The Conservatives have decided to charge ahead with a chillingly anti-migrant message at their party conference and the full force of this xenophobia seems to have traumatised the left. This country is becoming increasingly insular and the question we should all be asking ourselves is how did we get to this point? This toxic climate didn’t just appear in the days after the referendum. These policies have been long in the making, and parts of the left played a role in their construction.
In the space of three days the Tories have tried to frantically prove they have anti-migrant policies to rival UKIP. They’ve announced a raft of xenophobic policies from driving out “foreign” doctors to “naming and shaming” companies that hire people who weren’t born in this country. And so Britain is further turning inwards.
One of the Labour responses to this dire state of affairs was dismaying. On Twitter the Labour Party attacked the Tories for failing to “get numbers down” (a line taken from Ed Miliband’s PMQs archives). So, while the Tories were ramping up racism and xenophobia by blaming people from abroad for our problems, the immediate reaction from Labour was to attack them for not dealing with it well enough. In one tweet the party’s officials accepted the underlying premise that immigration is bad for the country and entirely stripped people from abroad of their humanity.
Now, in Jeremy Corbyn, Labour have a pro-migrant leader who last week boldly refused to capitulate to pressures from the right. And he’s not alone. Diane Abbott, shadow Health Secretary, has courageously remained pro-migration in her stance, focussing on the real issues that effect this country and in recent days stuck to the new party line by criticising Jeremy Hunt’s “anti-foreigner agenda”. But there’s still a tendency from some in Labour to give in to anti-immigration rhetoric because that’s what they’re used to doing.
The xenophobia we’ve seen in recent months has been building for decades and the Labour Party has helped create space for it to thrive. When the right-wing press and politicians have turned to racism and migrant bashing, the left have failed to effectively take them on with a convincing narrative and have, all too often, indulged these incendiary ideas – whether it be New Labour’s clamp down on refugee rights or Ed Miliband legitimising right-wing myths by implicitly telling the British population that migrants were stealing jobs.
At the last general election we reached a stage where the main parties in England were all, in some form or another, anti-immigration. Labour, scared of losing more votes to UKIP, didn’t say that austerity and under-investment – not migration – had caused the crisis in public services, housing and jobs. Instead of convincing people that the subject of their immigration worries was grossly misplaced, Labour disregarded evidence to patronisingly accept anti-migrant feeling as “legitimate”.
By refusing to challenge lies about migrants, Labour helped set the stage for the right’s flagrant xenophobia. Without understanding this, it will be impossible for the party to take on the toxic Tory message.
But in recent weeks a group of so-called Labour “moderates” have, somewhat ironically, taken an extreme line on the subject of immigration. Rachel Reeves warned that more immigration would lead to rioting in the streets – merely a week after incorrectly claiming that migration drives down wages, Stephen Kinnock threw all evidence out the window to claim immigration “in extremes” can cause racism and Chuka Umunna seemed to lament that recently Labour hadn’t had a robust enough immigration policy.
Panicked by the rise of the right and still reeling from the Brexit result, these Labour MPs have retreated into old habits as opposed to forging a new vision. In their version of events there’s a metropolitan elite pitted against an anti-immigration working class – and Labour can only win by succumbing to the lies from the right. But this is a one-dimensional understanding of the situation, which treats people as caricatures and patronisingly assumes that they are incapable of changing their views.
“The boomerang” wrote Jean Paul Sartre “…it comes back on us, it strikes us, and we do not realise any more than we did the other times that it’s we that have launched it”. Some in Labour need to realise the role they played in creating Britain’s xenophobic climate – whether through their own anti-migrant rhetoric or silence in the face of that of the right. To begin challenging the racism and xenophobia that grips this country Labour needs a strong pro-migration narrative because anything else will just feed the hate they say they want to combat. At last week’s Labour conference, Corbyn set the ball rolling when he refused to “fan the flames of prejudice”. That message must be refined and repeated time and again – and the whole party needs to get on board with it if it’s ever to be effective.