What now for Labour’s migration policy?
At the APPG on Migration fringe meeting, hosted by EY, MPs discussed how Labour can change the conversation on immigration.
How the Labour Party will shape its migration policy going forward was the topic of debate for yesterday’s APPG on Migration fringe meeting at party conference.
“The important thing to get across is: migration is not a bad thing,” said Ian Preston, professor at the University College of London.
Migration, he argued, allows skills to move where they are most needed, spurs innovation and encourages entrepreneurism.
“Being open to immigration encourages growth,” he concluded.
EY’s head of Global Immigration, Margaret Burton, called for Labour to stop putting a number on net migration.
Tulip Siddiq, MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, backed this call saying the net migration target was “ill conceived” and will cause greater harm than good. She specifically took issue with the Tory’s inclusion of refugees and students in the target, describing the first as inhumane and the second as economically harmful.
Ms Burton, said that employers were concerned over the negative impact that the net migration cap will have on their ability to hire skilled labour. Quoting a recent CBI skills survey, she said that 50% of employers do not believe they will be able to find the necessary skilled workers in the future.
The direct impact on businesses is so evident, Burton said BIS – not the Home Office – should be responsible for determining policy around skilled migrants.
However, the panel agreed that any attempt to separate migrants into ‘refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’ would be harmful.
“A migrant can be both a refugee and an economic migrant,” said Don Flynn of the Migrant’s Rights Network. Such distinctions, he warned, encourages people to group migrants into separate categories of ‘good vs bad’.
Despite all the positive arguments in favour of migration, the panel expressed frustration over the difficulty of changing the public discourse.
“People move to this country for a variety of reasons and we need to dispel some of the myths on immigration,” the MP for Hampstead and Kilburn added.
Topping the concerns of public fears on immigration is the impact it could have on welfare, education and health services, which the panellists agreed, was largely unfounded.
“While most people think they are coming here to take advantage of our benefits system – 66% come here with a job already,” Ms Siddiq said. The Hampstead and Kilburn MP added that British born citizens were more likely than immigrants to claim benefits, and have a council house.
Melanie Onn MP, chair of the APPG, suggested that a central problem to discussing the facts on migration was that “many voters just don’t want to hear it.”
She urged Labour to consider that if statistics do not change minds, “what are the other ways of getting this information through?”
Ms Siddiq agreed that it was essential for Labour to engage in the debate because, “if we don’t have that conversation we will let people like Nigel Farage set the tone and the terms of the debate.”
Leaving this vacuum in the dialogue has forced the media to jump on UKIP’s message, encouraging people to view it as reality, she warned.
Surprisingly, one group particularly susceptible to the anti-immigration message are second generation immigrants.
Both Ms Siddiq and Ms Onn, as well as many members of the audience, shared stories of encountering immigrants and children of immigrants who thought that “today’s migrants” were only here to take advantage of the benefits system.
Ms Onn said despite the strong anti-migrant feelings expressed by many of her constituents, she found that when speaking to them one-on-one their concerns really stemmed from the difficulties caused by the benefit cuts imposed by the Conservative government.
Mr Flynn criticised the media failing to reflect the positive feelings in many communities on immigration. The strong negative reaction to the ‘Go Home Vans’ reflects this sentiment, he said, with many people saying such anti-immigration propaganda made them ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘unnecessarily suspicious’.
He added that the proposed Immigration Bill was having the same effect.
Beyond changing the dialogue, calls were also made to give local authorities more power.
“There is a disconnect between local government and national government,’ Ms Siddiq said.
She argued that local authorities’ intimate knowledge of their communities was undervalued, as they are in the best position to understand what their communities can handle in terms of refugee support more quickly and accurately than the national government.
The panel concluded that Labour must build on the momentum of the past few months, inspired by the images of the dead Syrian children refugees, Ayan and Galip Kurdi.
Mr Flynn said the shift in the public mood was an important turning point - with hundreds of thousands of people calling to welcome refugees.
“People are wanting to go deeper than the exploitation of sympathy when looking at the photos of dead children being picked up on beaches.”
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