There’s a strange fiction that abounds in the country that Labour doesn’t want to talk about immigration. Well, actually, it’s only half a fiction.
It’s certainly not the Labour leadership who are afraid of talking about immigration. On the contrary, in the past they party leadership has been more than happy to talk chapter and verse about immigration. About how “tough” they are. About what arbitrary limit they might seek to place upon something as unknowable as immigration (which, quixotically, preaching the benefits of globalisation). They knew it was an issue. They could read an opinion poll. And some thought that perhaps they could pander to a prejudice.
No it was never the leadership who shied away from talk of immigration. In reality it’s often Labour supporters and activists who don’t want to talk about immigration. That happens for a variety of different reasons. My view has long been that Labour should, to all intents and purposes, walk away from the immigration debate. I’d argue until I was blue in the face that immigration has become a right-wing issue and a debate that we can no longer win. I guess perhaps I was no different from other Labour activists and supporters – afraid to talk about immigration incase we lose. Best to box this issue up and move on.
Yet Ed Miliband has decided to do something different. Something smarter. Something more humane. And something incredibly risky.
Worried about immigrants “taking British jobs” by taking rock-bottom salaries? Then tackle the root cause – unscrupulous employers who seek to exploit the overseas poor to undermine the British poor. It’s the grotty side of globalisation, and during Labour’s years in government the party was all too keen to praise the benefits of the global market without ever wishing to (or believing it could) mitigate its damaging impact upon British workers.
By pledging to end the “Swedish derogation” (clunky and bureaucratic language I know, but that’s what it’s called), Miliband is trying to stop the senseless divide and rule politics that seeks to turn the British poor against the immigrant poor, putting to an end “our country’s chronic dependency on low-skill, low-wage labour”.
Yet to hear some in our party and our movement you’d think the Labour leader had suggested closing the borders and booting out every Polish plumber and Romanian roofer. Anything but. As the son of an immigrant Ed Miliband won’t ever play the politics of trying to outbid the right on border controls. Those close to him talk about Miliband’s refusal to enter an auction on pie in the sky immigration figures, and rightly so. Yet like when Miliband spoke of encouraging those who live in Britain to learn English (again, no great hardship – and beneficial to immigrant as well as society more generally), some have sought to shout him down.
So it may well be time to come to terms with a difficult truth. Labour voters – those the party was founded to represent and serve – want to talk about immigration. Evidently they aren’t all “bigoted”. Anyone who has been out campaigning and spoke to people in their communities, their pubs and on their doorsteps will tell you that race is rarely the factor motivating their concerns. They fear for their jobs and their homes and their communities. They want to know why the Labour Party isn’t talking about immigration on their terms. And part of the reason lies with the party’s membership and supporters. Because when we throw our hands into their air and wail at the stars when a leader as pro-immigration as Ed Miliband makes a suggestion that is designed to alleviate poverty and exploitation, we cut ourselves off from a dialogue that is happening across the country. We lose the right to be heard because we refuse to accept that the debate is going on without us.
Labour voters want to talk about immigration – so why don’t we?
I no longer believe that we can retreat from the immigration debate and cede the ground to the right. But I don’t believe we can win the debate either, unless we come to terms with the fact that we’re not part of it, and some of us won’t even allow our politicians to enter it without crying foul.