Jeremy Corbyn's reaction to what Theresa May said about immigration was the last thing Labour needed

'Net migration reached a record high of 336,000 under Theresa May,' a Labour Tweet proudly boasted, '101,000 than when Tories came into office.' It felt like someone in Labour HQ wanted to take on the Tories at their own xenophobic game

Michael Segalov
Thursday 06 October 2016 10:53
The Labour leader is applauded following his keynote speech on the final day of the Labour Party conference in Liverpool
The Labour leader is applauded following his keynote speech on the final day of the Labour Party conference in Liverpool

I woke up yesterday morning genuinely terrified. It felt to me like something had changed. I guess deep down I knew that the vote for Brexit, a spike in hate crime, and governments throughout my lifetime promising to clamp down on migration meant that we were heading towards a bigoted impasse, but for me, a middle class young British man, it all finally got real.

At Tory Party Conference time and time again, ministers stood in front of their party faithful and whipped up hatred like I’ve rarely seen before. Businesses would have to publish figures of foreign workers, international students (who happen to be keeping our underfunded universities afloat) would made less welcome, landlords who were found to be housing foreign nationals without the proper documentation would find themselves facing a stint inside. Even those pesky foreign doctors will finally face the chop.

For a while, it felt like it was up to the likes of Ruth Davidson and Anna Soubry to half-heartedly challenge this division fuelling language, all the Labour Party had managed to proffer was a jab at the Conservatives, not on their xenophobic rhetoric but their failure to deliver on previously promised immigrant caps.

“Net migration reached a record high of 336,000 under Theresa May,” a Labour Tweet proudly boasted, “101,000 than when Tories came into office.” It felt like someone in Labour HQ wanted to take on the Tories at their own xenophobic game.

It wasn’t until many hours later that Jeremy Corbyn’s official response appeared. He rightly accused Conservative Party leaders of fanning “the flames of xenophobia and hatred”, but the statement now pinned to his Twitter feed, which reminds us that “once again, they are making false promises on immigration they can’t deliver”, is somewhat underwhelming.

Corbyn too is proposing a solution "which would reduce numbers", despite the fact in its 2015 General Election briefing, the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics observed: “There is still no evidence of an overall negative impact of immigration on jobs, wages, housing or the crowding out of public services.”

So aside from the fact that the facts and figures show beyond any doubt that migration is good for Britain – in fact vital for it to function – everyone is too scared to come out and say it. Where is the opposition with the bold new narrative backed up by the facts?

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This anti-migrant rhetoric is what led to Ukip and what led to Brexit, and it's why David Cameron was unable to convince anyone about the actual benefits of migration when after six years in government he suddenly changed his tune. But scapegoating migrants won't ever solve inequality; anyone sensible in government knows this all too well.

Migration caps are never delivered for this very reason: they weren’t under Labour’s last stint in power, nor were they under the Home Office tenure of Theresa May. But by pandering to the rhetoric, talking the talk without walking the walk, a gap is opened further rightwards. “The establishment and those London liberals have failed to deliver controls on migration,” they chime in zealously. “We need an even tougher stance on immigration, take back control!”

To break this cycle someone needs to stand up and reject in its entirety anti-migrant sentiment; enter Labour, stage left.

While many in the centre ground are reeling from May’s hyperbole, this is an opportunity to denounce the fear and the lies. The centre ground of British politics has collapsed, and with it has the potential for parties to make promises to cut migration and not deliver.

Labour’s strategy moving forward must be twofold: firstly to counter the narrative that current levels of migration are anything but good for this country, and then to stand strong and say migration in the future must be celebrated and embraced.

The reality is that any progressive party or movement in any of the world’s richer countries will struggle with this very point. They’ll struggle because our politics and principles are based on empathy, compassion and humanity, nuanced and thoughtful rather than easy, convenient, and black and white.

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In the short term there are practical steps we can take. We need to ensure that EU nationals living in Britain aren’t used as cards in the Brexit game. We need to highlight how our public services aren’t drained by migrants, but in no uncertain terms they keep us afloat.

A longer-term solution concerns owning a positive narrative appropriate to a progressive Labour Party on migration – one not framed around caps, tiers and limits, but on the positive contribution migration has and will always play.

It’s why our approach to migration can’t just be about numbers entering and leaving this country, but a truly internationalist response, one that examines global inequality, bridges the gap between rich and poor nations, and embraces freedom of movement in trade blocs like Europe.

The economy is going to seriously suffer if this government really cuts migration, and Labour needs to be ready to offer an alternative voice. The right will certainly be waiting.

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