Is the Labour bubble incapable of having a grown up debate on the EU and immigration?

‘Ignored for years by a cosmopolitan, educated and progressive elite, they took a collective decision in the face of ridicule and condescension to turn out in force.’  This is how Matthew Goodwin explains the momentum of voters, including Labour voters, towards Ukip.

So how have leading lights of Labour’s cosmopolitan, educated and progressive elite reacted to Ukip? Well, with ridicule and condescension and clarion calls to ignore the concerns of people who voted for them of course.

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The shocked reaction of many Labour activists to today’s Observer letter by seven Labour MPs urging the party to reconsider its approach to freedom of movement in the EU shows how far debate in the Labour bubble is behind the outside world. Unfortunately, the production of tin-eared over-the-top assertions is a long standing trend on this topic and it really came to the fore after the recent election results.

A good example is an article by Diane Abbott’s in the Guardian last week. In it, Abbott claims that ‘in popular parlance “immigrant” means anyone who is black, brown or foreign-looking, and what anti-immigrant opinion actually yearns for is to see fewer of these people on their high street’.

This is not what the word ‘immigrant’ means in popular parlance. I’m Irish, I’m white, I’m an immigrant and there are many more like me. There has been substantial migration from majority white countries. As the Observer letter points out the number of citizens from eastern Europe living in the UK reached one million by 2012. ‘Immigrant’ means many things to many people, Abbott’s definition is not mainstream.

Abbott is assuming that wanting more controls on immigration is ‘anti-immigrant’ and therefore racist, she doesn’t use the word but that’s what she means. Three quarters of the population want to reduce immigration. Is Abbott really saying the over 47 million people in the UK are racist? There are definitely racists out there, but that many? Britain is one of the most tolerant countries on the face of this planet. Abbott’s truth is not Britain’s truth.

On the other hand we have the Blairites. Their solution is quite endearingly summarised by John McTernan – ’There is nothing wrong with Ukip voting parts of England that a solid dose of migration wouldn’t fix. Nothing’. This strand of Blairite thinking, as we all know, is extremely popular and has led them to be lauded throughout the land.

John Hutton and Alan Milburn argue that Miliband needs to make the economic case for immigration. They cite Government figures that claim GDP rises by 0.5% for every 250,000 immigrants who move to Britain each year. I can see the campaign material now: ‘Labour – For the many – 1 million immigrants for 2% growth!’

A more nuanced view can be found at Oxford University’s Migration Observatory which found that although immigration has grown the size of the economy it has also eroded wage levels for those on low incomes. People clearly are, and should be, concerned by this and Miliband is also right to point out that the pace of change worries people too.

The Abbotts and the Blairites can rest assured that their policies have had an impact. They have contributed, amongst other things, to overwhelming support for reducing immigration and less than a quarter of the British public having a positive view of the EU. This should show, if nothing else will, that their approach is counterproductive. Indeed, not being seen to address people’s concerns is having a negative impact on the UK’s ability to work constructively with our European neighbours on issues of mutual interest.

The party’s policy review has been making great strides to address this in a way that is meaningful to people by promising to tackle low pay, make sure there are controls on people as they arrive and leave Britain, that people working in public services speak English and that people earn their entitlements. But it will be to no avail if the party can’t have a grown up debate on these issues and the early signs are far from encouraging.

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