On Labour and immigration

This article appeared in the London Evening Standard

Labour is wrong to scapegoat immigrants

8 June 2010

One of the best things about the new politics is that it is less and less reserved for white Anglo-Saxons.

David Cameron copies President Sarkozy and puts a Muslim woman, Sayeeda Warsi, in his Cabinet. Nick Clegg has a Dutch mother and a Spanish wife. Labour's new intake is full of able Muslim women MPs from London, Birmingham and Bolton. In west London, with its big Polish community, Labour did well in Hammersmith and Ealing. Overall, Labour scored in post-modern multi-cultural cities where foreigners are seen as a source of energy, not a threat.

Yet for some wannabe Labour leaders, it's the immigrants who are to blame for losing the election. It's nice, convenient — and utterly wrong.

No one ever stopped a white Briton from working as a bus conductor or a white English woman from becoming a nurse. No one has ever prevented white Britons from being construction workers but somehow, over more than a century, we have imported millions of Irishmen to do this work.

Even today the biggest group of EU non-British workers on the London Olympics site are Irish. And yes, among them will be some who work the benefits system and repatriate their benefits to Ireland.

Should we re-open EU treaties to deal with this abuse? I wish any minister luck in Dublin as he explains to the Irish why European rules on free movement of people need to be revised. The French have long complained about the 500,000 Brits living in France fiddling benefits for children back home. And let's hope no Spanish politician starts to beat up on the 900,000 Brits living in Spain of whom, at last count, about 90 had learned any Spanish.

Britain has always known how to reduce the number of non-Brits coming to work in Britain. It is called mass unemployment. The Tories are right to say there were fewer Europeans coming to work in Britain when they were last in power. The reason was four million unemployed at the height of Thatcherism. Instead, we had the Auf Wiedersehen, Pet generation of British workers who headed off to booming Germany to undercut German unions by working for lower wages on their building sites.

The Polish workers who came to Britain after 2004 did so because Gordon Brown, advised by Ed Balls, had shaped Europe's most dynamic economy. Britain created more new companies and needed more new labour than every other EU member state between 1997 and 2007.

Already there are more East Europeans leaving than coming to Britain as the recession bites and as the sharply devalued pound means wages are worth 30 per cent less when sent home as zlotys or crowns.

Meanwhile, the private rented sector has enjoyed a boom, as has the Catholic Church, whose churches fill up with believers. Fruit that otherwise would rot in East Anglia has been picked so that British strawberries are on sale at Tesco. Our cars are hand-washed for a fiver and our Caffè Neros are open 18 hours a day.

Powellism-lite is dead-end politics. Britain and Labour are internationalist or we shrivel to irrelevance. The Tory cap on skilled workers from outside the EU is pure protectionism. Labour should think long and hard before indulging in anti-immigrant populism.