A Political Life: We have a long way to go before our immigration system is fair and simple

Plus, low voter turnout at Eastleigh is just one sign of a waning appetite for politics


Net migration is down, trumpets the Government, and yet concern about immigration is still rising and people are still unconvinced. Why? Partly because it’s not fallen as far as they promised, but also because they’re focused on the wrong target.

Make no mistake, migrants make a massive contribution to this country, but low-skilled immigration was too high under the last Labour government. Although we did a lot to sort out the shockingly incompetent asylum system we inherited in 1997, we took too long to bring in the points-based system that welcomed skilled labour but cut unskilled migration from outside the EU. We were right to insist that all migrants learn English and that when they break the law they are deported, but we were wrong to go out on an EU limb by not putting any transitional controls in place when countries such as Poland joined the EU.

I support tough controls on immigration, but the Government has focused on the wrong end of the stick. Illegal immigration barely features in its calculations and it is now stopping fewer illegal migrants at the border and deporting fewer foreign criminals every year.

There is far more we could be doing. There are still too many migrants unable to integrate because of their inability to speak English. The Government has admitted that there was not a single prosecution for breaching the national minimum wage last year or the year before, despite the evidence that unscrupulous  people bring workers from Eastern Europe, put them in overcrowded accommodation, pay them less than the minimum and take their housing out of those paltry wages. That undercuts local workers and is manifest exploitation.

Under this Government, the largest fall in immigration has come from the number of international students studying here for more than a year. But we should be attracting the brightest and best from India, China, Russia and Mexico, not putting them off, because Britain’s ability to compete depends on maintaining our position as a world leader in higher education. So yes, close bogus colleges, but if you’ve cut the number of the brightest coming to our universities, you’ve scored an own goal.

Nobody seriously denies that the pace of migration has been and is a real concern for many people, and being concerned about immigration does not mean you’re racist. But I reckon the public is sick of windy promises. It wants a simple, fair, straightforward, watertight system that works.

That’s no lady – that’s my wife

I met Michael Attenborough on Wednesday, whose father is the actor and director Richard. Michael is about to retire as artistic director of the Almeida Theatre to concentrate on freelance directing, and he told me of his father’s pride at having addressed Labour Party conference in the 1970s; his frustration when his 1960 film The Angry Silence was condemned by the NUM for what it presumed was its anti-union stance; and his pleasure when the union watched the film and presented him with an antique miner’s lamp in gratitude for his portrayal of the workers’ struggle.

Back in those days, newspapers provided overnight reviews of new films. When The Angry Silence premiered, Attenborough and the movie’s writer and producer, Bryan Forbes, celebrated the stupendous reviews by going into Soho for a few drinks with their wives, Nanette Newman and Sheila Sim. Too exhausted to go home, they thought they would treat themselves to a night at the Savoy. When they asked if they might have a couple of rooms, the receptionist was polite but firm. “We can certainly accommodate you two gents, but I’m afraid we can’t allow these ladies in off the streets.”

Waning appetite for politics

I’m not going to bother you with my thoughts on the Eastleigh by-election, as you can guess that, as a Labour MP, I reckon the biggest problems are for David Cameron, whose party will probably now be tempted to tack to the Tea Party right despite the fact that its Sarah Palinesque candidate (anti-gay, pro-life, anti-foreigner) had to be locked in a cupboard for half the campaign. But there was another worry in Eastleigh. Turnout was just 52 per cent in a highly contested event. Maybe the multilayered scandals didn’t help, but I spoke at the EU debate in the Oxford Union that same evening and was amazed to learn that not one of the elected posts at the union was contested this term. Former officers include Roy Jenkins, Michael Foot, William Hague and Boris Johnson, so what is going on? Is Britain getting fed up with politics?

A send-off like no other

MPs go to a fair few funerals, and last week there was a full house at St Elvan’s Church in Aberdare for the funeral of Dennis Davies. It was moving stuff, with two of the best eulogies I’ve ever heard and a good mix of the traditional (“Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer”) with the less conventional reggae song “Kingston Town”.

Two things struck me. First, there was a real pride in being working class. Men carried the coffin in to the sound of “It’s a working man I am and I’ve been down underground”. Nothing chippy or affected, just working class straight up and down.

And second, I couldn’t help but think of the dozens of funerals I have been to that were indistinguishable from another. This was unmistakably different. Yet time after time, people select the same two hymns (“Abide with Me” and “Crimond”) for a tired, defeated crematorium event. Yes, we share our humanity, but if we all had sendings-off as individual as Dennis, maybe life would feel richer.

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