Where Labour and the Left got it wrong on immigration, and how to fix it

15th January, 2014 10:49 am

In a manner of weeks, I’ve found myself in the odd position of agreeing with Margaret Hodge and Nigel Farage on the issue of immigration. This says less about my views, which haven’t changed for years, but more about how the debate is shifting.

In an interview with the Financial Times in December, Margaret Hodge said :

“Migration is a feature of globalisation. You can’t stop it; so every time a political party says it is going to be tough on immigration, it fails to deliver and loses trust.”

This is striking coming from an arch-Blairite who was frequently criticised for ‘talking tough’ on immigration in the past. Meanwhile, in an interview last week, Nigel Farage said:

“…I’d rather we had communities that were united and where young unemployed British people had a realistic chance of getting a job. I think the social side of [immigration] matters more than pure market economics.”

Of course, I utterly disagree with his broader point, but Farage is right that the social side of immigration matters more than the economics. But here is where Labour and the Left got it wrong.

Unconvincing: Labour and the Left

Here’s an extraordinary fact: the Conservatives were 30 points ahead of Labour in May 2010 as the party best able to handle immigration, while New Labour was busy “talking tough” on the subject.

Labour ministers thought they could neutralise that public distrust by talking tough but the public failed to believe them. They spoke but Britons didn’t bother listening. As Jon Cruddas later put it:

“No language, no warmth no kindness; no generosity, vitality nor optimism. No compassion. If you seek to outflank the coalition from the right, you will turn Labour into a byword for intolerance.”

But when it comes to convincing on immigration, the Left has become just as impotent as New Labour – while being utterly at odds with the public. You can’t convince someone you have contempt for, refuse to listen to, or dismiss the idea they may have legitimate concerns. It’s that straightforward.

Worse, many compound the problem by offering solutions that won’t work. For one, there is the heroic belief that people would think differently if they were told the facts. No, they will just ignore them. Second, there is the view that politicians can challenge public opinion, usually from people who also view politicians with intense cynicism. Again, changing minds on immigration is a lot harder in reality than in theory. As a test, try changing someone’s mind who is utterly at odds with you. And do it entirely via Twitter (politicians don’t get to meet everyone and debate them for hours either). Yes, it is that frustrating and ineffectual.

The press has had some impact, but this is easily over-stated. British attitudes have largely moved in the opposite direction of coverage of global warming, wind farms, homophobia and even racism. Yes, New Labour’s hardening rhetoric shifted the debate rightwards, but it’s difficult to argue it wouldn’t have shifted otherwise.

Instead, people’s attitudes shifted along the numbers, as this chart clearly shows. Source.


Where now?

Another extraordinary fact: from a 30 point lead, the Tories are now merely 8 points ahead of Labour on the party best able to handle immigration. The government’s lead has eroded not because of anything Labour has said (the decline is steady and uncorrelated to speeches), but because Tories themselves pretended they could get a handle on immigration despite being part of the EU and a globalised economy. They created a monster they can’t control.

But what should Labour say? Here are some starting points.

First, we have to say we understand people think immigration has gone beyond levels they feel comfortable with. Accepting this basic reality isn’t pandering to the right but a starting point for a conversation where voters at least feel Labour ‘get’ them.

Second, while the reason why different segments of people feel concerned about immigration are varied, but can be broken down roughly into two: economic and social/cultural concerns. Ed Miliband is doing well to address economic concerns on immigration (regardless of whether the concern is warranted – they are good reforms), but Labour has to have an answer to both.

Third, the party has to remain authentic to its (relatively) liberal roots on immigration, and stop using the technocratic language of ‘transitional controls’ and economic studies. The Tory slide on immigration illustrates that voters just want a bit of honesty and straight talk.

Fourth, Labour has to start focusing on the social impact of immigration too, and come up with a bold and progressive story to tell.

The longer Britons are in contact with immigrants, the more tolerant they become. Racism hasn’t gone away but there’s also far less of it around now than just a few decades ago. There is, therefore, plenty of reason for Labour and Left to feel confident about the trajectory of this debate. But let’s accept where things went wrong.

