Over the past few days, a string of Labour MPs has been making ‘a ‘progressive case for immigration controls’. For example Rachel Reeves used her intervention at a fringe meeting at the Labour Party Annual Conference in Liverpool to say that the tension about immigration could ‘explode’ into riots. In slightly less incendiary language, Chuka Umunna condemned the new wave of immigrants in his constituency for ‘leading parallel lives’. In similar vein, Stephen Kinnock established a correlation between immigration and racism which so far has been challenged by evidence (racism and xenophobia tend to be stronger in areas with small or no migrant populations than in the areas with larger migrant populations). Last but not least, after all this is the Labour Party, there’s already a Fabian pamphlet signed by nine Labour MPs that makes the case for immigration controls and limits to the freedom of movement enjoyed by citizens of the European Union (EU).
With these statements these Labour politicians are trying to say three things. Firstly, that they understand what the majority of voters meant when they voted to leave the EU last June. Secondly, that they are ready to challenge the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who used his speech to the Labour Party Annual Conference to say that he will not seek to reduce immigration. And thirdly, that they are ready to accept a hard Brexit.
However, in the rush to look in touch with ‘ordinary voters’, Labour figures like Reeves, Umunna, or Angela Rayner only sound desperate. It is perfectly obvious that these Labour MPs, who just a few months ago campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU (and therefore supported freedom of movement), fear the loss of dozens of seats in the areas on England and Wales that voted to leave. As Chris Hanretty showed, most Labour MPs represent a constituency that voted Leave.
The problem is that addressing voters’ concerns on immigration amounts to playing with fire. Though most Labour constituencies voted for Brexit, 60% of Labour supporters voted to Remain in the EU. In other words, whilst attempting to placate a set of voters with a hardened stance on immigration Labour risks alienating others. Whichever stance the party chooses to adopt there will be electoral costs.
The main problem with this outpouring of concern with immigration is that it does not deliver what it says on the tin. No European leader has been able to deliver the promise to control immigration. And, perhaps more importantly for the Labour Party, neither Reeves, nor Kinnock nor Umunna are making a ‘progressive case’ for a so-called ‘managed immigration’. Indeed, their emphasis is far more on the managed aspect than on the progressive aspect. They simply repeat the well-known but baseless tropes about immigrants: they ‘steal’ jobs, contribute for the lowering of wages, and threaten social cohesion because they do not fully integrate into British society. Absent from this picture is the idea that immigrants contribute to the national economy, enrich Britain’s cultural life or that most are fully integrated into British society. Also absent from their proposals are ideas to enforce the minimum wage or to make sure that local authorities have sufficient funds to deal with the pressures that a larger local population will place on public services.
In addition, a progressive case for managed immigration would emphasise too that immigrants are often exploited by unscrupulous British employers and landlords, and often face discrimination in the labour market. As argued by the Australian political philosopher Tim Soutphommasane, a progressive case for managed immigration would also involve dialogues (as opposed to government diktats) with migrant communities leading to the incorporation of minority perspectives in public institutions, practices and values.
To be fair, this progressive approach to immigration was attempted by former Labour leader Ed Miliband. He even took inspiration in political philosopher Tim Soutphommasane’s ideas on ‘liberal patriotism’ but the results of the 2015 general election showed this approach had no traction with voters. Miliband’s approach was too nuanced and bureaucratic to appeal to voters who were concerned with immigration. As research by Kriesi, Grande and others demonstrated, voters who are concerned with immigration tend not to favour softly-softly approaches to any areas of public policy. In reality they tend to mistrust liberal values like gay rights, civil liberties, cosmopolitanism or feminism.
On the other hand, Labour rarely benefits electorally when it adopts an anti-immigration rhetoric. When in the early noughties the Labour government was confronted with the opposition to its ill-thought ‘open door’ policy towards citizens from the EU accession countries, Labour politicians decided to talk tough about immigrants and asylum-seekers. For example, the then Home Secretary David Blunkett famously asked immigrants to speak English at home. At that time, the anti-immigrant rhetoric used by Labour ministers and opposition parties was so incendiary that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Rudd Rubbers asked politicians to tone down their language.
In the event, Labour won the 2005 general election with the lowest share of the vote for a winning party of the post-war period, the issue of immigration rose to the top of the political agenda and UKIP stormed noisily and disruptively into British politics. Surely, a modern re-enactment of this scenario is the last thing the Labour Party desires or needs.
By Eunice Goes, Associate Professor of Politics at Richmond University and is the author of The Labour Party Under Ed Miliband: Trying But Failing to Renew Social Democracy (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016).