by Stephen Tall on September 18, 2006
My first fringe meeting*, and it’s a crunch issue: ‘Building a liberal consensus on immigration’.
First up was former Tory MP Keith Best – these days chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service – who swiftly won over the Lib Dem audience by making an impassioned plea for a sensible and serious debate, in stark contrast to the ‘pub prejudice’ sponsored by the more sensationalist right-wing press.
Three steps are crucial, he argued, to enabling this debate to take place. First, the public must have confidence in the statistics which are used – which means government butting out, and an independent body analysing the figures. Secondly, this country relies on economic migration, but we have to deal seriously with abuse of migrant labour. And, thirdly, this nation should take seriously its historic links to Commonwealth countries.
Above all, Mr Best said, immigration policy should be centred around how we can best enhance the cause of human dignity.
Next up was Philippe Legrain, former Economist journalist, who castigated New Labour’s immigration policies, branding them “unfair, unworkable and economically harmful”. Instead, he advocated an ‘open door’ policy on the grounds that immigration is inevitable – whether legal or not – so we might as well make a virtue out of it. He noted that the debate often blurs the distinction between temporary and permanent migration – though hundreds and thousands of EU migrants have entered the UK, many have subsequently returned. In 2004, net migration was 48,000, and, in 2005, it was 75,000. In other words, “an open door policy is a revolving door policy”.
Though New Labour talked tough across the whole spectrum of crime issues, he argued, they had proved incapable of delivering – instead Messrs Straw, Blunkett, Clarke and Reid had presided over a “cumulative crisis of utter incompetence”. To public fear, they had added legislative chaos.
He recalled canvassing a voter in Chesterfield in 2001, who had raised (and blurred) the issue of immigration and asylum-seeking, arguing there were too many of ‘them’ around. Nick, as the area’s then MEP, happened to know there was then not a single asylum seeker in Chesterfield. He put this fact to the guy, who retorted, “I haven’t seen them, but they’re everywhere.”
Nick said he didn’t have a blueprint or panacea to what is a complex and nuanced argument. But three steps would make a start. First, we have to “suck the politics out” of the debate – or in other words stop the grandstanding by those politicians eager to drag the debate into the gutters. Secondly, if we are to retain any semblance of public confidence in the immigration system, then it has to be well managed. And, thirdly, the UK has to work closely with our European partners to ensure that all countries are signed up for enlightened migration policies.
I’ve said it before: this is a debate the Lib Dems should lead. We have a clear direction – that an enlightened immigration policy is not only possible, it will benefit both immigrants and the host country – and it’s one behind which the whole of the party can unite. Both Labour and the Tories are increasingly regressing into embarrassed isolationism. The liberal voice deserves to be heard loud and clear.
* (Written yesterday, Sunday, then my Internet connection disappeared…)