting this in place is a familiar one – facing down populists and nationalists for whom spending any money at all that might benefit immigrants is unacceptable.
The time is right for a radical plan but this is no paradigm shift. The last big move on immigration by Labour was to wrap a more open approach in a kind of economic nationalism – more immigration was good news for UK PLC. In a sense they were proved right, but it was a failure to share those windfalls equitably that helped fuel a backlash.
If Labour wants to develop a new story for the left about how to approach immigration, the emphasis must be on sharing the proceeds of globalisation and immigration. That means investment, decent jobs and working conditions. It also means serious attempts to tackle the erosion of rights and conditions in the UK labour market.
It is unfashionable to say it, but there needs to be less focus on immigration because it distracts and obfuscates. There is a case to be made that while immigration can be associated with exploitation (as Milliband sought to highlight), the obsession with immigration figures amounts to scapegoating. That is because the increase in poor quality jobs, the widespread economic hardship and “precarity” experienced by Labour voters – even the political and social unease that led to many voting for Brexit – will not be solved by building walls and meeting net migration targets.
That is the snake-oil being served up by the populist right and large parts of the mainstream press. Corbyn needs to insist that his party sells something different, and that means moving further than a cigarette paper’s width away.