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The Elephant In The Room

There’s been a mix of political soul searching and a fair degree of “I told you so” here in Rotherham in the past week. Both of the traditional parties, but mostly Labour, suffered an ignominious hammering at the hands of the voters, the chief beneficiary being UKIP.

There’s been some recrimination too, which is to be expected. Long standing party members and Councillors were angry – at the national party for what is regarded by many as a lackluster and ill-focused campaign; at the voters, for giving a platform to what are without a doubt right-wing Tories who would never stand a chance of being elected in Rotherham under the Conservative banner (and most of whom were actually thrown out of the local Conservative Party in recent years!); and at ourselves, for not waking up to the enormous potential of UKIP in some of Rotherham’s working class suburbs.

There are a lot of reasons why UKIP won so spectacularly here in Rotherham. The town has seen some pretty grim local stories that made national headlines in recent years – an alleged cover-up and ineptitude by local services over child grooming in the town; a row over the removal of fostered children from a family because they were members of UKIP; and the disgraceful fiddling of expenses by former Rotherham MP Denis MacShane, for which he was imprisoned late last year.

But there is also something of an elephant in the room, one that for so long dare not speak it’s name. It is, of course, the issue of immigration and immigration from eastern Europe, in particular. Rotherham, like many town and cities throughout the UK has seen a continual flow of immigrants in the past ten to fifteen years or so. These were not people from the far flung reaches of Old Empire, seeking to make a home and living in the heart of their former colonisers. They are people seeking the advantages of the free labour market in the European Union, taking the chance in the vast majority of cases to come to Britain to settle and work.

But – and this is a significant but – there has been little real understanding in how immigration has affected the quality of life for people already established here in the UK (and ultimately immigrants themselves) in particular how it affects the demand placed upon local public services and in turn displaces a great deal of need from being met within those services.

It’s not the case that the numbers of people coming here are the only issue either. There has emerged a whole new set of circumstances and pressures to deal with. My wife works within education, a Special Needs Coordinator in a nearby local authority. The school where she works has 27 different languages. 27. You’d have to be intellectually blind to not see the implications of that for those at the chalk-face day to day – a greater need for differentiation within wave 1 (day to day) teaching, additional teaching assistants to offer language and learning support, and so forth.

Take one of the case families my wife deals with in her job. The family are originally from an east European community where people live in small, isolated villages. As a result inter-marriage throughout the ages has been common and this has led to genetic problems in successive generations, particularly deafness. Three of the four children in this family are deaf. One has a cleft palette. Once in the UK this family have fallen victim to the massive over subscription that exists within education as local authority admissions try to place a new influx of children into schools. The family in question had their four children placed in three different schools. The placing of all those different needs under different school provision means that there are three sets of people within schools dealing with the one family, instead of one set of people in one school. In addition, at least one of the children is late to school every day.

And that’s just on the days they attend. In their community education is not as valued and so families within those communities have no worry about children missing school because they have a slight cough or a runny nose or even because they overlaid. In an era when attendance figures are a significant factor in school OFSTED inspections, here is another pressure within the system.

he genetic medical problems the children bring with them are obviously – and rightly – taken up by the National Health Service. But in addition to this added pressure within the health service there is a knock on effect within the school, which must ensure the children receive an education that matches their needs. To ensure a degree of joined up thinking between the different agencies involved with the family a support meeting was arranged. In attendance were the hospital consultant who sees the children within the NHS, the speech and language therapist, an occupational therapist, a physiotherapist and a translator. In addition the support staff from the schools (three different schools), including my wife, were there.

The family didn’t turn up. They forgot.

I’ll not bother trying to calculate the cost in both time and money of setting up meetings like this to deal with the pressures some families bring. It should be obvious and frightening, more so when you replicate it throughout this one school.

Then throughout the whole local authority.

Then throughout the whole country.

And then across all of the other public services such as health and welfare, each with their own particularities.

Especially significant in all of this is the displacement of need within the system that situations like this cause. That displaced need, I think, is the source of frustration and anger at immigration into the UK. It’s true to say that there is a lot of anger at immigrant communities is racism – it would be plainly stupid not to say it.

But the pressure being brought to bear on public services is plain to see and is part of the day to day experience of ordinary working people. They feel it justifies their belief that immigrants can come over to the UK and get something for nothing, and do so at the cost of provision to people who were already here.

There’s a danger that the debate around immigration becomes polarised – a brick bat slanging match between the “chuck ‘em all out” brigade and the “let ‘em all in” crew. This binary positioning comes from a desire on the Right to exploit people’s fears and a fear on the Left of being accused of being a racist.

In my opinion the debate needs to move on from that and for the Labour Party it needs to move quickly, with certainty and with clarity of message. We’ve largely ignored the debate around immigration and as a result it’s been exploited by the Right, to our cost here in Rotherham.

To borrow a notable phrase from Mrs Thatcher we need to shy away from being “frit” and say strongly that immigration can be – and more often is – a good thing. The majority of immigrant communities that come to the UK do work, legally, and pay taxes and contribute to a vastly diverse society. Can anyone imagine the National Health Service operating without the contribution of many people from around the world who have come to Britain to work in it?

And it’s a two way thing – many British people and businesses work in countries throughout the EU; and many leave the UK and settle abroad in their later years. If we were to take a stance that immigration was a bad thing per se then we would see the return of many of those people and a significant impact on social care, health services and the like in order to care for that aging population that otherwise would have been abroad.

But we have to recognise that unfettered immigration, particularly from the EU is causing massive social problems and will cause us massive political problems in the next few years. In coping with immigration local authorities, including here in Rotherham, have to look at how they protect and increase capacity and continue to deliver those core services when up against increasing numbers and pressures, and up against the hatchet job being done by the Coalition. It might been re-prioritising some things. It will most certainly mean unpopular cuts, often within established political constituencies in some wards.

But if it’s not done the social dislocation of the working class by both immigration and the recent economic recession will have the same effect in the 21st Century and it did in the 20th Century. That’s not something any true democrat really wants.