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The debate on immigration continues

10:20 am - June 8th 2010

by Sunny Hundal    

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It is rather amusing to watch right-wingers accuse Ed Balls of bigotry for talking about immigration, given they’ve said nothing about years of tabloid lies on immigration. Even P. Staines is outraged. Oh please.

I want to carry on from yesterday because I think some points need to be unpacked about this issue.

Here are some basic points to be made about immigration and the current Labour leadership election:

1) Labour cannot win by outflanking the Tories from the right because it frames the debate on their territory and will drive the Tories further rightwards. So Labourites have the tricky task of addressing concerns of the poorer WWC base while finding a positive narrative.

2) Talking about immigration alone won’t win Labour back voters, mostly because polls show most people started deserting Labour before immigration became a big issue post-2005. The Iraq war had a bigger impact. Getting back the lead on immigration won’t bring back millions of voters – because many of them will vote Tory for the real thing anyway.

3) More immigration doesn’t lead to more BNP support, as this election showed. Community politics works. And the socialist MPs also won big without making it an issue. There are lessons to be learnt here.

4) The socialists won, and community politics works, because the real issue is housing, transport, wages etc. Address those and people will come back to Labour.

Having said all that, I think some lefties are also living in fantasy-land. Why?

1) By refusing to acknowledge that widespread perceptions on the issue have changed, and that may not entirely be driven by the Daily Mail and Sun. I explain this more here.

2) By advocating open borders without accepting that such a stance fundamentally undermines the welfare state, unless it is radically re-shaped. But I see no proposals for having a welfare state re-shaped to take into account mass immigration.

3) In thinking that just because some facts don’t match up to the view that wages have risen despite immigration – that trumps people’s lived experiences. It doesn’t. And (going back to point 1) that hysteria isn’t entirely driven by tabloid scare-mongering (although it is shrill and completely mad).

4) Making the assumption that wages will always rise if immigration increases. What if it doesn’t? Will you then accept it must be curtailed?

I’m not seceding ground to the right-on this issue. I think most of the right is completely barking mad on immigration and start frothing as soon as they think about it.

I am pointing out that we need to accept where the current state of affairs is, figure out what the progressive stance on immigration should be, and then find a way to get there.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments

“the real issue is housing, transport, wages etc”

Broadly true – but given we failed so badly on housing numbers relative to population growth over the last decade, it might be wise to accept that a period of lower net immigration while we prove we can in fact increase the build-rate sufficiently could be a wise move.

Even then, I fear a point is being reached in large parts of the South of England, where solving the housing and transport problems can’t be done without further upsetting a large number of voters who are protective of their open and green spaces.

Again, an activist regional policy (not necessarily regionally delivered, that wasn’t a huge policy success either) that shifts some economic development to the areas most in need of it would be “The Right Thing To Do”, but I’m not sure “We’re moving your jobs to Hull” is the way to win back our Southern seats, either.

Sunny, here’s what I think of your endorsement of Ed Balls’ words in more detail (though again, I think you decided to turn a blind eye on entire chunks of what he said/wrote):


I don’t think Staines is “outraged”.

Just entertained, as well all are, at Balls’s (and the others) bare faced cheek.

I mean there’s “collective responsibility” and then there’s sheer hypocrisy.

“polls show most people started deserting Labour before immigration became a big issue post-2005”

Polls actually show that immigration was a bigger issue just before the 2005 election than before the 2010 election:

March 2005, 33% thought immigration was one of the most important issues facing Britain, April 2010 29% did.


Sunny, I agree totally about #3, but you’re wrong about #2.

We have to acknowledge that in some sectors and some geographical areas the way employers have exploited migration has led to a decline in wages and conditions. Usually this isn’t for the lowest-paid who have the safety-net of the minimum wage but for working class people who have put years in gaining skills which they thought would entitle them to a certain wage and standard of living, only to find it isn’t as high as they expected.

We have to be putting forward arguments that trying to limit migration is pretty much impossible, massively counter-productive and creates mass suffering (and generates huge costs) without having the chance of being effective. In the 21st century, migration is just a fact of life. The question is how we make sure everyone has the same opportunities, wages, conditions etc so that no-one feels hard done by and it is demonstrable that migration is not impacting on them personally.

