A “coalition of the rational” could unite politicians across the major parties and secure public support for the types of immigration that most people think is in Britain’s interests, shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant told a Progress and British Future fringe event at the Labour party conference in Manchester.
The Progress Doorstep Challenge event, chaired by broadcaster Andy Crane, challenged politicians and activists to set out how they would respond to specific real world concerns and anxieties about immigration which voters had expressed to campaigners on the doorstep, on issues including ‘local jobs for local people’, and the perception that all social housing went to migrants.
Bryant acknowledged that the Labour party, at all levels, had more work to do before it would be comfortable talking about immigration, particularly with voters who were deeply anxious about the subject.
“There was a sense out there at the last election that this was the last thing that the Labour party wanted to talk about, and that we felt that anybody who wanted to talk about being worried about immigration was somehow racist. Now, some people who want to talk about immigration are racist. But the vast majority are not. My ambition for the next election is that every Labour party campaigner should have something strong to say about our approach to immigration going forward”, he said.
While Bryant criticised the government’s net migration target as unachievable, he placed more emphasis on the shared ground across the major parties than their differences.
“The single most important thing for us to do is to say we won’t make false promises”, said Chris Bryant, noting the extent of common ground on policy between himself and the outgoing immigration minister Damian Green, who had moved on to be replaced by Mark Harper in the pre-conference reshuffle.
“OK, they have set themselves a ludicrous net migration target, and have done some silly things on universities, but broadly speaking, he [Damian Green] would have as difficult a time answering these questions on the doorstep as we would”, said Bryant.
“Labour should acknowledge where it had got things wrong, such as not introducing a points-based system fast enough” and in not having similar transitional controls on migration from the new EU member states as France, Germany and other EU states, said Bryant.
But he also warned against “selling the pass” by suggesting that all immigration was a bad thing, which would lead to promises that can’t be kept. Politicians of all mainstream parties had to be straight with voters that stopping all immigration was neither possible nor in Britain’s interests.
“I do believe that you can build a coalition of the rational on immigration”, said Bryant.
“I think people know that really high-skilled students coming to UK universities helps to make them world-class. I think people do accept that if somebody is in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and in fear of their life then we need to welcome people who need refuge”, and there was also a recognition of the value brought by entrepreneurs and investors to the UK economy, he argued.
Bryant said that there were areas of the British economy which were “over-dependent” on migrant labour, especially hospitality and construction, he said. The challenge in construction “isn’t just about how to build a wall; its about how to run a business”, he said.
But there was also some scepticism about the possibility of a consensual approach working from Slough MP Fiona MacTaggart, speaking from the floor of the fringe meeting.
“The Conservatives also see this as an issue on which Labour is vulnerable – and they want to exploit that”, she said.
This was the second in British Future’s series of three fringe events on the public politics of immigration at the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative party conferences.
Watch a short clip of Chris Bryant speaking at our fringe event: