The big lie is that there has been a big silence on immigration, I cannot think of any issue on which there has been so much noise, says Denis MacShane
I first stood for Parliament in 1974. Then the only story in town was immigration. Enoch Powell had set politics aflame with his argument that the mass arrival of non-British citizens was disruptive to settled British society.
The same arguments can be heard today as MPs of all parties blame the social fractures that are self-evident in much of Britain on the arrival of European citizens willing to work hard, often in sectors that could not find trained, skilled, or willing British citizens to do the work.
Britain gave up its responsibility to train people in vocational skills during the great de-industralisation of the 1980s. We produced financial not industrial engineers, men who could build hedge funds but could not lay a brick on a brick with precision, line up electrical conduits precisely and safely, or install the copper tubes to allow water or heating on demand in Victorian houses or jerry-built flats.
Powell and his followers said that without the immigrants who came in to drive buses, work in inefficient textile factories or in the health and caring sectors of hospitals and care homes, Britain would be a better, finer place.
Fast forward to today and exactly the same arguments can be heard as much from Labour as Tory or Ukip MPs, that immigration is the Number One issue for Britain.
Trevor Phillips, the former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, recently alleged that ‘for forty years we have, by mutual consent, sustained a political silence on the one issue (immigration) where British people most needed articulate political leadership’.
I cannot speak for him, but offhand I cannot think of any issue on which there has been so much noise, so many books, so much press comment, so much political opportunism.
The big lie is that there has been a big silence on immigration. Margaret Thatcher helped win power in 1979 by saying Britain faced being ‘swamped’ by immigrants. William Hague said the liberal foreigner-friendly government risked Britain becoming ‘a foreign land’ if Tony Blair was re-elected in 2001.
In the European Parliament elections of 2004, 2009 and 2014, Ukip talked of little else save the number of Europeans in Britain.
The BNP made serious breakthroughs to win council seats and even MEP seats in the first decade of the century. Ukip called for ‘a managed immigration policy’ in 2015 and repeated the allegation in May 2016 that we now hear from some Labour MPs – that foreigners in Britain are ‘putting our public services under severe strain.
There are strains in many communities over the absence of good-pay jobs, of social housing, of sufficient teachers and non-teaching assistants. There is rising inequality and all UK regions outside of London and the south east have seen a net decrease in GDP since 2010.
But to blame this on European citizens or to imagine that creating a policy of discriminating against them will ease the problem is not rooted in any historical experience. Studies in 2014 by economists at University College, London show a net contribution of £20 billion to the UK economy by European citizens working here. They pay tax, rent property and have helped keep businesses flourishing in Britain that otherwise might have been tempted to relocate out of the UK.
To be sure, anti-EU Labour MPs like Frank Field have long called for ‘managed migration’ and now the Home Secretary is reported to want anyone coming to work in Britain to apply for a work permit in their home country before boarding an Easyjet or Ryanair plane.
Now there are somewhat fantastical suggestions of creating giant new bureaucracies to measure town by town, region by region, industry by industry the precise availability of British-born workers, their availability and willingness to work, and if necessary the allocation of work permits to European citizens.
This is man- and woman-power planning never before attempted on such a scale in any democracy. It implies a system of permits and internal passports to be presented to employers.
Presumably an Office of Managed Migration will be created – OMM – with officials stationed in every EU country as well as nationally to which a new pop-up café, delivery service, fruit farmer or care home can turn when they find they cannot get a sturdy Brit to fill their posts.
Then comes the question of whether the European workers have a fixed term or permanent contract, whether they can apply for other jobs, whether they can bring their families, or join them, whether they can live with or marry local British men or women and if, once married, their status changes.
Around the country people will be OMMing or protesting they have been unOMMed as they lose their rights to stay in Britain and face deportation. It would be one thing if Ukip or right-wing Tories were making these suggestions, but there will be uniform anger in Labour’s sister parties in Europe if Labour supports ‘managed migration’ that discriminates against citizens from other European nations.
More useful would be not to echo the calls over four decades of anti-immigrant politics for ‘managed migration’, but instead to campaign for a labour market approach that lessened the need to import low-wage workers.
From the first days of European construction – the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 – discrimination in hiring workers on the basis of race, religion and nationality was outlawed. 380,000 foreigners cross the German frontier to work every day and Britain always kept its labour market and right of residence fully open to citizens of a foreign republic – Ireland.
No EU prime minister can return home and tell his or her electorate that to appease the unyielding Hard Brexiters there is an agreement to allow Britain to begin discriminating against citizens of other partners and allies in Europe.
Instead, why not look at the British labour market rules, as fashioned by both Labour and the Tory-LibDem governments, which unfairly tilt the balance against British employees.
For example, free movement does not apply to work for government, nationally-owned industries or agencies. The NHS employs 57,000 EU citizens and they are welcome here. But might it be better to require investment to train sufficient doctors, nurses and other hospital staff?