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  • EricBC

    I do not think the political class are capable of discussing immigration openly and honestly. It is just too difficult for them. Even the simplest demographic tendency is too difficult to discuss.

    People of like kind tend to congregate in areas of town and cities, creating sub-cultural areas. Nothing wrong with that. When it’s Chinatown, it’s cute. When it’s Somalis, it’s a Ghetto. When it’s Asians it’s natural. When it’s blacks, its vibrant. When it’s whites, it’s racist.

    And that is never discussed. Result. BNP, EDL, UKIP.

    • JoeDM

      UKIP are not racist like the BNP. They simply want controlled immigration like most of us.

      • EricBC

        I did not suggest UKIP was racist.

    • AgeUke

      The current climate has made it all but impossible for ANYONE to talk about immigration without cries of racism. Whether it is an issue causing problems or not is irrelevant, enough people have concerns for it to be a proper debate.

  • FMcGonigal

    Margaret Hodge said: “Migration is a feature of globalisation. You can’t stop it…”

    You can’t stop it completely but you can control it. Labour did introduce the points system and this could be used to restrict non-EU immigration. EU migration is a different matter of course which would require negotiation and possible treaty change.

    • Hugh

      Exactly, and non-EU migration is the majority. The argument – which Hundal repeats – that the current levels are inevitable is simply another way of dismissing the public’s view.

      It is also dishonest: neatly illustrated by the fact that we endure simultaneous warnings of the dire economic impact of restricting migration, and lectures that it’s impossible to do so – sometimes form the same source.

  • cbinTH

    I think what is missing from Sunny’s article, and from most sane commentary about this subject, is ‘race’. There are indeed economic and social/cultural reasons for people to oppose immigration. But the other is ‘race’, only, not in the way usually meant.

    Bear with me, here.

    When people in the UK define ‘racism’ they usually think of it as being either a belief about an inherent difference between races, or a hostility to someone on the basis of race.

    But, in fact, someone who opposes both those beliefs, can still have a racial ‘identity’, Like all other aspects of our identity, it might be illogical or arbitrary or not-the-full-story, and yet anyone with any belief that one or another group are his/her people has already adopted a mindset where he has one emotional reaction to members of that group and another emotional reaction to non-members, especially when the people to whom he/she is reacting are abstractions, defined largely by categorising into such obvious groupings, as opposed to people he/she knows personally.

    Some people claim to have no racial identity, but I would imagine that they are in a minority, and that, moreover, they may even be guilty of a little lack of self awareness. It’s easy to test yourself for this third type of ‘racism’. For instance, if you have ever felt either guilty or defensive about the historical crimes of white Britons, then that must be because you yourself identify as a white Briton. And the same logic is at work for all the other concepts by which you define yourself.

    Now, if people have a racial identity, however minor a part it is of their overall identity, then there will be an inherent difference in their reaction to people of different races – particularly if those other people are unknown and so defined in the observers mind largely by their race (as opposed to class, hobbies, location, etc.) Sometimes the difference might be a preference for what is different, but, humanity being what it is, usually it will be a preference for one’s own group.

    Of course, race isn’t the only, nor the paramount, identity group to which anyone belongs. But it is undeniably one of them.

    And, being one of them, it quite follows that, since a group of people in one location may well not wish for migration into the location from people who cannot be absorbed into all of the identity groups already extant, that there will always be opposition to migration from other racial groups.

    Obviously, that level of opposition can be reduced, by deprioritising ‘race’ as a factor in someone’s identity. Obviously, as well, there’s a big difference, still, between reactions towards one immigrant and another, and this is partially based on the perceived “threat” to pre-existing identities or incomes, etc., posed by differing levels of immigration from different groups, and partially based on the non-racial differences between individual immigrants. Because, obviously, ‘being just like you’, is about more than race, and so cultural/social concerns, as well as economics, are also factors, – certainly more obvious than ‘race’, and maybe more important.

