There has been quite some outrage going around Twitter due to a mug the Labour Party have for sale which bears the slogan: ‘Controls on immigration’. It is part of a series of five mugs which have Labour’s five key pledges emblazoned on them – of which controlling immigration is number four. My first reaction was to laugh at the idea of anyone buying such a mug, then wondering if it’s too early to buy it for my sister’s birthday, then losing interest and playing some more French Skyrim. However, certain on the left were furious about this. Owen Jones and Diane Abbott voiced their anger – with Owen lamely demanding Labour ‘offer some hope’ – and the hashtag #racistmug started circulating. It may not be in the least surprising, but it is quite frightening to see many on the left so readily leap on any slight aspersion being cast on the idea of immigration being a universal boon with no drawbacks as being ‘racist’.
There is a big problem with the debate on immigration in this country. Contrary to usual claim, however, it is not that we ‘cannot talk about it’. Far from it; we can’t shut up about the bloody thing. No, the problem is that there is no room for shades of grey from either side. From the left, if you stray away from the rhetoric of all nationalities and ethnicities frolicking gaily together in England’s green and pleasant land, you are clearly some kind of crypto-fascist who only emerges from your Union Jack festooned lair to make a point about immigration which must hide layers upon layers of racism and white supremacist fantasies. From the hard right, unless you are proposing to raise the drawbridges on fortress Britain after the last minority has been pushed off the edge you are a liberal metropolitan elite pinko who lives in Islington and probably defends ‘pedos’ as well.
But the fact is there is a middle ground to be found, and Labour are actually trying to seek it out. While it may make lefties feel good to laud the wonders of immigration and its benefits, and construct a demonic and ignorant ‘other’, in reality this rhetoric is all too often just empty words. Now, let me be clear here. I am no way seeking to denigrate migrants or ethnic minorities. Migration actually does bring benefits, in an economic sense but also culturally in widening the nation’s perspective on the world and life. Britain has, by and large, been made a better and more interesting place by migration, and I would hate for us to retreat into the small island mentality which UKIP so reify. Likewise, I am not denying that an awful lot of rhetoric from the right is racist, disgusting, untrue and frankly appalling.
However, it is facile for the left to act as if immigration is an undeniable wonder to these isles, and it cannot possibly have drawbacks. To do so is to bury one’s head in the sand and concede vital territory to such as UKIP. Despite many protestations the contrary, there is nothing inherent in ‘Labour values’ that make immigration such a sacred concept. It should not come as a surprise to people that a belief in controlling the free movement of capital can also come with a belief in controlling the free movement of labour. In a perfect world of near perfect equality between nations, it is true that such controls would not be needed. People are unlikely to want to leave their home culture, kinship networks and home language behind en-masse when there is no real economic benefit of moving abroad. However, when there are huge disparities between nations, of course large amounts of people will want to migrate.
This is in no way disparaging on migrants themselves. It makes good sense to migrate in this instance, and the majority of scare stories in the press are simply that: nonsense. No, the problems are not welfare fraud and abuse of the NHS. The most obvious problem is that large-scale unskilled labour does put downward pressure on wages in the lowest-paid jobs. Furthermore, it increases ‘flexibility’ in the labour market greatly. This is a euphemism for decreases job certainty so allows employers to give less benefits, holiday, guaranteed hours etc. as they know they can always find labour from abroad. Similarly, immigrants rarely join trade unions, so the power of these institutions is reduced in the workplace. All this results in a field day for bourgeois owners and impoverishment of the proletariat.
Much as it can be overplayed, pressure on public services is a real issue. Because of the fact that large-scale immigration tends to be focused on specific industries in specific areas, housing, schooling and other public services do struggle to cope under this sudden weight they had not planned for. Just look at John Denham’s report on their state in Southampton to see evidence of this.
Finally, much as I dislike saying it, there is an issue with integration and community. A large influx of people with different belief systems and cultures does change the face of a community, and its easy to see how it loads to tensions. Frequently, this is put down to racism, but is often far too simple an answer. While it most certainly can be this, it ignores the protests of coastal and country areas protesting against second homes and internal migration from London. Exmoor and Gwynedd have attempted to put controls on this as it has completely changed the character of the areas and, in the case of Gwynedd, eroded the Welsh language.
So there we have it. Immigration is not one big flawless boon for the nation that should be supported at all costs. It has plenty of good points, and I would fight passionately against unfair, defamatory and racist aspersions being cast against immigrants. However, it does have downsides, both economic and social. There are those on the left like James Bloodworth and Sunny Hundal who have been arguing this for years now. I will freely admit that the main ways to address this problem are by increasing protections and wages for workers, as well as unions branching out to foreign workers. Likewise, increases in public spending could address some of the impact on public services. But this would still not be able to completely counter the problems that large-scale immigration of unskilled labour brings. The problem around the immigration debate is not just racist rhetoric, but the willingness to declare any opposition to the volume of it as being such. If the left really want to win the debate on immigration, they need to learn that calling for the children of migrants to be banned from schools is racist; arguing for basic controls that prevent large-scale migration when economic conditions worsen elsewhere is not.