One of the key things that all of us should look to achieve during this Labour leadership contest is changing how we discuss immigration. At least since the Empire Windrush docked in 1948, the arrival of people into this country to live, study and work has been treated at best as a necessary evil, couched in terms of the need for people to drive buses or work in the NHS; at worst a threat to the nation, our culture, wages and safety. Both attitudes fail to recognise the reality: that immigration is what makes us British.
For too long we have allowed this debate to be dominated by fear-mongering opportunists: Nigel Farage standing in front of a poster featuring refugees and the words “Breaking Point”; Michael Gove whipping up fear of mass migration from Turkey. In an attempt to sound tough, Labour has sometimes been too slow to stand up against this kind of rhetoric and, in the worst cases, even been seen to appease it. In a battle that’s become too much about “the numbers”, we’ve forgotten that, at its core, immigration is about people – people who fall in love, create families, build better lives for themselves and make our communities the vibrant places they are.
The most pernicious myth we have failed to bust is that working class-communities are hostile to immigration, and that Labour politicians must, therefore, watch their language or, worse, pander to this perceived prejudice.
This then leads to political arm-wrestling between the left and the right over who can sound the toughest on immigration. Why, when we’re asked whether immigration is too high, do Labour politicians so often fumble their response? Let’s say what we think: no, it isn’t.
I live in Birmingham and can talk proudly about my Irish ancestors who came here to build railways, bridges and cities. My friends and neighbours can point to their heritage all over the globe, from Africa, Asia, Europe, America and everywhere in-between.
The fact that one of the fastest-growing BAME groups is children with dual heritage suggests that our embrace of other ethnicities is more than theoretical. We should be proud of this fact, not talk about “tolerating” or “mitigating” it.
And yet the immigration system is one of the cruellest and maddest parts of government. It has got so much worse under the Tories, with their “hostile environment” policy one of the starkest manifestations of this. Like every MP, immigration cases are some of the most heart-rending I deal with. One of my constituents made a simple error on their tax return, amounting to a few pennies, and was deemed by the Home Office to have “bad character” and threatened with deportation. Another was being threatened with deportation whilst they were working as an official for the Ministry of Justice. You couldn’t make it up.
I have raised case after case in parliament. I have exposed the folly of policies like the one that says skilled workers must be earning the equivalent of £30,000 to be allowed in, basically ruling out armies of teachers, nurses and others. As I told the House, I have since becoming an MP met plenty of people earning £30,000 and more with no discernible skills whatsoever.
I have witnessed people driven to destitution in their fights with the Home Office – even when they have won. I have seen families torn apart, children traumatised and vulnerable people abused. Women escaping domestic abuse being forced to lose their children. Squalid places like Yarl’s Wood, which institutionalise cruelty and corrode our capacity to call ourselves a civilised country. Imagine for a moment if we spent the same amount of effort pursuing the scumbags who traffic people as we do on the people they traffic.
Of course, any government needs to know who is coming in and out of our country, and establish rules to regulate that flow. But setting arbitrary targets, as the Tories have done, dehumanises people.
The fact is that immigrants contribute to our country culturally and economically. Far from “taking our jobs”, they create jobs, start businesses and create wealth. They contribute to our communities, work in our essential services and bring dynamism and vitality to our economy.
It’s time to start building a new consensus – starting with new policies.
Let’s end the practice of deporting child refugees as soon as they turn 18, and give children leave to remain.
Let’s let people who have lived in this country for many years, who have families in Britain, stay, without fear of being pursued by the Home Office.
Let’s end immigration detention as a whole, not just insist on a time limit to it – we don’t need to lock people up.
And let’s overhaul our failed asylum system to give people seeking asylum the right to work. It isn’t inevitable that 15,000 refugees and asylum seekers go to the Red Cross seeking help each year because of destitution – it’s because of rules, rules that need to change.
My challenge – not just to the other leadership contenders, but to every Labour member – is to come together to create policies that both reflect our shared humanity and work in practice. That starts by saying immigration is great, and ends with a Labour government that enacts our values.
Jess Phillips is the MP for Birmingham Yardley and a Labour leadership candidate