Migration is one of the defining political issues of our time, and all around the globe national politicians are seemingly unable to meet the challenge. Their collective failure requires us to ask challenging questions about the nature of identity in the 21st century. In Open and Ethical, a new Fabian Society report, I argue these questions will lead us to focus on cities as the building blocks for a new politics which is open to newcomers without sacrificing community and solidarity.
Today there are more than 1 billion migrants in the world. Much of this movement is voluntary, but the scale of forced migration has also increased exponentially in recent years. There are currently around 22.5 million refugees and another 40.3 million internally displaced people worldwide – more than at any time since the second world war.
Onto this stage has stepped a generation of demagogues, from Trump to Farage to Le Pen to Salvini. All have deliberately stoked resentment against migrants with electoral success. We are not facing a global political crisis on migration simply because of a few ‘bad apple’ politicians. The deeper problem here is about the inability of national narratives to generate the necessary solidarity to embrace diversity in a time of economic uncertainty.
But I fear that if we only contest notions of collective identity at the national level that we will be waiting a long time for any meaningful success.
As the first elected European city mayor of African descent, migration is hardly an issue that I can avoid. However, I’m also a Bristol boy, and I wake up every day proud to have the opportunity to serve the place I call home. Bristol has a chequered history when it comes to race and migration, with much of the city’s wealth being generated through the transatlantic slave trade. That legacy remains a scar on the city’s conscience, but today we are a place that has diversity right at its heart. As events such as St Paul’s carnival or the Grand Iftar demonstrate, Bristol is the place it is today because of its diversity.
When I talk to my fellow mayors in the UK, I can see that Bristol is not a unique case. Every city will have its issues and its tensions, but on the whole it seems that there is a meaningful sense of urban civic identity which is broad enough to contain diversity and strong enough to withstand the siren calls of scapegoating and division. This could drive the left’s thinking on how to build an inclusive politics on migration. Such a politics could also deliver lessons that can be applied across the country, creating a platform of strong local and regional identities on which to build a meaningful national narrative.
If we want to support the development of strong and inclusive local identities, we need to empower local leaders by giving them the tools they need. We should learn lessons from the new metro mayor positions and identify where and how new power can be devolved from the national to the local level. The Labour party should lead the way on this agenda and set out a bold plan in its next general election manifesto.
Last October, Bristol was proud to host the third annual summit of the global parliament of mayors. One of the key items on the agenda was migration and how cities can take the lead in implementing the UN global compacts on migration and refugees. It is a scandal that these compacts, which will rely on local leadership to be implemented, have been almost exclusively negotiated by national leaders. Those on the left need to find ways to support and enhance the role of cities at the international level if we want to see progress globally on the treatment of migrants and refugees. The global compacts give us a great opportunity to do just that.
It can be easy watching the news to become despondent about the state of politics on the issue of migration. But if we forge a politics of inclusion at the city level, we will discover the language, the ideas and the leadership needed to change our country and our world.
Marvin Rees is the Labour mayor of Bristol.