A modern form of the closed shop (we cannot have migrants and union members on different pay rates), tough measures to end blacklisting particularly in the construction industry for once and all, equal rights for agency workers and more good-quality affordable housing would all help deliver the above. The question is does the left have the confidence to press for these things or are we too scared we’ll be accused of harking back to the 70s if we argue for the closed shop?

As for open borders, you have yet to demonstrate that open borders would put the welfare state at threat. I’m not convinced it would lead to much more migration – even with the barbaric system of controls we have, people are strong-willed enough to find a way through them and repeatedly try until they succeed. And the countries that are nearer, where migration is easier and people might be put off by stronger controls, are all part of the EU anyway and so can move here under freedom of movement. (And Balls is only suggesting transitional controls for new entrants, not existing ones.)

What’s more the no borders and open borders positions (and of course there are difference between them) often advocate a position of resistance to immigration controls (ie oppose them where they exist) as a means of building up a movement against them and as moral and productive actions in themselves, rather than purely arguing utopian positions. They are a lot more realist than you seem to give them credit for.

6. Flowerpower


the real issue is housing, transport, wages etc.

Not according to the public. If you follow Don P’s link, you’ll see that in May 2010 only 5% list low pay or housing as a big issue and only 3% cite transport. By contrast, a massive 38% say immigration is a key issue.

You really do have your head in the sand on this subject. On the other thread you even claimed that there had been ‘no mass-immigration from Muslim countries’ when last year alone > 60,000 Muslims were granted UK citizenship, enough to create an entirely Muslim town the size of Dewsbury.

Despite all sensible research – and a House of Lords enquiry – concluding that the economic impact of immigration is negligible, you persist in stressing the economic rather than cultural aspects of immigration.

You also persist with the canard that when voters complain about immigration, they’re primarily concerned about Slovak nannies undercutting the Norland variety or Polish builders constructing patios that would be unnaffordable to their owners (therefore not built) at anything higher than the Polish going rate. Again, if you follow Don’s link, you’ll see that as long ago as 2001-2 people were twice as worried about immigration as low pay etc….. and that was before the East Europeans ever came.


“3) More immigration doesn’t lead to more BNP support, as this election showed. Community politics works. And the socialist MPs also won big without making it an issue. There are lessons to be learnt here.”

Perhaps. But what this election actually showed is that the BNP share of the electorate appears to be motivated enough to vote far more than that of major parties – whilst share of the votes went down, their numbers tended to remain quite constant compared to local and European elections. I don’t doubt local campaigning is useful against the BNP, but what is more effective is the much greater turnout at a general election.

Is P Staines still standing on his soap box?

I thought he had long since given up and become a Call me Dave groupie.

” figure out what the progressive stance on immigration should be,”

If you are talking about what the labour party’s strategy should be then it should be: (1) in the short term – basically agree with the government and state its policy will be an evolution of current policy, basically don’t let the government use it as a political weapon. and (2) in the longer term introduce policies that address the systematic and institutional innaccuracy of the media and public relations industries that effect all issues, and should be regarded as a public health issue.

With regards to actual immigration policy, then at the least adopt an innocent until proven guilty stance towards each type of immigration.

“Not according to the public. If you follow Don P’s link, you’ll see that in May 2010 only 5% list low pay or housing as a big issue and only 3% cite transport. By contrast, a massive 38% say immigration is a key issue.”

Yet when people are complaining about immigration, they are usually talking about perceived lack of housing, lack of jobs and lack of adequate transport of services.

If all of these were better, immigration wouldn’t matter to anyone except the purely racist.

transport or services*

I have a radical notion. We should, EU excepted, close our borders to everyone that isn’t an asylum seeker, or required. In the latter case. in an economic sense.

Asylum seekers should be allowed to work, and should get brownie points for it. We should never, ever, send someone back to a regieme that considers torture lite an option.

That would include the USA.

We should be proud of our principles, not embarrssed by them. Least that is what I think.

Apparently ’embarrassed’ is spelt thus 🙁

Why is this the only web site I regularily frequent that has no post preview function?

Just asking.

14. Flowerpower

Lee Griffin @ 10

when people are complaining about immigration, they are usually talking about perceived lack of housing, lack of jobs and lack of adequate transport services.

Not in my experience. I find they’re usually talking about street crime, drugs, terrorism, Islamic dress codes, no-go areas, finding their kids in a white minority at school, how their local area has changed for the worse or some other social/cultural topic.

