Home > General Politics, Labour Party News > When Labour lost it on immigration: 24th October 2006

When Labour lost it on immigration: 24th October 2006

John Reid: not a Charlemagne for our times

It can be argued that Latin became French in 842, when the Oaths of Strasbourg were written in Latin, Old High German and a form of Old Gallo-Romance, which would in turn become Old French. 

Of course people under Charlemagne’s rule had already moved on from Vulgar Latin, and would have been unintelligible to a Latin speaker of the 4th century AD, but what was important about the Oaths is that they gave institutional authority, for a specific political purpose, to the new language, and distinguished it officially from Latin.  

French never looked back. 

While perhaps not quite as dramatic, the then Home Office Minister did much the same thing on 24 October 2006, when he made a statement to the House concerning new rules to be put in place in respect of Bulgarian and Romanian nationals: 

Over the last few months, I have set out ambitious plans to ensure that our immigration system is both effective and fair, including plans to ensure immigration rules are advised by an independent Migration Advisory Committee; plans to double spending on enforcement; and plans to introduce ID cards for foreign nationals. 

Here, in one short paragraph, we see encapsulated the changed government attitude; ‘migration’ has become ‘immigration’, and enforcement is now the order of the day. 

And as with  French, a seeming ‘point of no return’ was reached, as anti-immigration language was given governmental authority. This time around it wasn’t that noticeable, indeed no-one at the time really noticed it, but it legitimized much worse to come.  

It did so not just because of the language chosen to set out his the new set of immigration rules by John Reid, but because, behind the scenes and in spite of his reference to the Migration Advisory Committee, he had chosen to ignore their advice, which was that the Bulgaria/Romania accession (A2) in 2007 should be treated in the same way as the A8 accession on 2003.  As Dr Alex Balch, an expert in UK migration policy in the 2000s, says in a paper drawn from his PhD

The large inflows related to the 2002 decision on A8 nationals have clearly had a significant political and institutional impact. The effect of institutional, political and organisational pressure can be seen in the decision to restrict access for A2 nationals before the subsequent (2007) enlargement. In contrast to 2002 this decision was taken against expert opinion. Here the managed migration frame was displaced by a political imperative to respond to public concerns over immigration levels (despite the likelihood that A2 migration would be on a different scale to A8 migration). 

From late 2006 onwards then, the path was set for the Labour government to become ever more draconian in its language about immigration, and its eventual attempts to outflank the Conservatives from the right on immigration.  As Andy Newman has set out well, beyond this important first step: 

[The] Labour government in a sense created the perfect storm. On the one hand engaging in dog-whistle politics, and talking tough over the points system, and locking up children in detention centres; while simultaneously presiding over a laissez faire abdication of responsibility towards resolving the social problems caused by the reality of mass immigration from Eastern Europe. 

In so doing, Labour was host by its 1996 petard.  By conceding migration as almost wholly a problem rather than a driver of economic growth, it put itself in a position whereby it could never win the argument.  Any  immigration quickly became too much immigration, and the accusation during Neathergate that the government had been surreptitiously planning dastardly ‘multi-culturalism’ was rebutted by Jack Straw not by pointing out that migration had been really good for the UK economy, but that Labour was being really tough on immigration and that he’d call for an extra ‘probe’ into the matter – something that was then immediately taken by the rabid rightwing press to be part of the whole plot. 

Labour’s self-imposed problem is neatly summed up by Don Flynn of the Migrant Rights Network

Rather than there being a lack of targeted publicity about the government’s immigration policies, Labour’s problem lay in the messages themselves. The government’s big claims that immigration was now ‘under control’ were inherently vulnerable to being demolished by commentators. Every inflated statement of policy success made by the government was poured over by opponents looking for the opportunity to contradict it. Day after day, the party made itself a hostage to fortune on immigration. 

In short, Labour bottled it on migration, and has paid for it ever since October 1996. 

Why go back over this short (in both senses) history of Labour’s policy swerve towards a self-defeating immigration stance?  

Well, it’s important, if Labour and its prospective leaders are to get it right on immigration that we realize that the 1997 and 2001 administrations actually didn’t do too badly on it in the first place.  

Yes, the policy stance may have been too ‘technocratic’ and reflective of New Labour’s neo-liberal norms, and this may have led to greater distrust down the line about motives when the policy was changed, but in narrower there is not too much to fault with this statement by then Home Office Minister Barbara Roche, in September 2000 

In the past we have thought purely about immigration control … Now we need to think about immigration management … The evidence shows that economically driven migration can bring substantial overall benefits for both growth and the economy. 

