Labour are working hard to position themselves as tough on immigration, in the face of a public and media debate that has often portrayed them as a ‘soft touch’. In fact, Labour have a good story to tell on immigration policy to those who are concerned about control.
No system is perfect, least of all in immigration, but the Points-Based System is a pretty effective way of deciding which migrants should be able to come to the UK to work, based on the needs of the economy; the Government have more-or-less got on top of the asylum issue; and the new UK Border Agency is presiding over an immigration system that is more functional and controlled than it has been for many years. Even the decision to open up the UK’s labour market to workers from the new EU countries, which led to a massive and largely unpredicted flow of migrants from eastern Europe (and considerable political backlash), has had few negative impacts and many positive ones.
Labour’s failings on immigration have been of politics, not of policy, in recent years. It’s worth noting three main political problems:
- Labour ministers have been reluctant to talk openly about the very real challenges and opportunities presented by immigration, which has added to a sense that the issue is somehow ‘off limits’ and ceded the space to those who hold extreme views. So, it is welcome that Gordon Brown is tackling the issue head on in this election campaign.
- Labour have allowed the political debate on this issue to become highly polarised, because they have not been able to develop a balanced and moderate narrative that occupies the middle ground and can convince the majority of voters. So, it was good to see Gordon Brown emphasising the (considerable) degree of policy consensus on the issue which now exists.
- Labour have too often tried to solve a political problem with a slew of policy announcements and changes. All too often, this only reinforces the perception that the immigration system is broken. So, although Gordon Brown was right to defend the policy framework that Labour have put in place, he may have made his political message less effective by also using his speech to announce or re-announce a range of relatively minor tweaks to the system.