In the debate about post-Brexit migration, Labour’s progressives must keep making the case for the immigration we need, writes Jack May

It is a luxury of sorts being in opposition. You get to spend almost all of your time complaining, which is vastly easier than doing, and on plentiful occasions the best way to respond to a government screw-up will just be to stay blissfully silent and let the spectacle unfold before the voting audience.

Being the opposition within the opposition can bring even further treats. You can relentlessly bang on about the issues you care about, even when – and especially when – the party leadership ignores them. You can make a lot of noise about what you really think without worrying about focus groups, core messaging, or how it will all go down in the Tesco in Nuneaton.

In the case of Labour’s centre-left, this luxury is especially resplendent. Following 2015’s general election, one of the chief tropes that emerged was that idea that we spend too much time telling voters what to think about immigration rather than listening to their ‘legitimate concerns’ about it.

We expended effort dishing out the facts that immigrants on average put more money into the public coffers than they take out of it, that their skills are one of the final barriers between a functioning National Health Sservice and total oblivion, and that – heaven forbid – foreigners are people too, people who brought us chicken korma, most of our popular music, and the Queen.

For those of us trying to make those arguments, the climate has changed considerably. Now profoundly out of government, nor likely to be anywhere near it soon, moderates do not need to worry about the doorstep hot takes of Nuneaton.

Plus, the vote to leave the European Union has given life to the more pragmatic side of the immigration. No longer just a case of United Kingdom Independence party versus the world, the conversation is moving towards being about our economy’s needs, how best to meet them, and how to ensure that immigration is discussed and handled in a way that does not alienate people who are already living here.

Furthermore, the recent era of misleading bus-side pledges, dodgy social media ‘news’, and bare-faced lies from the world’s media is slowly giving way to a renewed interest in facts, evidence, and rigorously paying attention to what events really mean. We must make the evidence-based arguments for immigration on both fronts: firstly, that highly skilled migration, often from outside the EU, fuels our NHS and keeps what little social care we do have on the road; secondly, that casual, informal, seasonal, and often low-skilled labour is largely taken up by foreign workers, largely from the European Union, and that there is no serious economic grounding for claims that immigration pushes down wages.

These are not always popular statements, but they need repeating as we begin the debate about post-Brexit migration. The home affairs select committee, chaired by Yvette Cooper, has today made a useful contribution to that discussion with its migration report.

The committee concludes that the government’s immigration target – bringing net migration down to the ‘tens of thousands’ – should be ditched, to be replaced with an independent Migration Advisory Committee, which would set out a rolling three-year plan to detail Britain’s needs and goals on immigration. ‘At a minimum,’ the report said, international students should be taken out of the migration figures – days after a study by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that they add £20.3billion to the United Kingdom’s economy.

While the pessimism and nativism that Brexit has unleashed – and Theresa May’s government has fuelled – is inevitably disheartening, we must remember that Vote Leave painted itself as a reasonable body on the subject of immigration. It won over swing voters and the middle-ground middle class not by fruitcake rambling about chucking out foreigners (hat tip to Leave.EU) but by vague pontifications on an ‘Australian-style points-based system’, and by intellectual contortionism convincing people that freedom of movement was the demon stopping us welcoming more immigrants from elsewhere in the world.

The vote to leave the European Union was certainly a vote to ‘take back control,’ and it is important that people feel like we have power to tinker with immigration to meet our economic needs while ensuring those already here feel comfortable with the system. What progressives must do is bang on and on about the virtues of immigration, the economic benefits it brings, and the diversity, culture, and innovation that bringing fresh talent into the UK can bring.

We will take back control, if we must – but we will use it to do everything we can to keep Britain a place that opens its arms to those looking for new opportunities and a better life. After all, as the economy shifts to adapt to our new international position, we may well need them more than they need us.


Jack May is a Progress columnist, writer and editor. He tweets at @JackO_May