Brexit was never about immigration and it's time we said it

This article was originally published in the Independent on the 18th June 2018.

Last week in the House of Commons, there was the biggest rebellion of this parliament by MPs of both main parties. It was on a vote on whether we should continue to participate in the EU’s single market through being part of the European Economic Area (EEA). 

In spite of this Labour MPs were whipped by our leadership to abstain on this issue, whereas the government whipped their MPs to vote against. Seventy-six Labour MPs (more than half of our backbenchers) defied the whip – myself included – to vote for the UK to stay in the EEA. We were joined by the Conservatives Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve and Ken Clarke, with another 11 Tory MPs signalling their support for the EEA by abstaining on the issue instead of following the whip’s instructions to vote against.

However, 15 Labour MPs actually voted against the UK remaining in the EEA. This is a small minority – less than 6 per cent of our MPs – but their views cannot and should not be dismissed. 

A few commentators suggested the division on the Labour side fell along geographical lines, with London MPs in favour of staying in the EEA and non-London MPs against. But this is not supported by the numbers. Fifty-three of the 76 Labour MPs voting for the EEA actually represent seats outside of London, and a majority of those 76 represent seats in Leave-voting regions.

A number of objections are raised against the EEA in Commons debates by MPs in both main parties. Some say that if we stay in the EEA, we will somehow have blocked “the will of the people” – even though nothing like that was put on the Brexit referendum ballot paper. It seems that some commentators are determined to tell us all Brexit voters specifically wanted to come out of the single market and the customs union. In reality, we have absolutely no idea where they stand on these issues apart from the fact that they did think leaving the institution of the EU was a good idea – and that could have been for a number of very different reasons.

Yet none of the objections I’ve heard have gone to the heart of where most concern lies about the EEA: immigration and the continuation of some form of free movement, a requirement of participating in the EEA.

I am the son of an immigrant and represent a constituency where the majority of families are of immigrant stock. But many of the communities Labour represents are the opposite, which is why more than half the seats we hold voted to leave the EU. That doesn’t mean that people are xenophobic or racist, but there is concern about the levels of immigration to certain places and, as I’ve said before, we cannot duck or ignore it. Honesty is required: views are just as strong, if not stronger, in relation to non-EU immigration as they are in relation to EU immigration.

There are parallels between the discontent in some traditional Labour-voting areas about EU immigration and the same discontent regarding Commonwealth countries in the 1960s. There was, after all, a form of free movement from the Commonwealth until 1971 – my own father took advantage of that.

I have never denied that immigration can pose both economic and cultural challenges to communities, but it need not be this way if we deal with it in the right way. A reform package of policies to better manage migration from the EU could include things like action to prevent the undercutting of wages by immigrants, removing newcomers after nine months if they fail to find a job, and putting in place a bigger infrastructure fund to help mitigate the impact of migration on local communities.

I would add that we need to do far more to help integrate immigrants into local communities, as the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration, which I chair, argues in our report Integration not demonisation. My father was so successful in this regard that he married an English woman and had mixed heritage children.

We can do all of these things now while we are still in the EEA because of our EU membership.

But what are the real underlying causes of concern about immigration? Not enough decent, affordable housing. A shortage of school places. An NHS in crisis. Not enough well-paid and decent jobs. These problems will not disappear or be mitigated if we leave the EEA. They will get worse because there will be less revenue going to the Exchequer to pay for these things.

The underlying problems we have are no more the fault of European immigrants now than they were the fault of Commonwealth citizens back in the 1960s. And make no mistake: people were saying exactly the same things in traditional Labour-voting areas about the Windrush generation, South Asian immigration and the likes of my father being the cause of those problems way back then. Ending Commonwealth free movement then and ending EU free movement now did not and will not solve these problems, and deep down we know it. 

In the Commons debate on the 1971 Immigration Act which restricted Commonwealth immigration, Labour’s then shadow home secretary Jim Callaghan said, “Decent housing, decent schooling, good amenities in the areas where they are most needed… in my view, this is the way, rather than by a bill like this in which we should deal with the problem of the immigrant, if indeed it is a problem of the immigrant.”

That is why Labour governments, including that of Callaghan when he became prime minister, have always principally addressed these problems by properly funding the NHS, by building more affordable homes, investing in our schools, introducing a minimum wage and so on. 

By acquiescing in the fiction that immigrants are ultimately the problem and that these underlying issues will be resolved if EU free movement ends, all we do is put British jobs at risk – which would be rather odd for a party that claims to represent the interests of “labour”.