Most of us are familiar with the “American Dream” of the 19th and early 20th Century, when waves of immigrants left Europe for the US in the hope of creating a better life for themselves. I’ve been to Ellis Island and seen the scale and hope of those people. Years later further waves of migration followed when those fleeing war in Europe made the trip across the Atlantic to find safety and a future for their families.
We too are a migrant nation. From the times of the earliest known settlements, groups of people have come here from the mainland of Europe, tribe after tribe, right up to the Norman invasion. Since then waves of migration, whether drawn by the Industrial Revolution or the needs of our post-war economy, have helped keep our economy moving forward. In an increasingly globalised world, one which remains plagued by war and economic instability, migration to the UK continues.
Times of uncertainty breed fear and insecurity, and the myths of the immigrant benefit seeker are happily spread by our media. The public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%. Even estimates that attempt to account for illegal immigration suggest a figure closer to 15%. There are similar misconceptions on ethnicity: the average estimate is that Black and Asian people make up 30% of the population, when it is actually 11% (or 14% if we include mixed and other non-white ethnic groups).
We cannot ignore those concerns, and we cannot be afraid to enter the debate – indeed to do so abandons not just our settled communities but our migrants also.
We need to break some of the myths on immigration, highlight the benefits of people coming to the UK, the fact that migrants are predominantly of working age, pay taxes and have higher rates of business start-ups than the already-resident population.
We need to be clear, as Labour, that we will act on immigration, particularly where employment markets are distorted and workers are exploited for low pay. Rights and minimum wage levels are for all workers, not just long-term resident workers. Trades unions must be at the forefront of publicising these facts, and to counter the claims that UKIP represent working people, when in truth they would strip them of rights to maternity and paternity leave, holidays and sickness absence.
We must not give in to fear and the myth that the economic security and prosperity of the British people is threatened by migrants, rather than an economic system that is increasingly unequal and exploitative, with those at the top profiting while the majority struggle. We must listen to the concerns of those who feel threatened, and win the argument.
It is ironic that a majority of Britons believe they should have the right to live and work anywhere in the EU, but that the right of other EU citizens to do so in the UK should be restricted. Millions of Britons have moved to France, Portugal and Spain not just to retire but to work, and many live in the kind of expat, English speaking communities that, if replicated amongst immigrant groups in the UK, are met with suspicion and demands to learn English. We should afford migrants the same rights and respect that we would expect in Lyons, Malaga, Poznan or Maastricht.
And a migrant is a migrant wherever they are from and whatever the colour of their skin. We should treat the person from Dhaka the same as we treat the person from Melbourne. UKIPs policies on immigration cannot be and should not be a smokescreen for racism. We have a duty to play our part in helping those risking their lives to leave their country of origin, not leave them to drown.
Brighton and Hove has relatively low levels of migration, but a strong record of helping those refugees fleeing persecution elsewhere. We do have huge pressures on housing from our resident population, from around four thousand people a year moving here from London alone, from a rapidly growing and increasingly diverse student population, and from people drawn here by our economic success. Pressures on housing must be managed and addressed, which is why I have pledged to push for 40% affordable housing and at least 400 new council homes during the first term of a Labour council administration here.
As a local politician I will represent everyone who lives here. We all walk the same streets, share the same environment, use the same NHS. We are elected to run this part of the world and we will try to make a fair and better life for all who live in it, whether their family has been here for centuries or whether they arrived this morning. Everyone gets a chance to make a start, to get a job or start a business, register to vote and pay taxes, as generations of migrants to the UK have.