Another way to support the domestic labour market is to insist on full training qualifications for many jobs. This again assumes that there is a structure of obligatory apprenticeships with a commitment to offer a job at the end of the training period.
When firms have to abide by industry-wide pay agreements negotiated with trade unions as in German-speaking Europe as well as most Nordic countries and the Netherlands it is harder to offer low- or minimum-pay jobs which do not sustain a family but which are attractive to men or women coming from countries where wages are far lower and jobs hard to come by.
Another mechanism would be to enforce rigorously those EU social rules like the posted workers directive and the agency workers’ directive. Low-pay employers have driven a coach and horses through these directives, to employ, at the lowest rates possible, workers from eastern Europe, delivered by gang-master style employment agencies, at the expense of local British workers.
Instead of some Labour MPs talking of work permits, an updated ‘Passport to Pimlico’ for City bankers (but not baristas), or undefined ‘managed migration’ it would be better to make the case for a more balanced internal labour market.
Already the EU was mulling over a so-called ’emergency brake’ on access to welfare benefits for the first years of a EU citizen working in another country. Again there is little evidence that EU workers came or come to Britain to access benefits. It is, rather, the job offers that matter. But making official such an ’emergency brake’ would ease fears, not only in Britain, about too rapid a mass arrival of foreign workers, especially in unskilled working class jobs.
Prime Minister May says she wants to see more fairness in the workplace. Measures to help British workers go with that agenda. Many firms will moan. They have to ask themselves if being excluded from the single market is a price worth paying if, as an alternative, the EU principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality can be made compatible with supporting and training British workers.
According to ComRes 49% of the British public think ‘the Government should prioritise getting favourable trade deals with EU countries when negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU,’ whereas only 39% said the Government should ‘prioritise reducing immigration’.
Labour MPs would be better advised to hold her feet to the fire instead of wandering down the road of ill-defined – and almost certainly unworkable – so-called ‘managed migration’.
There is a further point. Every European leader, from big to small EU member states, has insisted that the four freedoms – movement of goods, capital, services and people – cannot be cherry picked apart. They will not accept discrimination against their voters, as supporters of ‘managed migration’ seem not to know.
It is internally contradictory and incoherent to call upon May to guarantee full access to the single market for British business and, at the same time, to say Britain can be the only European state that discriminates in its employment practices.
Any politician who calls for ‘managed migration’ is calling for an end to full single market access. Hard Brexiters like David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson accept the logic of that position, as does Nigel Farage, for whom ‘managed migration’ has been a Ukip mantra for more than a decade.
Calling for ‘managed migration’ and for full access to the single market is a cake that no-one can simultaneously have and eat. Nor is there any evidence that dumping on immigrants wins votes.
In the late 1960s, Labour brought in overtly racist immigration acts, but the Tories won in 1970. Labour proposed to limit all access to the UK for Europeans in its 1983 manifesto. The pro-European Tories won big. Gordon Brown in 2009 pledged ‘British Jobs for British Workers’. Labour lost in 2010. I have a Labour 2015 general election mug promising ‘Controls on Immigration’. Labour lost.
In short, the idea that an appeal for ‘managed migration’ – with its cumbersome, expensive bureaucracy of an OMM, endless negotiation with small employers on hiring workers, rows with universities because they want to bring in foreign professors – is somehow an election-winning policy is disproved by political history.
Far better to focus fire on the isolationists, rather than pick up one of the torches of ‘managed migration’, and argue for a fairer, intelligent, pro-British worker labour market.
Labour should also support the appeal of the Polish community in Britain to uphold the right of Poles who live here to stay here. Around 200,000 Polish servicemen stayed in the UK with their families after 1945. They kept up links with Poland and, after 1990 and the end of communism, scores, indeed hundreds of thousands of Poles came to the UK. By 2000, Easyjet and Ryanair were flying 40 flights a day back and forth between British and Polish cities.
Now Poles in Britain are frightened at the hate and, at times, violence that the Brexit anti-European language has unleashed. They also fear they will be used as some kind of bargaining chip by Hard Brexit ministers. A group of distinguished Poles has written an open letter to the Prime Minister in which they write: ‘The International Trade Secretary (Liam Fox) has referred to EU nationals as being a ‘key card’ in the negotiations lasting over the next three years. In light of this Polish families remain very concerned about their future here… It is shameful that Polish children who considered the UK their home should be treated by the UK government as hostages in long term negotiations with the EU.’
It would be far more sensible for any Labour MPs to support this Brit-Polish campaign and to take apart the economic damage that Hard Brexit represents, rather than be an echo chamber for Ukip’s favourite ‘managed migration’ demands which will provoke division and fear, add enormous bureaucracy, and be resisted and rejected by every sister party of Labour in Europe.
Denis MacShane is a former Minister of Europe and author of Brexit: How Britain Left Europe