This is important because there is a myth developing quickly about New Labour, set out by Daniel Trilling of the New Statesman in an otherwise well informed article

In fact, over 13 years in power, New Labour’s rhetoric on immigration – combined with the virulent xenophobia of the tabloid press – has gifted the BNP with fertile ground on which to cultivate support. 

Quite simply, this is wrong about New Labour, as I have tried to show above. 

More importantly, perhaps, it is important to recognize that this explosion of hysteria about immigration and its effects on Britain is actually quite recent, and is therefore all the more reversible.   

We’re now so used to Daily Mail headlines like this, which skate happily over the headline-contradicting facts within the story itself, that we think such loathsome attitudues have been at large longer than they actually have. 

But it is, for example, only six years (to the day, as it happens) that the NUJ Chapel at the Daily Express – yes, the Daily Express – passed the following motion over a ‘1.6 million gypsies to flood in’ headline in the paper: 

This chapel is concerned that Express journalists are coming under pressure to write anti-gypsy articles. We call for a letter to be sent to the Press Complaints Commission reminding it of the need to protect journalists who are unwilling to write racist articles which are contrary to the National Union of Journalists’ code of conduct. 

The Daily Express journalists had not had their Oaths of Strasbourg moment; they were aware that a new language was amongst them, but they preferred to cling to the old language of decency. 

It is only a 16 months since a Conservative councillor in Lincolnshire felt able to go on record in the following way in the local press: 

Romany gypsies from countries including Romania and Bulgaria could be invited to Lincolnshire to take jobs previously filled by Eastern Europeans. 

Gypsies and travellers currently suffering from persecution in their countries of origin could be persuaded to flee their “squalor” and step into jobs left by Poles returning home. 

In Lincolnshire they have predominantly filled jobs in agriculture. 

If, because of the downturn, we start to see fewer Eastern European migrant workers from Poland and so forth, it’s my personal view we could get replacements from Romania and Bulgaria.” 

He said Lincolnshire could extend a friendly hand to them saying “come to us and get a better deal”. 

“The main problem of course, whether we like it or not, is that gypsies and travellers are extremely unpopular people to have in the county,” he added. 

The councillor, for suggesting that economic benefit might outweigh local xenophobia under his administration’s watch, was then subjected to a torrent of abuse, but this is perhaps less noteworthy than the fact that he felt bound to speak as he did in the first place, for that showed a vestige of the old ‘pre-Reid’ language of migration held true (however faulty the argument in the wider political sense). 

In my next post on immigration, I’ll be trying to answer in ‘nuts and bolts’ detail Sunny’s questions on how the Left deals with the now prevalent anti-immigrant narrative: 

The public are not easily persuaded by facts. There’s no way of ‘educating them’. The right-wing media exists and it won’t stop printing false stories. And there are lots of traditional Labour supporters who have concerns about immigration….  How do you deal with people’s concerns without sounding like the English Defence League, the BNP or Andy Burnham? How does that narrative offer solutions and hope without encouraging people to be bigots or making them fearful of immigrants? 

What’s the narrative? What do you say on the door-step? Thoughts? 

This, though, is my starting point.  Labour lost it on immigration, and there’s no excuse for that. But it did so more recently than it’s now being assumed, and the wave of ‘popular xenophobia’ that has swept over us in the last three years may be gone before we think, if the Labour movement-in-opposition, assisted or not by its new Labour PLP leadership, can get its tactics right over the next year or so.  

‘Traditional Labour supporters’ don’t want to be anti-immigrant, and we can give them reasons why they don’t ‘need’ to be. 

In 845, three years after the Oaths of Strasbourg were signed, Charlemagne could have torn up the proto-French version as a symbolic gesture of defiance.  French, without institutional authority, might have developed very differently.  Labour needs to start by denouncing its 1996 turn.  Come on the Milbros, we’re waiting. 

Till next time….

  1. May 24, 2010 at 11:31 am

    I don’t agree that early New Labour (especially the 2001 government) was progressive on migration. In reality there is no difference between “managed migration” and “immigration controls” – the former is just a more pleasant euphemism for the latter. Managed migration is not possible without a brutal set of controls which will at the end of the day imprison and deport people in a doomed attempt to keep the numbers down. Although the government experimented with giving a positive message about the economic benefits of migration, it all the while passed more and more regressive legislation building up the apparatus of controls and participating in international agreements to do the same. It didn’t at any point confront the right-wing narrative about migration head-on.

  2. paulinlancs
    May 24, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Tim @1: I don’t think we’re very far apart on this.

    Certainly I’m not suggesting that Labour were parapons of virtue through to 2006, and certainly they were never in the position that both you and I would have liked them to be in on migration; it was always seen in narrow economic benefit terms rather than in terms of universal human rights and/or the right to labour movement in the context of freedom on capital movement.

