Gabriel Gavin is a Conservative Party activist and a former Labour Party political adviser.
Over the past few years, immigration has become the third rail of British politics. In 1997, only three per cent of the British public said migration was their biggest concern – now almost half do. Around three quarters of voters favour lower levels of immigration, with more than half wanting it to be ‘reduced a lot’. On the doorstep, anywhere you go, people’s worries about jobs, about schools, about the NHS go hand in hand with their concerns about the scale of immigration.
Despite that, no mainstream political party has really engaged with the frustration people have over years of seemingly unrestricted migration. For most politicians the arguments in its favour are all too clear. The best estimates suggest migrants make a net contribution to our economy of more than £2.5 billion each year, with EU migrants in particular being more likely to be in work than their UK-born counterparts. From science to social care, catering to carpentry, access to a virtually limitless workforce has meant our country has flourished as a commercial centre.
But immigration isn’t simply an economic issue. For millions of Britons, New Labour’s policies meant walking down their high street hearing not a single person speaking English. For young people looking for work in struggling former steel towns, the availability of cheap foreign labour for franchise bosses was far from a relief.
Is it any wonder, then, that a political elite, measuring the benefits of migration in terms of net economic contributions and the abundance of cheap coffee, was paralysed with shock at the results of the referendum on membership of the EU? Regardless of which side you were on, Brexit demonstrates a fundamental disconnect between politicians and voters on a range of issues, with migration at the core.
The question for progressive Conservatives, more than ever after the referendum, has to be how we harness the benefits of migration whilst understanding and responding to people’s legitimate concerns around its social consequences. For those of us whose instincts are pro-business and who see ourselves as internationalists, intent on enhancing Britain’s role in the world as an open, tolerant nation, this is our greatest challenge.
Whilst it makes sense for our party to commit to lowering net migration levels ‘to the tens of thousands’, our ultimate goal must be to replace the obsession over the numbers of immigrants with something more meaningful. There is no-one, or rather no-one worth listening to, who wants to stop skilled workers coming to this country to build a better life for themselves and contribute to our economy. People’s concerns over levels of migration aren’t about economics, but about the social fallout that comes with creating communities within our communities. The answer isn’t just about reducing the number of migrants, but ensuring those who come here become part of our society.
As a country, we are strengthened by the diversity of our citizens. Respecting the religions, cultures, cuisines and customs of those who come here to join us is one of the great achievements of the British people. As a nation, we have always been able to reconcile new ways of living with our national identity. The future of British society depends on ensuring that continues to happen.
The danger for our party is that we see Brexit as a way to refresh our credibility with groups who are against immigration, plain and simple. We must simultaneously make the case for skilled migrants coming to the UK and ensuring that the sectors that depend on migration can access the workforce they need, whilst protecting those who feel that immigration works against them. Brexit demands we set out a positive vision for an open Britain and are willing to fight the battles needed to make that happen.
What is needed now more than ever is a radical vision for how immigrants to Britain can take on a stake in our society, start to share our values and become truly British themselves. This is no simple task and is something that can be furthered by every Government Department. For example, Singapore’s colossal house building programme has given ethnic Chinese, Malays and Indians a stake in society. Ensuring no one ethnic group balkanised certain developments meant that neighbours from different ethnic groups would interact and form communities. Conservative homebuilding plans should give us hope to achieve the same outcomes.
But nowhere is the integration agenda more important than in education. Where families are neglecting their duties to teach their children about Britain’s proud history of tolerance and acceptance, schools should be teaching the legacy of the Suffragette movement and the Stonewall riots.
‘British values’ cannot simply be the preserve of the far right, but should be something championed in every interaction between the citizen and the state. Conservatives must believe at heart that no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, in Britain you can achieve whatever you are willing to work to achieve. That must be our guiding principle when it comes to policymaking, whether that is around home ownership, public services or the National Curriculum. Only then can we reconcile the tensions between people whose families have lived here for decades and those who arrived a week ago.
It falls to progressive Conservatives to redefine the debate around immigration as not simply an argument over numbers, but as how to ensure people born both here and overseas come to see themselves as part of a multicultural, tolerant, open society that we can all be a part of.