In fact I’d go so far as to say I have NEVER heard anyone complain about transport in an immigration context. What do they say? “I can’t stand them immigrants, they take up all the seats on the bus”?


I note how you’re conveninently leaving out jobs and housing from your equation.

16. the a&e charge nurse

[14] either way there remains a relatively widespread concern about immigration (reflected in poll after poll), a concern that is unlikely to lessen in the current economic climate, notwithstanding the slight shift in the relative importance of immigration as a general election issue [see 4].

Sunny is raising a fundamental question – how, in the light of multiple variables affecting views about immigration can we arrive at a stance that takes account of these concerns without adopting the sort of posture so popular amongst Daily Fail addicts?

At the other end of the spectrum we had one poster (on another recent LC recent thread) who, after offering a long economic screed on immigration, declared “The people of Britain do not like immigration because they do not like foreigners” [see comment 50]

Brits don’t like foreigners, eh – if we accept this sort of stuff, it leaves very little else for us to discuss?

I disagree Sunny and I would suggest that you take a closer look at the debate taking place about Arizona’s new law to show they dangers of where you and Ed B seem to want to go.

Your argument is also about face. Economic growth and rising incomes are a cause of immigration not a result. There will always be resentment towards the newcomers – for undercutting wages and increasing competition for housing – and this will always intensify when the economic growth stops or goes into reverse.

Blaming the immigrants themselves for the capitalist economic cycle is perverse and will always put you on the wrong side of the political debate.

Look how the Orange Order grew up in the west of Scotland and the north-west of England in response to Irish immigration in the mid-nineteenth century (no doubt the Ed Balls of his day would have been advocating tighter controls so that more people would starved to death in the famine). The same pattern occured at the start of the twentieth century partly in response to Jewish immigration (Britain’s first immigration law was aimed at keeping out people fleeing from the Black Hundreds), in the 1950s in response to immigration from the Carribean and then in the 1970s due to immigration from the Indian sub-continent.

18. Roger Mexico

Good for you Sunny; though I think you’ll find that Mr Staines was more concerned with mocking Balls’ ignorance of the “interwebs”, than offended by his words on immigration.

The whole immigration issue is interesting because it usually gets misinterpreted from both sides. The right think it’s about race and blow the dog whistle; the liberal left think it’s bigotry and can be safely ignored (and then it will automatically go away).

But I get the impression that the majority of people’s current worries on immigration are based on the Eastern European influx and about others, often illegally here, reducing wage levels for those already on the lowest earnings.

The incomers were usually young and without families or commitments. So they were able to work long, unsociable hours for low rates; happy to go into the illegal economy and work for cash; and willing to put up with poor living conditions to maximise savings. Many were well educated, most were light-skinned (there’s a big east Asian component as well) and all were less likely to complain about unfair employment practises.

And Labour’s “business-friendly”, “light-touch” regulation of employment made things worse. Not just the lack of protection of agency workers already mentioned, but refusal to extend gang-masters licensing; sub-22 minimum wage rates; a lowest-hanging fruit approach to immigration control and so on.

This all made the new immigrants the darling of the metropolitan elite: reducing the costs of the services they use and undermining wage costs. But it meant reduced opportunities for many in the traditional working classes and those less educated – who were then airily dismissed as “chavs”.

Many of those hit hardest by these policies were the second and third generation descendants of Commonwealth immigrants. They must have wondered if what they experienced was good old fashioned racism – justified by cries of “racism” if anyone objected.

The concern over immigration isn’t just going to go away, because it showed up the attitudes of what is, to use an old term, the “ruling class”.

If any of the ex-Oxbridge, ex-SpAds currently competing for the leadership of the workers’ Party really want to convince those they claim to be fighting for, they could start by explicitly apologising for Labour’s mistakes in the past 13 years on these issues.

19. DisgustedOfTunbridgeWells

It’s becoming fairly apparent that you have some sort of vested interest in dragging this out, once again you’ve made a post on ‘immigration’ without mentioning free trade, globalisation or competition.

Re: wages.

Nobody really seems to know, most studies I’ve seen point to there being little or no effect on wages as a result of globalisation, but here’s the thing, it’s not an atomised issue. If your wages are decreased by 10% as a result of globalisation, yet at the same time the cost of things you buy decreases by 20% as a result of competition, then you’re bob on, aren’t you.

Stop pretending this is all some zero sum game, competition works.

