Labour Must Listen to its Voters and Back Brexit

The Labour Party needs to demonstrate it understands the issues underpinning the momentum for Brexit, and the rise of UKIP, if they are to become serious contenders for Government again, argues Frank Field MP.

A year or so before the last General Election, the then-leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, issued an ultimatum – of sorts. Ahead of that evening’s meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), he had publicly called on those of us concerned about his failure to address voters’ anxieties on immigration to put up or shut up.

Heading into that meeting, all manner of questions were being asked as to why the Party had failed to elicit an enthusiastic response from the electorate in successive local and European elections, as well as Parliamentary by-elections. So I made the case at that PLP meeting that one reason stood head and shoulders above the rest: namely that a whole swathe of traditional Labour voters had lost faith in the Party’s ability to represent their views on immigration. And as long as the leadership flatly refused to commit to a policy of being able to control our borders, they would not be returning any time soon to the Labour fold. Worse still for Labour, I argued, this group of voters had found a new political home in UKIP.

When I made this case, a whole group of Labour MPs growled in my direction. Some of them now no longer attend PLP meetings as UKIP helped wipe them out at the General Election. But what of those who held onto their seats?

44 MPs among the Labour cohort who were returned to Parliament in 2015 had UKIP hot on their heels in second place. If the erosion of our traditional vote to UKIP continues, some of these 44 MPs might go the way that their predecessors went at the last election. I believe therefore that their fate, and that of many others on the Labour benches, hinges on the effectiveness or otherwise of the Labour case to leave the European Union (EU).

This case to leave the EU is built upon what voters, in election after election, have been telling us on the doorstep, only to have their concerns dismissed out of hand by successive Labour leaderships.

A central plank of this case is that voters are deeply uncomfortable with the unprecedented pace of change that has taken place in the size and composition of our population since Tony Blair threw open the doors to the European accession countries in 2004. In the decade after 2004, 5.3 million people migrated here from overseas and 1.7 million Brits emigrated elsewhere. That’s a churn in the population of more than one in ten people.

The arrival of so many newcomers has of course placed additional demands on the services most of us rely upon to lead a civilised life – schools, hospitals, housing, transport – but it is the composition of this group of newcomers that has ensured those Brits on the lowest incomes have been dealt the roughest hand. And this rough hand will continue to be dealt to this group. The latest official projections show that our population will grow by nearly 10 million – the equivalent of nine Birminghams – in the next twenty five years, to over 74 million. This assumes that net migration will average only about 185,000 a year over that period; a little over half the current rate. About two-thirds of this increase would be due to future immigrants and their children. And this comes at a time of continued deficit reduction through public expenditure cuts.

The salaries of middle- and high-earning households have been left untouched by the influx of people predominantly from Southern and Eastern Europe. Given that 60 percent of EU migrants are working in low-skilled jobs, it will come as no surprise that the wages of the lowest-paid workers have borne the brunt of this influx.

Nor is this likely to change. How can any government mount a serious effort to improve the productivity of the British economy, and with it real wages, when employers have access to an unlimited pool of cheap labour from overseas? Such is the bounty they reap from Britain’s open-door immigration policy with the EU; employers have little incentive under the status quo to nurture their existing workers or invest in their capital stock.

Moreover, when combined with a chronic shortage of new housebuilding programmes, this open-door immigration policy has had the effect of throwing the poorest families into competition with many more new arrivals for social housing. A secondary effect has been to condemn a growing number of younger families to a fate of high and rising rents in an over-heated private rented sector. How much higher will rents climb if we continue our open-door policy without building enough homes to accommodate the growing population?

It is also the poorest parents who will have faced the fiercest competition with new arrivals for places at decent schools in their area, and for appointments with their GP. Each of these limitations to the choices available to families on low incomes, sadly, is inevitable in a country that has frozen or restricted its public budgets while having no control over the numbers of people coming to live here.

In the longer term, this lack of control does of course make it incredibly difficult for governments to plan for any major public expenditure commitments, as it has no idea how many people in five or ten years’ time will require housing or a place at school for their children, for example. And this assumes, of course, that the electorate would vote for those increases in public expenditure that are required to prevent a further decline in public services due to immigration.

A further inevitability in a country with such an unbelievably high turnover of people is the onset of collective Alzheimer’s. From where will we gain our collective memories and experiences, if more and more areas are changed beyond recognition by an unrestricted influx of people from overseas? The key point here is that, should we remain in the EU, Britain will be powerless to stem this overwhelming tide.

Voters need to hear Labour articulating these arguments in the Referendum campaign if they are seriously to consider the Party as a main contender for Government. However, given the pro-EU line yet again being taken by the leadership and a majority of Labour MPs, the Party will, I fear, find at the next General Election that it has haemorrhaged a further tranche of votes to UKIP, and, with it, the chance of governing.