Having sat in the House of Commons since 2005, I have watched Ed Balls with a mixture of fascination and admiration. He is many things – brusque, fiercely partisan, a class warrior and a bruiser. One thing he is not is stupid. Nor is he Alf Garnett.
His Road to Damascus recantation of the last Labour Government’s policy on EU migration whilst superficially risky, in that it might very well alienate a key element of Labour Party members in the current leadership contest, is nevertheless carefully calibrated. It is aimed at an even more important Labour demographic: the previously rock-ribbed constituency of white working class C2/DE electors, without whom Labour cannot win another Parliamentary majority and form a government. These were the disaffected folk who very nearly cost Ed Balls his seat and his career in the Morley and Outwood constituency on 6th May.
Ed’s mea culpa is undoubtedly belated and hypocritical, as neither he, nor his patron Gordon Brown, sought to stay Tony Blair’s hand in pursuing the foolish and costly policy of complete adherence to the European Union’s Free Movement Directive in 2004 – a policy eschewed by wiser EU leaders in France, Germany, Spain and Italy, amongst others, rightly for fear of the impact on their own labour markets.
I declare an interest. My constituency has seen one of the highest levels of EU migration in the UK in the last six years – without my constituents ever being asked whether or not they approved of this policy and without being provided the resources to ameliorate the huge impact on public services – especially housing, policing, health and education – of this unprecedented level of social and economic change.
During the General Election campaign, the huge pressures on community cohesion and civic governance of between 16,000 and 20,000 EU migrants arriving in a city of about 160,000 citizens were highlighted by the Daily Mail and other national and international media, with sometimes lurid stories of swans from the River Nene being killed and eaten by jobless and penniless EU migrants. Not great publicity for a fine medieval centre which was designated an Environment City in 1992 and has ambitious plans for growth and regeneration.
However, Peterborough – whose demographic profile is closer to Derby or Doncaster than Godalming or Guildford – has borne a heavy burden. With our maternity services creaking under the strain; our levels of youth unemployment and NEETs amongst the highest in England; people trafficking and the sex trade increasing; school results stalling as the number of pupils whose first language is not English rises; and the proliferation of whole neighbourhoods of houses in multiple occupation with poor EU migrants exploited by Rachman-like landlords, I am disinclined to shoot Ed Balls the messenger when his message is actually true.
The impact of EU migration on the less well educated, less skilled and less mobile indigenous workforce has been profound and damaging.
Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that it has all been negative – but we must acknowledge that it has imposed economic and social costs too on a number of communities across the UK.
Some of my colleagues in the south of England might make mention of the skinny organic latte they can pick up in a chi chi Polish deli – and certainly world cities like London and Manchester can both absorb and attract a variety of bright and skilled people, like pharmacists, IT specialists, engineers and doctors – many of whom will leave a demonstrable economic footprint and some might indeed choose to make a long term commitment to the UK – and good for them.
What of us in Peterborough – the centre of food processing and packaging and agriculture in the Eastern region? Our situation is very different. Low wage and low skill EU workers will leave no such enduring economic legacy when and if they return to their home nations, but in the meantime have pushed some youngsters out of the jobs market and kept them dependent on a lax welfare benefits system with all its socially corrosive effects. Whilst the Treasury reap the tax revenues and big agricultural concerns healthy profits, it has fallen to my local taxpayers to pick up the financial bill in areas like community policing, primary care and social housing.
There is a political imperative too for the Conservative Party to acknowledge these issues – not just in Peterborough but in Crewe, Thetford, Boston, Wisbech, Westminster and Kings Lynn to name a few – and to act on the voters’ legitimate concerns. In Peterborough, the “EU-sceptic” parties (UKIP and the English Democrats) polled 8.4% or almost 4,000 votes on 6th May. Whilst it kept my own majority to less than 5,000 in a traditionally marginal constituency, the lack of a coherent and persuasive Conservative policy on EU migration undoubtedly meant we forfeited a number of Parliamentary seats – and may very well have prevented us from forming a majority government. Even now, there is no mention of EU migration in the Coalition Agreement – a strange omission given its level of voter salience for at least that last 2 years or more.
In an article I wrote in 2006 for Conservative Home, I predicted that one day Labour would try to outflank us on immigration and that we must prevent them from doing so with tough but fair and reasonable policies – not least to prevent the rise of the BNP and other racist parties. Perhaps Ed Balls has read my article?
In the next few weeks I hope to meet with our new Immigration Minister Damian Green to raise this issue directly with him. There is plenty we can do – undertake an audit of the financial impact of EU migration on a small number of local authorities, make sure the ONS has a robust methodology to count EU citizens in next year’s Census, review the operation of the EU Workers Registration Scheme and put more effort in to removing EU citizens who cannot or will not work and are an imposition on UK taxpayers.
Under Labour, I have campaigned to little effect in the last five years for a decent hearing and a fair deal for my constituency on coping with the consequences of EU migration. I hope and indeed expect a Conservative Government to take a more sympathetic, pragmatic and effective approach.
It pains me to say: Ed Balls may be self serving but he’s bang on the nail.