20. the a&e charge nurse

[14] “In fact I’d go so far as to say I have NEVER heard anyone complain about transport in an immigration context. What do they say? “I can’t stand them immigrants, they take up all the seats on the bus”?

No, but they MIGHT link population growth and its affect on the housing market.

What’s that got to do with transport I hear you ask?
Well, in my part of the world (London) there are very few affordable family homes (despite Brown’s pledge to provide 3 million new homes by 2020) – some say our population will top 70 million by this time and this situation will only get worse because we cannot hope to match housing supply and demand?

So how do ordinary families deal with this problem – they commute of course, in ever greater numbers, and a fairly hellish (and expensive) experience it is for many, especially those that daily endure 2-3 hours traveling time either side of a full days work.
In fact it is claimed, “The average commuting time to work (especially in the SE) is now among Europe’s longest. That is likely to grow as the number of households forming continues to out pace new home completions, driving up the price of properties and forcing people further from major towns and cities”.

“In fact I’d go so far as to say I have NEVER heard anyone complain about transport in an immigration context. What do they say? “I can’t stand them immigrants, they take up all the seats on the bus”?”

You missed the UKIP Party Political Broadcast at the Euro-elections, then? It was about how immigration causes traffic jams. Which I suppose in a tediously obvious sense it can, unless it pushes a particular place to a tipping point where it becomes wortwhile building a new road (slow) or running a new public transport service (often subsidised, probably in line for the axe).

The following remains unclarified.

Like I asked here…Ed Balls’ words on immigration: do we agree with him because otherwise the left may look like it’s ignoring “people’s perceptions”, or because his words make for good, honest, coherent policy?

Is Balls right because his (newly adopted) principles are right, or simply out of political expediency?

Do we believe in them as good and sound ideas, or do we just go along because we’re tired of fighting an uphill struggle with a tabloid-led rhetoric that has started to seep through society?

23. Paul Boizot

Immigration needs to be seen as part of a wider population policy – about time this Green Party innovation was adopted by others. Before deciding what our policy is on who joins us or leaves us, we need to have a proper debate on what sort of general population size we think is right. Some people oppose immigration by saying “there are too many people here already”. I happen to agree with this, but if it is true then we need to adopt policies to deal with that in many other areas, not just leave it as an excuse for anti-immigrationists to use so they don’t sound so racist.

I accept that population size is not something that one can easily directly influence – do not equate population policy with India or China please. But that is all the more reason to do what one can sooner rather then later! There is a long lead-time on this.

I am just reading “Bloody Foreigners” by Robert Winder – very readable history of immigration into the UK. It does underline that the issue is not new – see responses to Huguenot immigrants, for example. In particular there is a history, it seems, of the elite and/or economic interests welcoming some immigration, but workers not liking the competition for jobs, at least as they see it.

I agree that dealing with housing and wages and jobs issues would take away a lot of resentment against immigrants – but defintely not all! Though now we have had 13 years of a Labour government which did not do very well on much of this, and presided over a huge boom in house prices which I think was one of the most-ignored major problems in the country, I am not sure why some commentators are bothering to talk about what the Labour Party’s strategy might be. They had their best-ever chance in history so far, with three terms in office – and largely muffed it.

That aside (sorry, couldn’t resist) I do think that there are other issues around immigration.

One is Islam in particular, and its apparent treatment of women. I say “apparent” because of course some Muslim women do not believe that they are oppressed by clothing regulations etc.

I grew up glad that we were throwing off the final shackles of Christian domination in this country, and you did not have some religious dogmatist able to tell you what to do all the time. (Cue culturally-approved narrative involving Darwin and Bishop Usher, Galileo, burnings at the stake, etc). Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water and you lived in a country where it was safe to tell religious people exactly what you thought of their beliefs…..The Christians’ estranged brother turns up, and he’s quite vigorous.

So there is a non-racist angle on Muslim immigration in particular – obviously some of this is post-Empire blowback and sort of serves us right – though as I did not personally set up the British Empire I don’t particularly want to suffer its negative consequences. But I have picked this worry up from quite a few people – especially women – who in all other respects try to be PC and are most certainly not racist and anti-immigrant. Indeed it is their generally alternative/left/radical views which put them in direct conflict with the sight of a Muslim man wandering along the street in casual dress while his wife walks behind dressed in black with only her eyes visible.

