Immigration and Labour

Alan Johnson’s resignation yesterday has had at least one very welcome consequence.  Ed Balls — a man described by the Tories in the Daily Mail as ‘to the right of Enoch Powell’ —  is no longer shadow Home Secretary.

While I’m not naive enough to believe that his replacement by his wife, Yvette Cooper, is likely to herald a new dawn of intelligent and forward-thinking migration policy, it may at least stop Labour’s rush to outflank the Tories on the right of the immigration question.  It’s often forgotten that it was Labour who campaigned in the 1980s on a promise of leaving the European Union.  Balls’ approach to immigration reflected a return the worst excesses of the Labour movement’s white, male and protectionist heritage.

Balls’ comments during the Labour leadership campaign — suggesting that `free movement of goods and services works to our mutual advantage. But the free movement of labour is another matter entirely’ — are an ugly and misjudged appeal to the fears of a working class demographic whose needs were largely neglected by Labour during their thirteen years in charge.  It’s also a charge without economic foundation. Research suggests that Eastern European migrants to the UK have contributed 37 per cent more in taxes than they have taken in welfare payments.

Similarly, while Balls’ might claim that it’s entirely possible to be anti-migrant without being racist, it seems to me that at the very least his public condemnation of Eastern European movement is dangerously close to excusing xenophobia.

For me, Balls’ as shadow Home Secretary  — and its impact on migration policy — was one of the major obstacles to being able to contemplate ever voting Labour again (not that there’s much of an alternative choice now either…thanks Nick).

Now, as shadow Chancellor, Balls will have to acknowledge the economic arguments in favour of migration and stop just playing to the galleries.  Migrants bring in tax receipts.  Migrants meet economic demand.  So,  perhaps there may now be a slow change in Labour’s attitude to immigration.

And on that note, here’s a suggestion: instead of shouting impotently about how to stop migration, Labour should realise migration will happen, and focus on how to make it pay. To do this, perhaps it should consider another return to its roots: this time, the championing of the rights of workers.  Instead of focusing on restricting the supply — “migrants” — policy should focus on shaping the nature of demand and target employers.  Ensuring all migration — skilled and unskilled — takes place within the formal, regulated economy wouldn’t just increase tax revenues.  It would also protect the pay and conditions of all British workers. Now, surely that’s an aim worthy of a real Labour party?