Labour has never had an open-door immigration policy

07 Dec 2016
Whether it’s Irish labour or the Windrush generation, migration has always been driven by economic necessity

One of the great myths of public life in the UK is that we are not allowed to talk about immigration, yet an objective observer might feel we talk about little else. At the heart of the debate, there has been a pervasive “post-truth” narrative that Labour governments operated an open-door immigration policy – one that they maintain in opposition today.

But no British government has ever had an open-door immigration policy, Labour, Conservative or otherwise. Historically, the main driving force for immigration to this country has been government policy powered by an economic necessity within the UK. We need migrant workers.

There have of course been frequent periods of war and upheaval which have produced large numbers of refugees – the Syria crisis is just the latest example of this.

A widely known example is the “Windrush generation” of migrants arriving from the Caribbean, starting with the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948. These migrants were invited to come here. The postwar labour shortage, the tasks of reconstruction and the continuation of conscription all meant that migrants were making a vital contribution to the economy, both the private and public sectors – without even mentioning the ways in which they enriched the cultural life of the country.

This was true of Irish immigration from the mid-19th century onwards and many less well known influxes of labour, including overseas workers to the south Wales coal fields towards the turn of 20th century. About the same time, Russians and Poles also settled in Scotland, taking up work in the mines and in the tailoring and catering trades. The Jewish population of Scotland grew dramatically, partly as a result – though it still stands at around 0.1% of the population. All of these enriched the whole of society, materially and culturally.

Yet over time immigration rules have only become tighter. For all those Commonwealth citizens who were initially told they were entitled to come here but have since been blocked, or for those separated from loved ones by arcane rules separating families, the notion that Britain has an open-door immigration policy will produce hollow laughter. In the 14 years before 2010 there were 91 policy or legislative changes on some aspect of immigration. Virtually all of them tightened immigration access. The coalition and the current Tory government were not to be outdone. In a little over six years, there have been a further 209 such changes.

This legislative frenzy has always been cast in terms of controlling numbers or, even more fruitlessly, in the case of Theresa May, reducing numbers. Immigration is growing in the UK, just as it is in France, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and a host of European and other countries, because migrants are needed and because people want to migrate. At times we have introduced controls that undermine our own prosperity. Recently, universities, farmers and the NHS have all reported difficulties in recruiting from Europe.

As business, government, markets and labour forces become more international these trends will only continue. Without immigration in some parts of the country we would face a serious crisis: we have a rapidly ageing population, yet would be unable to staff public services, attract financial expertise, or even process potatoes.

Labour does not have an open-door immigration policy, it never has. Labour is for fair migration policies that benefit the population as a whole, plus a policy of investment that will improve the living standards for the overwhelming majority of people.

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