LONDON — Labour MP Andy Burnham’s claim yesterday that the left’s failure to deal with immigration concerns has threatened “the safety of our streets” is factually wrong.
There is no evidence of a link between increased immigration and deteriorating safety on the streets. Violent crime has been falling in the UK for decades and a comprehensive study by the London School of Economics found no link between violent crime and high levels of immigration.
It is true that there has been a spike in hate crime since the EU referendum. But to blame that spike on the people who have defended immigrants, rather than on the thugs who have assaulted them, simply beggars belief.
It is also politically inept. Much has been written of late about Labour’s immigration problem. Brexit, Trump, and the rise of nativist parties in Europe have put the frighteners on many Labour MPs. The selection of Paul Nuttall as UKIP leader has added a sense of urgency to those fearing that Labour faces an “existential crisis” in working class communities. Nuttall is a Northerner, succeeding a Southerner (Nigel Farage) at the head of UKIP, a party whose electoral opportunities are mainly in the North.
Labour is right to worry about these things. But the answer to rising fears about immigration is not to further inflame those fears. There is no future for Labour in spreading myths about immigration and crime. There are no seats Labour will win more easily by telling voters that migrants are stealing their jobs and cutting their wages. UKIP’s two MPs came in constituencies not held by Labour.
And even if there were, the Labour party was set up to defend people on the bottom rung of society. Spreading dubious UKIP-style anecdotes about workplaces where nobody speaks English and streets which have been made unsafe by immigration, will not help a single unemployed person get a job, or a single low-paid worker pay their bills.
Burnham said the left needs to address “hard truths” about immigration. Well, the hard truth is that there are only two ways that immigration is going to come down significantly over the next few years. The first would be to leave the single market and introduce draconian new restrictions on immigration. This would have damaging effects on the economy and living standards of the very deprived communities that Burnham claims to represent. (Immigration increases the number of taxpaying workers in relation to those receiving benefits; and when businesses can’t get the workers they need, they can’t grow, and employ fewer people overall.) The second would be for the UK to enter such a serious economic decline that the country ceases to be an attractive place for migrants to live. This, again, would be hugely damaging to Britain’s lowest paid and most deprived citizens.
All of the evidence shows that immigrants put in more to the exchequer, through taxation, than they take out through public services. As the Office for Budget Responsibility made clear last month, slashing immigration would force the UK to either borrow billions of pounds more every year, or impose even bigger cuts to public spending. (The OECD reached the same conclusion.) Those cuts would disproportionately hurt deprived communities in exactly the former industrial towns which Andy Burnham now says he wants to help.
These are the real “hard truths” about immigration. Addressing them is essential if we are ever going to have a serious debate about Britain’s future. Simply inflaming people’s fears, while proposing nothing at all that would meaningfully address them, is a dead end that Labour should avoid at all costs.
This is a column. The opinions and conclusions expressed above are those of the author.
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