He is a friend and neighbour of Jeremy Corbyn. But here, David Lammy tells his leader why his Brexit policy will spell doom for Labour and the country
This week, and certainly not for the first time in recent months, I have felt like an outcast in my own party and even, if you believe the right-wing press, the country at large.
The Labour Party certainly gave every impression of falling into line behind the Tories of Brexit this week and in particular on the issue of immigration. Mine seemed to be a lone voice in the wilderness. Of course, I accept that there is a debate to be had within party and in the country on this emotive issue, but it needs to be conducted, coolly, rationally, solely on the basis of the facts – and, just for once, the politics need to be put to one side.
We have, however, to accept that the stories that we hear each day on the news are not happening in isolation. They are part of a wider patchwork. It makes little sense to, on the one hand, rail against the way the NHS is falling apart under this Government, and yet also want an end to free movement, because that would simply bar from entering the country the very people who keep our overstretched and under-resourced health service afloat.
It makes even less sense to call on the Government to sort out the mess it has made of our social care system while simultaneously preventing European citizens coming here to work in our care homes. We have a ticking time bomb created by an adult social care system that is on its knees in combination with an ageing population – so why are we turning our back on millions of young people who want to come here to work and pay the taxes that will ultimately pay for our rapidly-rising pension bill?
The simple fact of the matter is that our economy can’t exist without immigration and people coming here to do jobs that people in this country either don’t want to do or don’t have the right required skills to do.
There are a lot of jobs – not least caring for the elderly or back-breaking work in agriculture – that our indigenous population has little if any desire to do, especially given the meagre wages on offer. Who will take the place of the 225,000 EU citizens working in health and social work and the 222,000 working in food services, picking fruit and vegetables on minimum wage?
We are in the midst of a skills crisis, and who is going to plug the gaps? Read the Treasury’s Productivity Plan, which states that our skills weaknesses ‘are of such long standing and such intractability that only the most radical action can address them’. Listen to the CBI, whose latest employer survey found that 69% of firms worry that they won’t be able to fill their vacancies due to a lack of people with the right skills.
Where will be find 350,000 people with the high level skills to work in the IT, finance and professional services sectors which drive our economy and contribute so much to our GDP and therefore our public services? Where will we find 500,000 people to work in manufacturing and construction – building the homes we need and the goods we export? Why are we blaming migrants who come here with skills, instead of the successive Governments who have failed to educate our own to compete?
There is an increasing sense of blame and scapegoating of recent arrivals to our shores for our nation’s problems. The inconvenient truth is that we have serious and structural problems for which we ourselves must take responsibility: among them, the loss of manufacturing since the 1980s and the total failure on the part of successive governments to come up with a proper industrial strategy to replace these breadwinner jobs; a skills crisis that is holding back our economy and means that our people don’t have the skills they need for the modern labour market and a focus on university education as the only route to success that leaves all those who aren’t lucky enough to attend Russell Group struggling.
We have an hourglass economy characterised by an ever-shrinking middle section and an ever-growing section of society who feel trapped in dead-end, unfulfilling and low-paid work in retail, hospitality or call centres. That is not Europe’s fault. That is not the fault of free movement or of migrants who come to this country to work. It is the fault of successive governments, both Conservative and Labour.
Let us nail a few lies that are peddled about migrants, particularly by those who accuse migrants of who come to the United Kingdom of being lazy, work-shy and taking our more than they put in. A recent study published by The Economist showed that between 1995 and 2011 migrants made a positive contribution of more than £4 billion to Britain, compared with an overall negative contribution of £591 billion for native Britons.
Between 2001 and 2011, the net fiscal contribution of recent arrivals from the eastern European countries that have joined the EU since 2004 has amounted to almost £5 billion. Even during the worst years of the financial crisis, in 2007-11, they made a net contribution of almost £2 billion to British public finances. Migrants from other European countries chipped in £8.6 billion.
As for benefits, the study showed that migrants are less likely than members of the native population to claim benefits or to live in social housing. Between 1998 and 2011 as many as 37%of natives were receiving some kind of state benefit or tax credit; European immigrants were nearly eight percentage points less likely to collect them.
Those from Europe were also three percentage points less likely to live in social housing than Britons.
These are not, of course, the sort of facts that fit the political narrative of our times, but I have seen for myself how a lot of migrants live in my own constituency. As many as ten of them will share a room and sleep in shifts – working every waking hour. These people I can tell you are not scroungers. People who have actually had experience of migrants will invariably tell the same story and that is why the areas with the highest levels of immigration consistently voted Remain in the referendum and those that had the least tended to vote Leave.
We in the Labour Party ought to be getting these messages out, to be engaging in a frank and straightforward conversation with the British people. Let’s meet the arguments about austerity, structural decline and about the concentration of money in London and the South East head-on, not allow the agenda to be set for us by the extreme right.
I come back to my point that stories we hear in the news should not be seen in isolation. The fact Europe is now seeing such large numbers of people on the move can be directly linked back to Vladimir Putin bombing Syria with his allay Assad and sparking a refugee crisis on the continent that certainly had an impact on attitudes towards immigration in this country. Behaving like a puppet master, his efforts to destabilise the West helped deliver Donald Trump to the White House. A tsunami of extreme Right wing populism has been whipped up that was certainly a factor in the EU Referendum result and may yet affect the outcome of the forthcoming elections in France and Germany.
I have known Jeremy Corbyn all my political life. He is my neighbour, a friend and above all a principled and decent man. I can understand how he came to take the position that he has on Brexit and immigration. Labour MPs in areas that voted to Leave the EU know that immigration is the big issue on the doorsteps and they will almost certainly have influenced Jeremy’s stated position on free movement.
The problem with parties and their leaders trotting out things that people don’t really believe is that they usually suffer at elections – just look at what happened in 2015 with Ed Miliband and the infamous ‘controls on immigration’ mugs. So much of what is now being said by the Brexiteers is just patent nonsense, but all too often it goes unchallenged.
So let me be clear: preventing migrants from coming into our country will not help our economy, it will mortally wound it. The Brexiteers claim, ridiculously, that we can have open borders when it comes to selling our goods and services and moving private capital, but not in terms of labour. The other 27 EU nations have made it absolutely clear that there is no way these four freedoms can be divisible. Access to our country will of course be a basic pre-requisite to any trade deal with any other country that we try to negotiate and to pretend otherwise is naïve in the extreme. Do we really expect the world to roll over and let us get what we want without a quid pro quo? Get real.
I don’t believe in completely open borders, but we have never had those and we are never going to. Anyone who has been through an airport or any major port will know that our borders are as secure as any other country’s – the UK Border Force does a magnificent job keeping us safe. But barring young, enterprising and hard-working people coming into this country is to commit nothing less than a serious act of self-harm, the effects of which will be felt for generations.
At its best, the Labour Party stands firm even when the currents are running as hard against it as they are now. We must never pander to anti-immigrant sentiment. It is voracious – a race that we can never win and a race that we should not want to win.
David Lammy is the Member of Parliament for Tottenham and the first MP to call for a parliamentary vote on Article 50 before Brexitpage