Labour leader [i.e., Shadow Prime Minister of Britain]
22 June 2012
I am the son of immigrants and proud of it. My father arrived here as a boy to escape the Nazis. My mother came to this country just after the war as another Jewish refugee. In London, they found each other, a place to work and a home.
I would not be here now if it was not for Britain’s historic role in welcoming people from overseas.
And the London I love and where I grew up is a more brilliant, vibrant place because people from every single country have come here to live, work and play. Our food, arts, sport, music and business are all massively enriched by it. And because we are a global multi-ethnic city we have earned the right to stage the Olympics next month.
So I am going to be true to my family’s story and to that of our country by recognising that Britain has benefited from immigration — economically, socially and culturally.
But I also have to be true to the many people I have met who worry about immigration and feel let down by politics on this issue. So we need a grown-up debate which begins with an honest assessment of what has happened.
For too long we assumed those who worried about immigration were stuck in the past — unrealistic about how things could be different, even prejudiced.
Britain was experiencing the largest peacetime migration in recent history partly because of global factors like the lower cost of travel but also because the last Labour government severely underestimated the numbers who would come here when the EU expanded.
We were too dazzled by globalisation’s impact on growth and too sanguine about its price. We lost sight of who was benefiting and the people being squeezed in the middle who were losing out. And, to them, Labour was too quick to say: “Like it or lump it.”
But they were ahead of us in seeing some of the costs of migration as a whole. Rapid changes in population led to pressures on scarce resources such as housing and schools. Some areas were not equipped to cope in the short-term and it brought to the fore questions about entitlements.
There were also problems with the pace of change in some communities.
Ties of solidarity and community are not built overnight, and sometimes migration ran faster than the time it took to build them. These are vital questions because they are about how we choose to live together. Labour’s policy review will learn from what has happened because proper controls over who comes into our country and fair rules on entitlements are essential.
But an effective immigration policy must also reform how our economy works so that it works for all working people in Britain. Although immigration has benefited our economy overall, there have been costs as well as benefits. And where those costs and benefits fall is related to class.
Those people getting a conservatory built for their home were probably better off because of immigration. But many working in food-processing, hospitality or construction — maybe even building conservatories — were probably worse off because of immigration. ...
There is nothing wrong with employing a Polish builder, a Swedish child-minder or a French chef. Nor is there anything wrong with people from other countries coming here to work legally.
Large-scale immigration has collided, however, with a labour market that is too often nasty, brutish and short term. I have heard stories like that from my Doncaster constituency where East European migrants arrived to work in a local chicken factory for long hours at less than the minimum wage while sleeping 19 or 20 to a house.
That is not good either for the migrants or for the people who used to do these jobs. ...
If there are wonderful examples in our country of firms who invest in training their local workforce, it is also the case that the ready supply of temporary, low-wage migrant labour has pushed too many other businesses further into taking a short-term, low-skill approach.
There are even recruitment agencies serving them that are effectively open solely to migrants: boasting their workers are Polish, denigrating the talents of people already living and working here, locking local talent out of opportunity.
We need a new approach that acknowledges that immigration always has costs, as well as benefits, and understands that we cannot solve concerns about it unless we change our economy.
For too long we have had a phoney debate about immigration which has ignored how our economy works, ignored the costs and sometimes ignored the benefits. And we have ignored the real concerns of working people.
Too often politicians only speak about this issue to close the conversation down.
Today I am setting out a new direction for my party on immigration. It will be only the start of a much longer conversation with the British people.