Author: Lord William Wallace
Before a mass of Liberal voices condemns the party’s immigration paper and the related motion for party conference, we need to reflect on two underlying issues: first, that global population growth, combined with weak states and intermittent conflicts across the developing world, and exacerbated by climate change, mean that migration to richer and safer countries is becoming one of the most intractable issues democratic nations will face over the next generation; second, that the white working class in Britain (above all, in England) have real grievances, which we cannot dismiss, and which are partly – though only partly – associated with immigration.
Yes, much of the resentment unskilled people in England feel against incomers is unjustified and misdirected. That doesn’t mean that we should ignore it: politics, sadly, is as much about emotion as about reasoned argument. However, we can’t reassure them merely by saying that they are mistaken, or ill-informed. We have to address those grievances, by campaigning for policies that answer them.
The Leave campaign, aided and abetted by Migration Watch and the right-wing media, managed to present the challenge of immigration as coming from the European continent, triggered by EU free movement rules. In reality, migration from other EU countries has never accounted for the majority of arrivals in the UK in any year, despite the surge after east European nations joined. The real ‘Project Fear’ in the Referendum campaign was the suggestion that the entire population of Romania and Bulgaria would move to Britain, and that 70 million Turks would follow. The population of the EU-28, in total, is 500 million. However, the population of Africa has grown by 500 million over the past 30 years, and current expectations are that it will double again over the next 25-30 years. Across the Middle East and South Asia, birth-rates remain high – closely linked to the subordinate position of women and their limited access to education.
Meanwhile, climate change, as well as conflict, is making life more difficult across much of Africa and the Middle East. If you were a young Syrian, Libyan, Nigerian, Somali, Congolese or Iranian, you would try to find a way to get to a safer country, legally or illegally – and your extended family might well help to fund the costs of smuggling you through. The annual surge across the Mediterranean will continue to grow, and all European societies will face agonising choices about how to respond. The sheer scale of immigration matters; mass migration disrupts settled communities. Moreover, mass immigration affects those who are already marginal in the host country most directly, as newcomers and disadvantaged locals struggle for access to scarce resources.
We cannot shift the argument about immigration without tackling the shortage of social housing, the impact of cuts in local authority spending on our more deprived communities, the long-term failure to provide decent education and training to the children of what used to be the skilled working class, the introduction of universal credit in a form that penalises those who are struggling both to bring up children and to work, and the declining availability of health provision for people like them. We know that the relentless pursuit of cuts in public spending and lower taxation has driven this impoverishment of our former industrial towns and estates, rather than competition from immigrants; but we will not persuade them unless we can promise to spend more on their needs, to provide better chances for their children. Moreover, we have to admit that they’re not entirely wrong. The continuing neglect of apprenticeships and vocational education has been enabled by employers’ preference for direct recruitment from Eastern Europe over the more challenging task of motivating and training local labour.
Those of us who’ve spent our careers campaigning in industrial towns and cities are familiar with the resistance to easier immigration that comes from people in marginal jobs and poorer housing – even when themselves the children or grandchildren of immigrants. Unless Liberal Democrats are prepared to write off these communities and to limit our ambitions to constituencies with highly-educated professionals, we have to offer answers to their fears and hopes. It’s no easier to argue for higher taxation, to fund the regeneration of Britain’s neglected industrial communities, than for easier immigration: but we have to try. Also, we should also focus development assistance on the education of women, without which the long-term flow of desperate migrants from poor and insecure countries to rich and safe will continue to grow.