Should defenders of immigration welcome Labour's approach?

Yvette Cooper: Singing a new tune - or more of the same?
Yvette Cooper: Singing a new tune or more of the same? -
Ian Dunt By

When he was in opposition, David Cameron pledged to be tough on immigration but also to do away with New Labour's habit of using inflammatory rhetoric when discussing it.

In power, Cameron stuck by the crackdown. But he also oversaw a deterioration in the debate around immigration, culminating in the infamous racist vans.

So it's worth paying particular attention to what Ed Miliband says about immigration in opposition. Because in all likelihood, his policies will only become less liberal once he gets into power.

Yvette Cooper's speech today is the latest in a years-long series of coordinated events by which Labour is trying to repair its reputation on the issue.

This has mostly been a travelling circus of apology, as the party says sorry for apparently losing control of immigration following the 2004 enlargement of the EU.  The political motivations are obvious, but objectively it is a strange thing to apologise for. The 2004 influx improved the working of the labour market and lowered the natural rate of unemployment. Once Poland had exported its pool of surplus labour, the numbers fell drastically.

Everything, in short, proceeded as you would wish and expect it to, to the benefit of both countries. But the 'perception' - a very important word in a debate filled with hysteria - was that this wave of immigration was damaging. So Labour has apologised, repeatedly, to anyone who would listen.

Elsewhere Miliband has tried to strike a difficult bargain: assuring the voters Labour will be tough on immigration while not offending liberals with a race-to-the-bottom.

Labour has been increasingly vocal recently following horrific examples of injustice in the asylum process, including taking a tough stance over the death of a woman in Yarls Wood last month. The party also opposed the deportation of Yashika Bageerathi. Both were commendable interventions which suggested Labour was prepared to adopt a more humane approach to asylum and detention. Unfortunately, this does not extend to closing down the detention camps altogether.

Cooper's speech continues what we already know of Labour's broader immigration strategy, but with more meat on the bones.

A criminal emphasis on those exploiting migrant labour

The movement is already in this direction. The coalition is doubling the fine for employers using illegal workers to £20,000. There will also be a four-fold increase in fines for firms not paying minimum wage and increased penalties for landlords housing migrants in illegal premises.

Labour will launch a consultation with businesses, trade unions, communities and workers on exploitation and undercutting wages.

Probably it will propose making 'serious' exploitation of migrant workers a specific criminal offence and beefing up the existing offence of forced labour. Possibly there will be a minimum jail sentence for employers hiring illegal workers on a large scale.

The precise definition of large scale will be important if, as the row over Mark Harper hinted, we are to avoid a culture where there are witch-hunts against people who don't constantly check the papers of those they employ. But probably the guidelines will be set using SME comparisons.

Wage depression is more difficult. Often immigrant labour does suppress wages in a given area. But it also drives up productivity and innovation in those parts of industry into which it flows.

Immigrants are often treated as if they were statistical robots, labouring but not consuming. One little-mentioned feature of immigration waves is that they create employment and demand around them, as locals offer services to new arrivals.

Ultimately, the effects of immigration are very complex. Very little serious academic work suggests that it reduces GDP - it is clear that in a country with an ageing population it is good for the economy. But that does not mean everyone is a winner.

Labour already knows that the answer to wage suppression is a living wage, policed effectively, buttressed by strong trade unions. Miliband has said as much, although not in as many words. Most of the Labour leader's pronouncements and priorities in this area should reassure supporters of immigration that his solution appears to be to protect wages, rather than attack immigrants.

That is not an unfair balance to adopt. And it is one which chimes well with Miliband's focus on 'predator companies'.

Introduce exit controls

Introducing exit checks is the great aspiration of centre-left parties trying to sound credible on immigration. The Lib Dems have been doing it for years. It is plainly odd that we should not be checking who leaves the country, although it must be said that it is a relatively minor bureaucratic failure in a system which is dysfunctional beyond belief.

One might spend more time worrying about the catastrophic, ever-growing backlog of immigration cases being dealt with by the UK Border Agency (UKBA). This gets little mention from Labour because it does not give the impression of 'looking tough'. In actual fact it would be tough, because UKBA is as ineffective and truculent an organisation as can be imagined.

Either way, the creation of an effective immigration system, which knows what happens to the cases it deals with and handles visa requests quickly and fairly, should be a priority for all sides of the debate. No-one is in favour of a broken system and no-one should be tolerant of the wasted months and years people spend trapped within it.

The shame is that Labour is not joining this drive with a commitment to clean up UKBA and provide a system which actually hands down immigration decisions, regardless of what they are, with competent assessors doing the job fairly. 'Cleaning up the system' is not a difficult message to make and it is one which could have the support of anyone interested in the immigration debate.

Reversing student decline

Labour believes, rightly, that the public can differentiate between types of immigration. Most people, when asked, do want a reduction in immigration. But they do not want a reduction in foreign students, who they recognise to be valuable.

Labour will do what business secretary Vince Cable and others have been calling for and extract foreign student numbers from the overall net migration figures.

This would have less impact under Labour because the party is clearly not going to tie itself down into a net migration target over which it has no control, as Cameron has done. But it shows the party is willing to address different types of immigration differently. This may sound like an obvious approach, but it is not one which has been followed. A more sophisticated assessment of types of immigration is to be welcomed.

A net migration target puts the government at the mercy of how many Brits happen to emigrate in a given year. Merely avoiding having one provides a more rational, calm approach to the issue. It is partly the slavish devotion to Cameron's off-the-cuff "tens of thousands" remark which has robbed the immigration debate of any trace of reason in recent years.

Miliband is playing a balancing act. Sounding like it's 'tough' is a prerequisite for whether an immigration policy is adopted. But his targets are not, it should be noted, the immigrants themselves. Rather Miliband wants to get tough on irresponsible employers and the immigration infrastructure.

There is little here for supporters of immigration to be jubilant about. This is not some great hope for the future. But the traces of compassion and the focus away from targeting migrant labour itself suggests the party is on a broadly tolerable path.

Not much of a commendation - but better than nothing.


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