It will not have escaped people’s attention that there is a debate going on in the Labour Party about whether we can stay in the single market. For those who think we can’t, it mostly comes down to one thing: immigration.
Some in Labour’s ranks say we cannot stay in the European single market, because of the public’s view of immigration means they will not accept anything like the current approach to free movement. This is no surprise to anyone who has fought a marginal election between Labour and the Tories in the past decade. It is certainly no shock to me.
Picture the scene: A Wirral doorstep. Wirral ethnicity: 98% white. Wirral population born in England: 92%. A gentleman answers the door. I say, “Hi there, I’m Alison McGovern, I’m your local Member of Parliament. I’m awfully sorry to disturb you. Just calling round to say hello and see if there are any issues you would like to raise.”
He replies: You’d better talk to my wife, I think. She’s bothered about that sort of thing.
Me: Yes? Happy to.
Gentleman: Oh yes, she feels very strongly about it. Immigration.
This is not a surprise, and it’s not a problem. This is a conversation I’ve had hundreds of times.
Me: Oh, okay. What about it?
Gentleman: Well, you know, that we don’t have enough money for our pensions, and the hospitals. How can we afford more people coming in?
Me: Well, immigration helps pay for pensions and the NHS. As a country, we are ageing. There are more pensioners compared to people of working age, so if the people coming here are younger, the tax they pay really helps the public finances. Unless people like me start having masses more children, we are going to be in real trouble in the future, without immigration.
Gentleman: No? Are you sure?
A woman comes to the door: Who’s this?
Gentleman: It’s our local MP. I was just saying that you might want a word with her.
Woman: Oh yes. How can we stop all these people coming into our country? We can’t afford our pensions, never mind all these people coming here.
Gentleman: (Pointing at me) Well, she says people coming here helps pay for pensions. And the hospitals.
Woman: (Looking at me) What nonsense…
This is my recollection of an actual conversation, a few years ago. But it’s representative of many discussions that I have had with constituents over the years. And like many of my colleagues, I have discovered that on issues like immigration, if a person has very deeply held views like this, you can’t change their mind. And a person is entitled to their own views.
It is political reality everyone in Britain must just deal with. You can’t deny it or explain it away. The negative feelings towards immigration are certainly there. Many of us believe that a lot of anti-immigration feeling actually stems from other concerns, to which the answer is better funding our NHS, sorting out pensions, enforcing minimum wage legislation, and making our borders safe. But as the conversation above shows, we must also accept that for some people no amount of correcting the myths, setting out the facts, or even persuasive political argument will win them over.
However, there is another side to this.
Firstly, whilst everyone is very much entitled to their own opinion, no one is entitled to their own facts. Which is not to say that pro-immigration politicians are simply correct on immigration and other people are wrong – we have emotions and deeply held beliefs, just like everyone else.
But we all have a responsibility to respond to facts, especially politicians, whose role is not just to voice their own opinion, but to take actual decisions on behalf of others. And, as I tried to explain to the gentleman in the conversation above, it is the case that our dependency ratio over the next 20 years will shift from 300 pensioners to 1,000 people of working age to 365 by the early 2030s, even after quite radical and unpopular changes to the state pension age.
Without immigration, this means an objective worsening of the public finances, as NHS and care costs rise, and receipts fall. Anyone who seriously wants to take decisions on behalf of our country needs to tell the British public what they are going to do about it. We need to be honest with people. Immigration has strengthened our country before and we will need it to do so again.
Secondly, the reality is, when it comes to an issue like immigration, most British people do not have a strongly held belief, or an ability to answer all the questions. Most people have lives to lead, families to look after, and not enough hours in the day to think through all the issues before us. When they come to think about politics – and especially immigration – most people are not hardline. They are looking for a practical way to protect our country from risks and give British people a chance at success. There is a division, if you like, between those who are unpersuadable, and those who want to hear an argument for a course of action.
And finally, on the subject of making an argument, I think that is precisely where we have failed on immigration. For too long, we have let Tories and the right-wing press shape the narrative that people from another country coming here to work is the reason why there are no good jobs which pay a decent wage. Or that immigrants are the reason that our NHS is on its knees and there aren’t enough suitable houses.
But it has worked because everyone – absolutely everyone – has a basic fear of the other. I certainly do. Why do I immediately feel emotional when I’m in London and I hear someone speaking in a Liverpool accent? Because my ears think they have heard home amongst the less comfortable tones around me.
Speaking to a close family member recently who came to this country from some way away, I asked her how it had been when she was first in Britain. She said people often had questions. And all you could do was to explain the difference. And hope that the person listened and understood a little more. That was the best you could do. With the time for a proper conversation, a chance to work through the bits you don’t understand, and to see life from the perspective of the other person, the different can become normal.
And seeing the debate from the other person’s point of view requires those of us who are pro-immigration to engage seriously with the fact that people might feel vulnerable or unheard. There is a tendency for those of us on the pro-immigration side of this debate to be – or at least seem – patronising towards those who take a different view.
Yes, Britain’s story is interwoven with the story of the movement of people here to work, as the history of the Windrush generation shows. And as I have said above, I will be the first to defend the necessity of immigration for our economy now and in the future, to pay our pensions and to pay for our care.
But I will also always be the first to stand on the doorstep, listening to the concerns of British voters, about this and any other issue. And in my experience, people who are concerned about immigration tend to list problems whose solutions do not lie in shutting down the UK visas and immigration department. Whether it be security, jobs, housing, or healthcare, none of these will be solved by ending freedom of movement, or maintaining the Tory policy of an arbitrary cap.
So we need to listen, but we also need to make a better argument, and offer an alternative. We all have ambitions for our country. Be it jobs that actually pay, a town centre that isn’t a lifeless shell, or a health service that provides for a dignified later life, these are demands that communities that voted for Brexit reasonably make. An attempt to listen will show away forward that is inclusive not divisive.
We won’t persuade everyone. Some will be implacably opposed. But some will be pragmatic and up for a compromise. This is what I have learned on doorstep after doorstep after doorstep. For those who already hold a strong and passionate belief, you won’t change them. But for most people, you can listen hard for their ambition, for what they want for their country. And try hard to get it for them. That, in the end – on immigration, Europe, and everything – is what politics is for.
Alison McGovern is the Labour MP for Wirral South and co-chair of the Labour Campaign for the Single Market