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Tough on immigration. Not so tough on the reasons it causes problems

Immigration is becoming a key issue for reflection in the aftermath of Labour’s election defeat.  Owen Tudor, Head of the TUC’s European Union and International Relations Department, expresses concern that “the contestants are in danger of repeating or worse exaggerating the errors of New Labour’s capitulation to right-wing ideas on migration – being tough on migration rather than tough on the reasons that migration causes problems.”

All the Leadership hopefuls have made some reference to it but David Goodhart, Editor of Progress, presents most clearly openly the nasty message of most of them arguing Labour must become the anti-immigration party. We should become, he says, “the party that is anti-mass immigration, but pro-immigrant.” Apparently, “a generous welfare state cannot survive in the long run unless there is a strong sense of a common life, of shared cultural references and experience.

The solutions are that “Labour should make common cause with the Tories if they are indeed serious about bringing net immigration down to tens of thousands” and “in opposition, develop a distinctive policy of modern “nation building” and citizenship integration”. John Harris in the Guardian summarised the approach as “outflank the Lib-Cons from the right, and so satisfy the proles.

Don Flynn, Director of the Minority Rights Network sees it rather differently: “Labour must take a more honest look at its failings on immigration:”

According to recent statements from leadership candidates Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Ed Miliband, the problem was that Labour shied away from the immigration debate, failing to convey information about the controls that they were implementing. Apparently, former Home Secretaries (including David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and John Reid) were such shrinking violets that they could not convince the public that Labour’s policies were tough enough on unwanted migrants.

The message, he says, was loud and clear.  Labour’s controls and enforcement were as tough as tough could be – immigration was under control and there wasn’t a problem.  Unfortunately, that simply did not equate with people’s experience.  They knew there were lots of new immigrants around – mostly from new EU entrants, but Labour had never explained that it couldn’t control that and, says Flynn, “there was nothing for it to fall back on in the way of promoting policies aimed at securing fairness and social justice for migrants and citizens alike.”

We should have no fear of facing up to, as Diane Abbott puts it, “the real reasons behind (black and white) working-class unhappiness about immigration. We have to talk about housing, the rise of agency (and casualised) labour and the incremental undermining of the welfare state, which have left working people feeling so insecure.

On housing, we will not only alleviate concerns about immigration, but solve many other problems by building new council housing: not the pathetic numbers built by Labour in the last government, a few hundred here and there but 200,000 a year as Tory governments did in the early 1950s and Labour (nearly) did under Wilson in the late 1960s.

On casualised labour, or “labour market flexibility” as New Labour preferred to call it, this was where the last government’s neo-liberalism was at its sharpest in resisting EU measures to prevent workplace exploitation and, above all, to remove legal restrictions on effective, free trade unionism.

There lie the two greatest causes of concern about immigration.

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