Personally I think that if there is a problem around men’s passions becoming inflamed by the sight of women – except for their eyes – then it is men’s behaviour that needs to be controlled as a result, not women’s.

I have read that the head-to-toe covering is not mandated in the Koran and is a fairly recent development in some Islamic circles. So I accept that it is not an essential feature of all Islam – but it is a very obvious difference in some parts of our cities, and perhaps symbolic of a wider cultural worry.

I say this fully aware – as Winder’s book demonstrates so well – that the genes of large numbers of immigrants are in most “British” or “English” people. I am not coming from the position of thinking there is some quintessential Englishness which is in our blood and is under threat. Disclosure of interest – I have immigrant forebears.


Feminist blogger Laurie Penny has written a good article about the veil etc here, of particular note is when she and a Muslim woman swapped clothes for a week.

I hope she won’t mind if I quote at length too a few important points on this very tricksy subject:

There are hundreds of points of action that feminists across Europe would prioritise above banning the burqa, were anyone to actually ask us. What about increasing public provision of refuges and counselling for the hundreds of thousands of European victims of sexual abuse, forced marriage and domestic violence, rather than focusing state efforts on the fashion choices of a minority of women who wear the full Islamic veil? After all, it’s safe to say that any woman who is forced to wear a burqa against her will has problems that will not be solved simply by forbidding the garment.

It is patriarchy rather than religion that oppresses women across the world, whether it wears the face of an imam, an abusive partner or a government minister. The truth is that the way women choose to present themselves is still desperately political, in Islamic culture and wider society.

The Islamic veil is definitively a threat to western values, and will continue to be so as long as the west continues to define its notion of freedom as a measure of exposed and monetised female flesh.

25. Paul Boizot

Point taken re post 24 – a good post. Though I do think some religions seem to make it easier for patriarchy to be excused and supported, the book-based monotheistic ones in particular.

26. Just Visiting

24 Mr Pill.

You quote penny saying ‘It is patriarchy rather than religion that oppresses women across the world’

Which seems PC nothingness.

It denies the reality, that some religions do actively oppress women: that mainstream Islam says:
* daughters inherit half what sons get
* before a court, a woman witness counts half that of a male
* that a raped women needs 4 witnesses before a case can be heard
* that husbands can physically beat wives
* polygamy is not forbidden
* adultery deserves the death penalty – which results in things like violence against women by their own families for unproven suspicions of infidelity/pre-marital sex etc

These are hard for Islam to move away from, because they are based on things Mohammed explicitly said or did.

Penny is short-changing her muslim sisters, by denying that (each) religion does have to account for how it treats women.

27. Derek Emery

The 3 parties want to increase immigration by 20 million over the next 20 years although they is no report showing this improves the wealth of the country. The likelihood is that for the next 20 years we will be struggling to reduce the deficit. 20 million people will mean perhaps 8 million new homes at about £200K each. It will also require large sums invested in new schools and other services to cope with the increase. Since nearly all immigrants will be poor this mean the country finding enormous sums of money. It can only do this at the expense of increasing the deficit. I think that economically the country cannot afford the cost of all this which would have to be at the cost of reducing investment in making the UK more competitive in the world and increasing GDP growth. More poor workers will not significantly improve GDP for the huge costs in infrastructure and services we will need to cope.The fact is we are too poor to afford immigration on this massive scale. We need to be at the height of a boom, not in recession with a 20%+ chance of a double dip in the next year or two. It is quite likley that the whole of the EU will be a low growth area for maby years due to the austerity measures.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    The debate on immigration continues http://bit.ly/cEUqR0

  2. amol rajan

    RT @libcon: The debate on immigration continues http://bit.ly/cEUqR0

  3. Hannah's Opinions

    @arachnetweet Have you read this? http://bit.ly/cEUqR0

  4. law

    "The debate on immigration continues | Liberal Conspiracy" http://bit.ly/bQzsQQ #immigration

  5. sunny hundal

    More thoughts on immigration and why lefties need to accept new realities: http://bit.ly/cEUqR0

  6. Tweets that mention The debate on immigration continues | Liberal Conspiracy -- Topsy.com

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Liberal Conspiracy, amol rajan. amol rajan said: RT @libcon: The debate on immigration continues http://bit.ly/cEUqR0 […]

  7. sunny hundal

    @James_Gray_ Hi James, I addressed that in my posts: http://bit.ly/cEUqR0 and here: http://bit.ly/cfRhSX

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