Immigration has featured in news reports almost every day in the past few months and all of the mainstream political parties seem hell bent on outdoing one another on reducing the number of immigrants who come into the UK. One of the key Conservative election pledges in 2010 was to get immigration down to ‘tens of thousands’ and there has been a lot of talk about ‘health tourism’ and ‘benefit tourism’ recently. The Tories tell us that Britain has one of the most generous welfare systems in the world and, as such, immigrants are ‘flocking’ to our country.
On New Year’s Day, rules which prevented Bulgarians coming to settle in the UK were relaxed, prompting mass hysteria from the tabloids as they predicted we would be swamped with immigrants. The Daily Mail, true to form, even ran the headline ‘Sold out! Flights and buses full as Romanians and Bulgarians head for the UK’ on New Year’s Eve in anticipation of the ‘flood’ of foreigners. Yet the predicted tidal wave did not come and those who claimed 50,000 Bulgarians would come to the UK this year have been left looking a tad sheepish.
Not to be outdone however, the controversial Channel 4 program ‘Benefits Street’ chose to make immigration the central focus of its second episode. The producers concentrated on the Roma community who had come to James Turner Street, depicting them as scavengers and showing some of the residents complaining that immigrants will steal anything that’s left lying around unattended. It was certainly no accident that the Roma were presented this way and we should not be under any illusion that this episode was designed to whip up racial tension. What’s more, let’s not forget the UK Border Agency’s ‘Go Home’ campaign which saw vans driving round communities urging immigrants to go back where they came from…
But it’s not just the Tories and the media who have been pandering to fears around immigration - Labour has joined in too, with rising star Tristram Hunt recently linking English white boys’ underachievement to mass migration from Eastern Europe. Mr Hunt talks of the need for ‘balanced migration’, which raises all sorts of questions about how a Labour government would decide who would and wouldn’t get into the country. The rhetoric coming out of Labour seems to be saying that the UK is still ‘too soft’ on immigration, yet this rather quirky Buzzfeed article on the potential pitfalls of Paddington Bear attempting to enter the UK would suggest otherwise.
Labour needs to be putting a positive case forward for immigration and counter the myths whipped up by the right wing media. Despite what the Daily Mail may tell you, the fact is that migrants contribute more than they take. A study from the University College London Migrant Research unit found that immigrants have actually contributed £25bn to the UK economy, with those from European Economic Area countries paying 34% more in taxes than they receive in benefits. Yes that’s right, if we are going to debate in terms of ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’, the evidence speaks for itself - it’s us who are the skivers. Labour will not win the next general election by fuelling the immigration debate with untruths. We need to be having a sensible conversation with the electorate based upon the facts and ensure that making the UK a tolerant and welcoming society is one of our main priorities as we look ahead to 2015. We have a lot to be proud of, with a hugely diverse culture thanks to the many people who have chosen to make the UK their home. We must not fall for the Tories’ ‘divide and rule’ agenda, which seeks to turn us against our neighbours and turn a blind eye to real injustices as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer under Cameron’s government.
By Marian Craig