    So, in summary, it should be admitted that race, as well as social/cultural issues and economic issues, is a reason for the opposition to immigration. It should also be admitted, that even though it comes from a position of greater potential collective power, ethnic “English/Scottish/Welsh/Irish/British” identity is no more or less illegitimate than the equally arbitrary group identities displayed by other identity groups, whether amongst immigrants in the UK or amongst people around the world, generally.

    The result of this logic – that restricting the movement of foreigners into the UK is legitimate simply because collectively such a movement potentially damages the sense-of-self of the the pre-existing population, whose well being is the exclusive concern of the UK government, – may be emotionally harmful for immigrants, and, still more, for the descendants of immigrants, because it implies a degree of rejection. But it needn’t be so hurtful when put into perspective. There are more identities than just ethnic ones, and so ultimately people are all united by more than that which divides them. And some of those identities are a good deal less ephemeral, less imaginary, than racial ones.

    The way the media-political class, and society generally, think about things at the moment, we tend not to ostracise people who are not white Britons, for having a racial identity. We also tend not to ostracise people for having a strong religious-communal identity (and in terms of arbitrary divisions this is much the same as race, despite a few genuine differences). And so we have a problem. From everybody’s perspective, we have a problem with honesty and with intellectual consistency (yes, I know, it is the vice of small minds). From the perspective of an ethnic English person (which includes everyone who has on any level internalised that identity, regardless of whether or not they are really of exclusively ‘English’ descent,) we have a problem with an identity crisis, because the traditional, inherited, national identity, has been discredited and discarded, partially severing a link with the past.

    As we have recently found, with Gordon Brown’s well meaning efforts, attempting to redefine Britishness as a culture can be an extremely difficult task, given the wide variations over time, and within the UK today, and any attempt to do so is met with understandable anger from those who feel threatened or excluded. The counter narrative, which is to empathise the various currents flowing into an ever-changing identity, can seem to threaten the inherited sense-of-self, and has led to a widely shared sense that (uniquely) there is no such thing as a British ‘culture’ – as opposed to a French, Chinese, or Muslim culture, all of which are said to exist, even if ultimately they face the same problems as ‘British’ culture in being defined.

    Anyhow, what I originally was trying to say, was that the sense of identity of ethnic Britons is threatened by all sorts of changes, in all sorts of ways, and that, among these changes, immigration is a factor. Immigration can of course be an especially big factor if the immigrants choose another way of life, advocate different values, or have their own communal identity which seems to conflict with other identities – those are the social/cultural issues. But immigration can be a factor even without these (to some degree inevitable, at least in the short term) issues, because it puts paid to the (always somewhat illusory) sense that the wider community comes from the same roots, is descended from the historical figures of yesteryear, and therefore that collectively it shares a common attitude towards, for instance, national identity. In other words, immigration is a factor for ‘racial reasons’ because it threatens the communal sense of self, especially when the immigrants or the children of immigrants are prevented from fully internalising ‘British’ communal feelings. Ironically, one reason they might have trouble doing so is the ‘ethnic’ nature of the old British identity, but others might be, living in majority ethnic minority areas, or embracing an ideology(or ideologies) which is either new to the UK or even hostile to it.

    Congratulations to anyone who actually has read all through this comment. I’m having second thoughts about posting it, as it’s not exactly concise or well written, and it goes off at odd angles. But too much work has been put into it for that.

    And I do honestly feel that these are hugely important aspects of why the public feel as they do, which are just left untouched for fear of the reaction, and for fear of causing mutual emotional hurt.

    • cbinTH

      Sunny Hundal may feel that it is a waste of time to try to change minds. But he is always welcome to change mine.

  • robertcp

    Very good article. Yet another example of the counter-productive effect of New Labour. It shifted politics far more to the right than Thatcher.

  • MrJones

    “there is the heroic belief that people would think differently if they were told the facts. No, they will just ignore them.”

    The political class covered up the grooming gangs for years. The political class are covering up the gang culture in the cities. The political class’ “facts” are lies.


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