Get real, Mr Burnham: Labour may want to reclaim ground from Ukip on immigration but should avoid simplifying the issue

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Andy Burnham, the shadow Home Secretary and distant runner-up in the Labour leadership election, has the toughest job in British politics: winning the argument on immigration for Labour. Losing it, as happened at the last election, was one of the main causes of May’s disastrous defeat. In particular, Ukip benefited greatly from Labour’s weaknesses, polling an uncomfortably large vote in Labour’s heartlands, along a long stretch of the east coast of England and extending across the northern counties. It is not a battleground where Labour can afford to surrender any more territory.  

In his speech Mr Burnham displayed a willingness to respond to concerns: he would be foolish if he did not. Respectable economic analysis backs him up, at least to an extent. As Mr Burnham suggests, in some places and in some trades, the scale of immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe, may well have depressed wages (nothing in economics is ever quite certain). Mr Burnham probably overstated his case that such pressures have “widened inequality” at the national level. His argument that private companies have felt the benefit of lower wages “more than people and communities” is also odd, given that those companies, presumably, pass some of the benefit on in the form of lower charges for everything from minicabs to plumbing services to cleaning contracts in the NHS. 

His assertion that public services can be placed under extra strain by immigration was a similarly artful half-truth; many public services would collapse without immigrant labour and skills, and the answer to inadequate public services is to reform them or to spend more on them – or both.

What was badly missing from Mr Burnham’s message was much sense of the good things that immigration brings in its train, and the huge benefits it has bestowed on Britain. As he looked out on the sea of faces in the conference hall, and as an MP in the North-west, he will have seen people with a different skin colour and from different parts of the world who have helped to build this country, the NHS and his party, too. As a former Health Secretary, and to an audience also packed with Unison and other NHS union activists, Mr Burnham should have told his party that the NHS would simply not function without recruitment from overseas, from surgeons to healthcare assistants. The cultural and personal enrichment that has come from the movement of people into these islands was also a gaping hole in the speech. Mr Burnham could and should have said much more about that to balance his revisionism. 

And what of Mr Burnham’s solution? So far as can be discerned this amounts to a Europe-wide minimum wage rate and the prescription of a “going rate” for certain skilled jobs. This, Mr Burnham suggested, is the essence of the “social Europe” he and Jeremy Corbyn wish to build. Yet it is difficult to see how a minimum wage applicable in the UK would make much sense in, say, Bulgaria, where living costs as well as productivity are vastly lower. Nor is a “going rate” for skilled work a practical proposition in a dynamic market economy. It should be sufficient to increase and then enforce effectively the existing minimum wage regime to protect workers’ living standards in Britain. Perhaps Mr Burnham believes such a policy would not be enforceable in practice; in which case his Europe-wide wage rules would be still more difficult to make a reality. If he wants to win the argument on immigration, and to do so honourably, he will need a more realistic policy than that.