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Ian Birrell: Labour's cowardice on immigration

Cyrus Kabiru should have been in Edinburgh next week. He is one of 19 people to be given a TED global fellowship, marking recognition of his emergence as one of Africa's most inventive artists. But he has been barred from Britain. The organisers say such problems occur time and again with Britain. I hear similar complaints from musicians, angered at being prevented from performing here. They are among higher-profile victims of our official hostility to foreigners; a legacy of a stance on immigration devoid of common sense. And it is getting worse. This week, Labour is re-engaging with immigration. So yesterday we saw Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, apologising for her party's failure to introduce tougher controls while in office. This is an important moment. Here is a party that had a Home Secretary who talked of Britain being "swamped" with migrants and a PM who borrowed the language of the British National Party. At the last election, it had the most hostile manifesto on the subject. Yet it feels compelled to say it has been too weak.

Cooper's self-flagellation was preparation for her leader's big speech today. The politics and positioning are plain, revealing the influence of new policy gurus. Instead of apologising for failing to address people's fears, Labour should say sorry for its failure to be honest and spell out why the nation needed – and still needs – so many migrants.

Unfortunately, that would require real political leadership, something we do not see in any of the three main parties on this subject.

Immigration has not spiralled out of control – unlike the ill-informed debate about it. If people are flocking to Britain, it is a sign of comparative success. Immigrants disproportionately boost public finances. Foreign-born people pay the same taxes but are far less likely to claim benefits or use state services than natives.

Yet first Labour, now the Coalition, have introduced panic-stricken policies that harm British interests. Entrepreneurs kept out, leading scientists turned away. Universities hobbled by the absurd immigration cap, their share of the growing global market declining.

Many perceived problems, such as the reluctance of employers to hire lackadaisical Britons that will be targeted today by Mr Miliband, are down to educational and social failures, not border controls. But the fear factor has paralysed politicians, so they fan the flames of concern rather than show a spark of leadership. This does deserve an apology. But I doubt it is one we will ever hear.