Diane Abbott was in ranting mode for her speech on Labour’s immigration policy last week. Her absurd comparison between Conservative immigration policy and the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin distracted attention from the substance of her proposals and their potential importance for the future of our country.
Behind this nonsense lay the outline of what Baldrick might have described as a “cunning plan” – namely to combine an appeal to the immigrant vote with an appeal to the self interest of the widest possible range of employers, many of whom are keen to secure easy, continued access to cheap labour from abroad.
First, we should put aside the Windrush scandal, on which she dwelt, which has less to do with immigration control than with mistakes by Home Office officials and lack of ministerial oversight. They resulted from a failure to document Commonwealth citizens who arrived here before 1973 which has led to mistakes ever since.
Indeed, half of 164 identified cases which saw people wrongly detained or removed reportedly occurred under previous Labour governments The errors are now being energetically and rightly rectified by Sajid Javid, the new Home Secretary.
Despite that background, Abbott claimed that “the foundations of the scandal were laid in the Immigration Act of 2014”. This led into another rant promising the repeal of the Act, the closure of two key detention centres, and the end of indefinite detention.
The public have a much more sensible view. Between 74 and 82 per cent of the public (and 90 per cent of Conservatives) support these policies and think it is only fair that everyone should have to show documents proving their right to be here when renting a place to live, opening a bank account, registering with a GP, or accepting a job (YouGov, April 2018).
Next was Abbott’s bizarre claim that the purpose of the Conservative immigration target was to “allow a permanent campaign against migrants and immigration in general” so that they could be blamed for the economic crisis (yes, really). The hostile environment measures, she alleged, were the policies of Enoch Powell.
In reality, the term ‘hostile environment’ was widely used under the last Labour Government. Far from being aimed at migrants in general, the policies were and are aimed at tackling illegal immigration, a serious problem which over 80 per cent of the public would like to see dealt with more firmly than at present.
It is difficult to take Abbott’s words seriously, but the underlying purpose of her speech was clear. The aim is to discredit the Government with the immigrant community in a bid for their votes. This was followed up by an undertaking to abolish the minimum income restrictions on “families” – presumably she means spouses and fiancé(e)s. Such a move would open the floodgates for migrants the world over to come to Britain and be subsidised by the taxpayer. It would certainly go down well with those from the Commonwealth who, incidentally, get to vote in general elections within months of their arrival.
Her other main proposal was to widen work permits to virtually all jobs, skills and professions, not just the highly-skilled. If a vacancy could not be filled by a resident worker, a permit would automatically be issued to a worker and his family. Indeed it seems that there would be no limit to the numbers involved. The increasingly vocal employers lobby could hardly ask for more.
The Shadow Home Secretary clearly recognised that her proposals would not be unanimously welcomed. She added that there would be some who will say that she is “simply opening the floodgates to unlimited immigration”.
There is, she said, no evidence for this assertion. Actually there is: the last time that Labour came to power in 1997 net migration trebled in two years – from 50,000 a year to 150,000. Net migration reached a peak under Labour of 268,000 in 2004 (about the current level) but, of course, rose to another all-time record of 332,000 under the Conservatives in 2015.
The wholesale weakening of the immigration system, of the type Abbott proposes, would surely take this figure to another record high. Indeed, her proposals all but guarantee it.
It is already incredibly high as it stands. Since 2001 immigration has been adding about one million people – roughly the population of Birmingham – to our population every three years. This is placing huge strains on our schools, on the NHS, and on housing. Indeed, according to government household projections, we will have to build nearly 300 homes a day just to provide for new migrants.
Meanwhile, nearly two thirds of the public wish to see a substantial reduction in immigration. Indeed, around half (49 per cent) of 2017 Labour voters say immigration levels have been too high over the past decade. Many people are increasingly concerned that the whole scale and nature of our society is being changed against their will.
That might not concern the Labour leadership and its supporters in the media and the academic establishment, but the wider public have had enough and we now run the risk of serious social tensions. The stakes at the next election will be very high indeed.