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Ian Birrell: Labour's cowardice on immigration is sickening

These clunking steps are even worse from a man who makes such play out of being the child of refugees

Cyrus Kabiru should have been in Edinburgh next week. He has been picked as one of 19 people from around the world to be given a TED global fellowship, marking recognition of his emergence as one of Africa's most inventive contemporary artists. But instead of receiving this cherished accolade, he has been barred from Britain.

The organisers, who stage events around the world, say such problems occur time and again with Britain. I hear similar complaints endlessly from musicians, angered at being prevented from performing in this country; one band in London this week had to use video to beam in its lead singer after he was denied a visa. They are among higher-profile victims of our official hostility to foreigners, legacy of a stance on immigration devoid of common sense.

And it is getting worse. This week, Labour is re-engaging with the immigration debate. So yesterday we saw the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, apologising for her party's failure to introduce tougher controls on migrants while in office. We did not do enough to address people's concerns on the subject, she bleated, while inevitably attacking the Government and demanding tighter restrictions.

This is an important moment. Here is a party, remember, that had a Home Secretary who talked of Britain being "swamped" with migrants and a Prime Minister who borrowed the language of the British National Party. At the last election, it had the most hostile manifesto on the subject. Yet still 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. First, they feel they cannot attack any government deficiencies until they have put a sticking plaster over their own Achilles' heel. Second, a left-leaning party is tilted towards the centre. And, third, tough talk on immigration blurs the image of Ed Miliband as an out-of-touch north London liberal (which he is, of course).

These clunking steps are even worse coming from a man who makes such huge play out of his own back story as a child of refugees. Yes, asylum is different to migration. But oppression can be economic as well as political; this has, after all, been the subliminal theme to Mr Miliband's leadership.

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. Even the Liberal Democrats, who under Charles Kennedy offered an alternative voice on immigration, have fallen shamefully silent.

Immigration has not spiralled out of control – unlike the ill-informed debate that surrounds it. For all the huffing and puffing in Westminster, migration is driven by economics, not politics, as demonstrated by the Migration Observatory at Oxford University. If people are flocking to Britain, it is a sign of comparative success; few of us would want to emulate Greece, which is bucking the European trend with "negative migration" at the moment.

At a time of economic paralysis and public sector cuts we should welcome new arrivals rather than fall for the myths of misanthropes. A series of recent studies has shown the wave of migration under the last Labour government had no impact on unemployment, even among the least skilled. Nor did it significantly depress wages. Nor is Britain one of the world's most densely populated nations.

Meanwhile, 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; indeed, I know several eastern Europeans who think our health service so poor they fly home just for dentistry.

On top of this, immigrants are far more likely to start new firms or patent new inventions, things we need so desperately right now. It seems significant that in London – along with the south-east, the sole region contributing more to the national exchequer than it takes out – one-third of residents are foreign-born.

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. Shops suffering as restrictive visas deter high-spending tourists, while business deals go elsewhere.

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 courage or leadership. This does deserve an apology. But I doubt it is one we will ever hear.

Twitter: @ianbirrell