By Rob Williams
Was it really immigration wot lost it for Labour? A whole host of reasons have been given for Labour’s second worst performance in a century, ranging from detachment from traditional supporters, Gordon Brown’s leadership, residual anger about the Iraq war, and the expenses scandal in Westminster.
The truth is that Labour lost for a combination of reasons, but immigration has to be put close to the top of the list. Indeed, I would go further and suggest Labour got it so badly wrong that it cannot reconnect with its missing millions until it begins to address the issues raised by mass immigration.
There are still a number of senior politicians, with support in liberal sections of the media, who deny that immigration was the main factor for Labour’s defeat. Dianne Abbott joined the leadership campaign in part because she was angry with Ed Balls for daring to suggest that mass immigration was damaging. Abbott said, “I believe that immigration is a proxy for underlying working-class (black and white) disillusion and insecurity.”
Indeed, until the last couple of years, to suggest that immigration itself was problematic was considered de-facto to be racist. No debate was permitted, even as the number of arrivals continued to grow.
Immigration was a ‘Good Thing’, so the Labour government said. Their argument went along these lines: immigrants helped a dynamic economy become even more competitive, they filled jobs that nobody else wanted to do, and they kept inflation and wage rises at low levels even when the economy was buoyant. They created what Bank of England Governor Mervyn King called the NICE economy – non-inflationary, consistently expansionary.
The numbers, however, are quite exceptional. Over the last decade, Britain has seen levels of immigration unprecedented outside wartime. In 1971, net immigration was about 40,000 per year. It reached a peak of 245,000 in 2004, declining to “just” 163,000 in 2008. Britain is now, together with the Netherlands, the most (over)crowded country in Europe. The Labour government failed to introduce restrictions on the citizens of the new members of the European Union coming to work in the UK until it was far too late. In thrall to the demands of business for cheap and flexible labour, a nominally left of centre government lost control of its borders.
It is impossible to take such large numbers into the UK without it having an effect on housing provision, classroom sizes, traffic congestion or demand for social services. But there was no planning. Policy makers seemed to forget that migrant workers also need somewhere to live, that they travel, that they have families, and that they get ill.
And the arrival of these immigrants posed new questions. Who deserves a share of the cake, and how large should their share be? Is social housing allocation, for example, a matter of long term residency, nationality or hardship? Should benefits depend on how much one has contributed to society? Should the (possibly greater) needs of newly arrived immigrants trump the greater “entitlement” of those who have lived longer in a community? What’s fair?
Now, as draconian spending cuts are being implemented the answer to these questions is becoming increasingly acute. And it is not only Daily Mail readers who are left spitting blood after hearing about a Somalian refugee family with seven children living in a £2.1m home in Notting Hill, with the £2,000-a-week rent paid by the taxpayer.
What, is, I think, becoming increasingly clear is that the former editor of Prospect magazine, David Goodhart, was right when he argued that there is an increasingly acute dilemma:
“for progressives who want plenty of both solidarity (high social cohesion and generous welfare paid out of a progressive tax system) and diversity (equal respect for a wide range of peoples, values and ways of life).”
This leads on to a second, and possibly even more dangerous, part of the immigration debate that the left got wrong, which relates to culture. New arrivals were not required to integrate. Indeed, the main tenet of that progressive shibboleth – multiculturalism – was to affirm differences between groups, to promote what makes us different rather than what unites us.
And, as Andrew Neather described in his explosive article in the Evening Standard last year:
“I remember coming away from some discussions with the clear sense that the [mass immigration] policy was intended – even if this wasn’t its main purpose – to rub the right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date.”
This policy was a monumental mistake almost without parallel.
New arrivals have not been encouraged to “fit in” with the host society. Many recent arrivals to Britain have been given the right to remain in the country without understanding, or even being made aware of, the responsibilities of residence. Rather, exceptions have been made, and excuses given for behaviour and attitudes that are, frankly, not compatible with a modern, secular society. The cowardice of the left, and its blind obedience to “cultural sensitivity” (apart from a few brave souls including Ann Cryer and Nick Cohen), is unforgivable.
How on earth did we arrive at a point where the right wing press condemns “honour” killings, female genital mutilation and the veil as sexist and divisive, and yet significant sections of the left have allied themselves with the killers, cutters and puritans. In the game of identity politics top trumps, it seems, the demands of certain cultures always beats possessing two x chromosomes.
Indeed, how on earth did we arrive at the point where we have Ken Livingstone, the candidate for mayor of London, campaigning on behalf of Lutfur Rahman, a supporter of Islamic Forum Europe (IFE). He has now been elected mayor of Tower Hamlets. This is an organisation which believes in jihad and sharia law, and wants to turn Britain and Europe into an Islamic state. The Channel 4 Dispatches documentary earlier this year exposed IFE leaders expressing, very clearly, opposition to democracy, support for sharia law and the oppression of women.
We must remember, however, that the errors of mass immigration do not only affect the left in Britain. As the far-right enters parliament in Sweden for the first time, and Gert Wilders becomes a key player in the new government in the tolerant and progressive Netherlands, we have to face the fact that the European left as a whole has failed to develop a consistent strategy on how to cope with the huge challenge posed by the integration of many millions of culturally, socially and linguistically ‘foreign’ men and women into our societies. By ignoring these issues the far-right has been given a free ride to the fringes of power across Europe.
Back in Britain, if Ed Milliband is serious about Labour regaining power he should start by sitting down, with a very stiff drink, to read “Rethinking Immigration and Integration: a New Centre-Left Agenda” by Policy Network
Labour lost almost every seat in the South East outside London. Ken Livingstone was defeated in the last mayoral election by the Tories in Barking and Dagenham. But the people of Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire and Sussex are not racist. Britain is a hugely tolerant country which believes in fairness. It also has great – and legitimate – concerns about immigration that have been ignored for far too long.
If the left doesn’t start listening, it will be out of power for a long time to come, and deservedly so.