Whoever represents the United Kingdom at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London next year, they will face considerable pressure to begin negotiating favourable trade deals with other member nations. Given our shared heritage, the temptation to prioritise discussions with Australia, Canada, and New Zealand; “the white commonwealth” will be potent, along with India, the world’s third largest economy. However, we must reject this mindset if talks are to be successful.
If Theresa May’s recent visit to India was in any way instructive, it demonstrated that attempts to force through one-sided agreements with developing nations, particularly on the issue of visa restrictions, are unlikely to succeed. Following the conclusion of talks, senior Indian diplomats and government officials voiced their alarm at the British government’s refusal to reform visa restrictions for migrants and students, and stated their belief that such an attitude might scupper any deal.
Earlier this year, 45 Conservative MPs signed a letter encouraging the Government to give Commonwealth citizens “fast-track” visas to the UK after Brexit. “We must be clear about the importance we place on our relationship with the Commonwealth,” the letter stated, “and start the process of strengthening ties for crucial future trade negotiations.” Unfortunately, no mention of visa reform made it into the 2017 Conservative Manifesto, which included an increase in the NHS Surcharge for migrants and international students.
Immigration concerns have reigned heavily over British political discourse since the early 1960s, when public concern over levels of “New Commonwealth” immigration from former dominions prompted the British Election Study (BES) to begin asking the public about immigration for the first time. Successive waves of immigration, firstly from Jamaica and Barbados and then from India and Pakistan, were stimulated by the promise of a higher standard of living and jobs in relatively stagnant sectors of the economy where long hours and low pay made the work unattractive to British workers.
Stagnant growth levels at the time, contributed to Commonwealth immigrants being viewed as an added burden to the economy rather than as an asset. Today, with the British economy again struggling to achieve consistent growth levels, immigrants are faced with similar attitudes; despite the vital contribution they play as workers in our service and farming industries, and as students in our universities, they are often portrayed negatively in the media, accused of taking jobs away from the indigenous population.
With Britain seeking to form a closer relationship with the Commonwealth however, Labour must explore how demands for visa relaxations can be squared with this anti-immigrant sentiment. During the second Tony Blair government, a broadening of the scope of the Commonwealth Working Holiday Maker Scheme beyond traditional “White Commonwealth” nations quickly caused alarm, after David Blunkett found that there had been a dramatic rise in applications from “New Commonwealth” countries such as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. At the time, a quota system was mooted but ultimately not enforced.
With countries, as diverse as Nigeria (183 million people), Bangladesh (158 million), Pakistan (190 million) Kenya (45 million) and Malaysia (30 million) defined as emerging markets, Labour needs to develop a comprehensive and equitable policy for Commonwealth immigration reform that is fair to all parties. As the world economy continues to reorientate around completing blocs, a two-tier policy favouring immigration from “White Commonwealth” nations will become unsustainable as “New Commonwealth” nations attempt to secure the best deals they can for their people.
With China continuing to invest in African nations particularly, Britain must overcome its hesitancy to deal with emerging economies fairly. As of 2013, China had diplomatic and economic relations with 44 of the Commonwealth’s 54 member states; five Commonwealth African countries are among the top six African nations receiving investment. Unless we can conclude favourable trade deals, there is a serious risk that Britain will be left permanently behind.
First published in Labour Commonwealth Group: 14 June 2017