Progressive parties must get their act together and address immigration if we are to avoid a Hard Brexit, writes environmentalist and Green thinker JONATHON PORRITT.
Will there be a single inflection point – when the grim state of the Brexit balance sheet becomes undeniable to all but a small number of Brexit-at-any-cost ideologues?
Probably not, but the increased visibility of that disturbing balance sheet is keeping everyone on their toes. Who knows, even now, 17 months on from the referendum, where it will all end up?
Personally, I’m still hopeful on that front. The noisier and more aggressive the Hard Brexiteers become, the more desperate and unrepresentative they sound. Even a bit unhinged. The recent astonishing attack by the Daily Telegraph on the ‘Tory Mutineers’ simply highlighted the lengths to which our right-wing media will go to try and hold the line on Hard Brexit. But the new-found determination on the part of the vast majority of MPs to uphold the sovereignty of Parliament gets stronger by the day.
So the conditions would seem to be right to see off once and for all the nightmare of Hard Brexit, and to double down on what needs to be done to secure some kind of Norway-style deal. But there’s one great big barrier to making that possible: the failure on the part of pro-European progressives in the UK to address the principal reason why so many people voted to quit the EU in the Referendum – namely, immigration.
There’s an extraordinary irony about the current immigration debate here in the UK. Two years ago, the UK was almost alone in pushing for far-reaching reforms to the interpretation of the EU’s notionally sacrosanct principle of freedom of movement. At the behest of the Tory Party’s hard-line Brexiteers, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, was humiliatingly despatched on a tour of EU capitals to secure some small-scale (but cumulatively significant) changes in what nation states would be permitted to do to allay concerns about immigration. Unfortunately, these were dismissed out of hand by the UK’s right-wing media.
Two years on, there isn’t a country in Europe where the debate about immigration isn’t very live indeed – apart from the UK. Astonishingly, immigration had almost no visibility at all in the 2017 General Election campaign, and (as yet) has played only a diminished walk-on role in the current Brexit negotiations.
But it absolutely hasn’t gone away as far as voters are concerned. If net migration continues at around recent levels, then the population of the UK is expected to rise by nearly eight million people over the next 15 years (almost the equivalent of the population of Greater London at 8.7 million), and by 9.7 million in the next 25 years, from an estimated 64.6 million in 2014 to 74.3 million in 2039. It is assumed that net migration will account for around 50% of this projected increase over those 25 years, but 75% of this increase would be from future migration plus the children of those migrants.
By any standards, this is a big change in the lives of a lot of UK citizens, with roughly half a million new residents arriving in the UK, every year, for the last ten years. So why would anyone imagine that this demographic disruption would not worry many people?
Much of that growth happened during the time when Labour was in power, and many former Labour ministers have acknowledged that they simply failed to understand either the short-term impacts of such changing circumstances, or the long-term implications.
And public opinion has changed a lot during that time, with the evidence clearly showing high levels of opposition to large-scale immigration in the UK, with clear majorities of respondents believing that there are too many migrants in the UK, that fewer migrants should be let in to the country, and that legal restrictions on immigration should be tighter. And in that regard, interestingly, there’s not a huge difference between pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit voters.
So what will happen as the case for Hard Brexit continues to unravel, but people’s continuing concerns about the possibility of new, large-scale permanent immigration goes unaddressed? Although we’re currently not making a very good job of it, controlling non-EU migration is completely under our control, which inevitably keeps the focus on the importance of ‘taking back control’ of migration from the EU.
And people are right to be concerned. This may make people feel uncomfortable, but many of the drivers behind the increase in levels of immigration today are going to get a lot worse in the future. Just think of climate change for a moment. We know, as a matter of increasingly painful inevitability, that the lives of tens, even hundreds of millions of people (particularly in Africa and the Middle East) will be devastated by the effects of climate change. We know that many of those people will have no choice but to leave their homes and communities if they are to have any prospect of survival, let alone a better life. And we know that many of them will seek to come to Europe, as the place that offers the best possible refuge in an all-encompassing storm that is not of their own making.
That’s part of the backdrop to the politics of immigration across the EU today. Looking back on elections in 2017 in the Netherlands, France, Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria, the pressure on EU politicians to get their act together on immigration is growing by the day. And if we’re serious about addressing the threat posed by resurgent right-wing populism, all progressives have to get proactive on this, as a matter of urgency, rather than continuing to sit around on the sidelines.
Which makes it all the more ironic that progressive parties in the UK (Labour, Lib Dems and the Greens) which are quite properly focussed on avoiding Brexit-at-any-cost, have done next to nothing to address voters’ concerns about immigration since the referendum.
That may now be changing – as Vince Cable said, ‘I think you can interpret freedom of movement in a much more pragmatic way’. The makings of a potential cross-party agreement are already there, including David Cameron’s hard-won, pre-referendum reforms. Support for such ideas is growing within the Labour Party, bit by bit, led by Chuka Umunna, Stephen Kinnock, Stephen Doughty and many others. They point out that even today’s freedom of movement is not an unconditional principle. EU citizens can be required to leave if they have no job or prospect of a job three months after arrival. Restrictions are explicitly allowed for reasons of ‘public policy, public security or public health’, including an emergency brake if public services are being overwhelmed. It’s clear that both Labour and the Lib Dems are inching tentatively to repositioning themselves in a way that would allow them to demonstrate that they have indeed responded to people’s concerns.
But they need to dial up those efforts in a completely different way. If they don’t, the Hard Brexiteers, together with their ideological allies in the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Telegraph, will dial up their hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric as the last line of defence, taking us right back to the polarised intolerance of the referendum debate.
We can and must do much better than that.
Jonathon Porritt is a writer and environmentalist.