    Nevertheless, I don’t think we can simply dismiss the liberalisation of work permits in the early 2000s. Nor can we argue that Labour did act correctly in 200/3 when it allowed free entry for the A8 accession countries when it could have done otherwise. Some of the migration language did flow through into policy.

    But this post is about language, not about susbstantive policy, and while ‘managed migration’ may indeed be a euphemism for ‘immigration control’, it’s a euphemism I welcomed. Narrative (and narrative context) is important, as I’ll hope to show in my next post when I try to offer up detail on how we should go forward on the ‘immigration question’).

  3. May 24, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    On the A8 accession countries stuff, I think that is down in part to grassroots activity. The minister responsible was Andrew Smith, who had the long-running Campaign to Close Campsfield on his doorstep which had connections to the local Labour Party both directly through local members and indirectly through trade union activity. He had been exposed to arguments and political activity directly challenging immigration controls to a much greater extent than most MPs. It may not have had a direct effect, but political context is important. (To be fair to him I think he was also more likely to respond to that pressure than many MPs.)

    I never welcomed the language of “managed migration” because I thought it was an attempt to hide the true cost of immigration controls. I certainly agree that narrative is important, but the only way forward is to directly confront the right-wing narrative on migration, head-on, rather than obscuring the issue.

  4. May 24, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    Tim @3:

    I didn’t know that about the A* accession. Interesting. Any documentation of it? Were you around that area then.

    Yes, I agree that the narrative of the right needs now to be challenged. Perversely (and because of the 2006 cave-in), this is now much easier in opposition. I’ll tackle that in the next post, but I think it needs to be connected into anti-EC sentiment….It also, again perversely, needs to take a lea from the BNP book about how to give out the message that no-one but you is telling the truth.

    • May 24, 2010 at 12:41 pm

      Yes, I was around that area between 2002 – 2005, but don’t know of any documentation on the subject, just speaking from personal experience. Look forward to the next post.

  5. May 24, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    Tim @5:

    Do you think we could engage Andrew Smith in this kind of ‘anti-anti-immigant’ debate?

  6. May 24, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    I haven’t been involved there for some time – I would’ve thought best off contacting someone like Antonia who still lives & is active there or Dan P who was involved with Andrew’s last campaign.

  7. May 24, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Andrew may be willing to get involved. Oxford has a lot of people who care deeply about immigration – a large slice of a Left vote is available on the issue of Campsfield and there are a bunch of people who take in foreign children there, whose doors I remember knocking on, to be told that Andrew had been very helpful and that yes they’d be voting for him. Email Dan, Ms Bance and also John Tanner, who is a solid Lefty on the council there.

  8. Larry G
    May 24, 2010 at 6:22 pm

    This article is desperately skewed. Until New Labour the immigration ‘policy’ of successive govts. had been entirely focused on restriction. New Labour were the ones to re-orientate UK labour migration policy in a more ‘positive’ direction. Establishment of a High Skilled Migrants Programme being a glaring example not even mentioned here. Why not?

    What the author probably has a problem with is that New Labour were orientating policy towards (skilled) labour migration and not those forms migration defined by government policy as useless ie. asylum-seekers. Yes there are types of migrants the UK wants and needs, and those it does not need. To characterize New Labours recognition of fact as ‘losing it on immigration’ is entirely laughable.

    Perhaps the author should read Alex Balch’s paper on sectoral dynamics and immigration, the conclusion of which is not that public discontent is whats causing the limits but the demands of business.

  9. paulinlancs
    May 25, 2010 at 9:16 am

    Larry @9:

    Why didn’t I mention the Highly Skilled Migrants Programme? Well, because this ost is about narrative rather than substantive policy decisions, though I did refer to other broadly pro-migrant policy decisions in the subsequent comments.

    Yes, I agree that the emphasis in New Labour policy was on economic benefits, which is why I quoted Barbara Roche on same, and clearly there’s a link between that emphasis and decisions around skilled over unskilled migration, but again, that’s not the point of the blogpost – the point is to show how anti-immigration narrative started up somewhat later than is now being assumed.

    I think by ‘skewed’ you may mean ‘not on the subject you were expecting’.

  10. Edward
    August 22, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    Good article. My only quibble is that I’m pretty sure Charlemagne couldn’t have torn up the oaths in 845, as he’d been dead for three decades.

  1. May 25, 2010 at 11:01 am
  2. May 26, 2010 at 9:07 am
  3. November 5, 2010 at 11:31 pm
  4. January 4, 2011 at 11:27 pm
  5. June 1, 2011 at 1:28 am
  6. March 13, 2013 at 11:58 pm

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