Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Take Courage, Talk Quotas; Labour Should Force a More Mature Debate on Immigration

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Take Courage, Talk Quotas; Labour Should Force a More Mature Debate on Immigration

Article excerpt

What single act can transform the fortunes of a Prime Minister from the depths of unpopularity (one per cent approval rating) to relative political health (31 per cent)? For the French Prime Minister, AlainJuppe, it was the storming of a Paris church and the removal of 300 immigrants -- a drama that has captivated the French public for the past several days.

It illustrated how powerful the issue of immigration has become in electoral terms. Whether it is the upfront discussion in France and Italy or the less obvious playing of the race card in the UK, where the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act has just come into force, immigration is a code that everyone knows will influence the electorate, even if they are uncomfortable about admitting it.

The Conservatives know that the issue of asylum is not, on its own, enough to create electoral support; the emotive cocktail that plays best in the tabloids and which hurts Labour -- is the linking of immigration, illegality, benefits and fraud. But as many of the existing immigration rules testify, legislation based on electoral considerations can produce policy that is not only subjective and racially discriminatory, but possibly economically damaging in restricting the type of immigration the UK actually needs.

Labour has pledged to restore appeal rights for visitors, but beyond that it is unlikely to make public ahead ofthe election the types of change it will consider.

Some obvious reforms have been suggested, including the removal of rules that unjustly hamper family unity, creating a statutory immigration watchdog and developing a European free-movement policy beneficial to the UK.

But piecemeal reform is not going to provide anythinglike the change needed to make immigration policy more responsive both to those affected and the settled population. It sometimes seems an impossible task simply to convey the truth about immigrahon and asylum, or to try to promote a "positive agenda" which may link immigration policy to the nation's economic needs.

This is the "difficult" question often avoided by pressure groups and people such as me, who set out the moral argument in short media soundbites but do not tackle the real fears of most of society about the social and economic impact of immigration. Those underlying fears are that immigration and asylum, far from providing economic prosperity, are inextricably linked to unemployment, benefit fraud, housing problems and so on.

How might Labour assuage such fears and thereby raise the level of debate ? The situation here is not dissimilar to that facing the Australian Labour Party in the 1980s. The lessons from that country are instructive. Like the UK, Australia had for years perceived any discussion of immigration as deeply emotive: throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies it pursued a policy of barring non-white immigration whenever possible, going to extraordinary lengths to attract desperately needed labour from the UK and elsewhere through measures such as assisted passages. …

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